The beautiful game often provides those who are lucky enough to become playing professionals with the opportunity extend their careers long after they have retired. Sometimes though this doesn’t always equate to a successful career in management.
It is often expected that great players will eventually become great managers, using their knowledge and perceived smarts to continue their brilliant careers for years to come. However, great players aren’t necessarily destined for a great career in management – it has been proven multiple times. The opposite frequently occurs: more often than not, average players are able to craft amazing managerial careers and are more successful then they were in their playing days. Names such as Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, Max Allegri and Giovanni Trapattoni are names that often come to mind to this regard. Gianfranco Zola seems to provide an example of the difficulty, and perhaps the failure, of transitioning from a successful playing career into that of a successful as well as competent managerial career.
Zola himself was a phenomenal player; from his early days at Napoli alongside Maradona, to Parma and then his utterly brilliant displays for Chelsea, where he was affectionately nicknamed the magic box. However way you wish to view his playing career, Zola was considered a delightfully skilful forward who always managed to attain the respect of his club, fellow players, managers and fans . Retiring at his beloved Cagliari, aged 39, many believed he would seamlessly transition into a coaching role which is considered a natural progression for a player of his quality, skill and respect. Sadly, Zola seems to lack to correct tactical nous seen in colleagues such as Claudio Ranieri, Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte and Roberto Mancini – to name but a few who have gone on to successfully lift titles in their storied careers.
Zola’s first role as a fully fledged manager would see the former striker take on an enormous challenge at West Ham in 2010. Despite a somewhat shaky start Zola eventually instilled a certain confidence into his players, who began to play with plenty of flair, in contrast to the typeset that was often seen at the Hammers at the time. With this style of play he often garnered plenty of respect and applause for making a mid to low table team play attractive football with their limited resources. Sadly though, his tenure would be marked with plenty of ups and downs, and the team would still find themselves closer to the relegation places than their style deserved. The season would end with West Ham in 17th and, consequently, Zola was promptly dismissed. Personally I enjoyed watching one of my favourite players take the reigns and implement his swagger for a lack of a better word via his management.
His next role would see him take on the Pozzo-owned Watford, who at that time were in the Championship, and looking to push for promotion to the Premier league. Zola had a contrast in fortunes as he managed to push Watford to a 3rd place finish, which saw them participating in play-offs to vie for a promotion spot. Unfortunately, Watford would lose to Crystal Palace in a thrilling encounter to see their hopes dashed for that season. During his second year at Watford, the team once again had traits of a Zola team as they struggled for their previous years form and were 13th half way through the season. Zola promptly submitted his resignation. It is felt that, had Zola fought it out to the end of the season, he may have been able to find the team’s form and push for promotion once again.
Zola’s next challenge would be his beloved Cagliari, in which he would take over a struggling side from Serie A folkloristic manager Zdenek Zeman. Once again, however, Zola would not last long, as he was unable to push Cagliari out of the relegation zone just three months into his tenure. Ironically, Zeman would return after his dismissal. Surprisingly, Zola would try his hand in the Qatar Stars League in which once again his team, Al-Arabi, struggled, finishing 8th with a disappointing record of 10 wins out of 26 games. A decent learning curve, yet not one to garner respect and credibility in Europe.
Finally he would return to England, a home away from home it seems for the former Chelsea star. He would take the reins at struggling Birmingham City, in which he once again tried to implement an elegant style, very similar to that during his time at West Ham and Watford. He resigned after being unable to overturn their poor season, characterised by a shocking record of 2 wins in 24 games – a win ratio of just 8.7% and the worst in Birmingham’s storied history: a blight on Zola’s already struggling managerial career.
Should Zola continue to take to on head-coaching duties in the future?
Zola’s managerial career possesses more lows than highs and taking this into consideration it might be better off for the former Italian international to take a couple of steps back in order to take a couple steps forward, for his career to really take off. There is nothing wrong with going back and becoming an assistant manager under an already successful coach, in order to hone his craft. After all, he jumped right into the hot seat at West Ham well before receiving his UEFA coaching accreditation. Admirable yes ,and quite the baptism of fire, yet one can’t help but feel that a lack of experience working under another experienced coach has hindered his career which up until this point has contained more lows then the rare high.
Another difference is that in England there is a renowned stigma associated with being fired from a head-coaching position, especially in the Premier League, where both clubs and countless managers have commented on the inability to get back into work. Unless you have a reputation for succeeding in certain aspects of the game, like a Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis who are known for keeping sides in the top flight and surviving relegation battles, it is tough to get back. José Mourinho is another exception but given his title winning credentials is in another lane entirely from the aforementioned managers.
If an assistants role is below Zola, than why not head to a lower league club in Italy’s Serie C/B? Zola would be allowed to cut his teeth without the unnecessary pressure that comes from the Premier League or Serie A and learn as much as he possibly could. Italian clubs are generally more forgiving (unless your name is Zamparini) and will give managers multiple chances to prove themselves. This has created a positive culture for coaches to develop their tactics and know how which is in stark contrast to England. For Zola this is what he may need in order to get his career back on track.
Only time will tell whether he will be remembered more for his playing days, then his managerial.