The Obituary Column: Farewell Gianfranco Zola

Michael Regan

Gianfranco Zola has resigned as manager of Watford - we look back and pay tribute to his managerial career.

We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Gianfranco Zola, former West Ham manager, latterly of Watford, well-known for managing to continue to uphold a tremendous likeability after getting the remarkably easy gig of being so in a team that featured Dennis Wise and Jody Morris.

Everybody knows of his storied football career, but his big managerial break came at West Ham United, where he took over when the club were owned by some Icelandic investment group, just before everybody found out that the entire country's economic miracle was basically a colder version of the prop town from Blazing Saddles.

For some reason, everybody forgot this period. Diego Tristan, Gullermo Franco and David di Michele were first-choice strikers at the club at 32 years old apiece. Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, Lee Bowyer and Dean Ashton comprised a quartet of perma-crocks which took up about half the club's wage budget. It was a time of magic and wonder, where Julien Faubert could be loaned to Real Madrid and a squad containing Nigel Quashie stayed up.

Somehow, Zola managed to keep West Ham in the Premier League for two years. The death knell came when David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady took over the club (and if a story must have a villain, why not go all the way and have it be two pornography barons and a Thatcherite?) and decided to thank him by undermining him at every turn, publically calling all of the players except Scott Parker terrible, and eventually sacking him to bring in football management's answer to Ali Dia.

Zola would be undeterred however, eventually finding employment at Watford after the Pozzo family completed their takeover, removing if-Louis-CK-was-a-geography-teacher-in-a-leather-bar hybrid Sean Dyche to bring him in. Also brought in were a vast legion of players from the reserves of Udinese and Granada, leading the club to be memorably and brilliantly termed "Loanford."

Zola then played a part in one of the great final days in English football - the title had been wrapped up by Cardiff, but the second promotion spot came down to Hull or Watford, with the latter needing to better the former's result. The last day, had it been scripted, would have been criticised for clumsy writing - at the start of Watford's game, a real deus ex machina ensured maximum drama as Watford's first-choice goalkeeper injured himself in the warm-up before his replacement was badly hurt in-game, leading to untested teenager Jack Bonham taking his place. This had the twin effect of both setting up the later finale well in advance, and adding a fifteen-minute delay to produce optimum levels of tension.

Hull had to take on Cardiff, while Watford faced Leeds (notice how Zola keeps on getting comic book villains in his life?) Things looked even bleaker when his side fell behind early, but then Almen Abdi replied with a remarkable goal and Fraizer Campbell struck Cardiff ahead at Hull to leave Steve Bruce and his men in the playoffs.

Another twist then came, however - Hull struck two quick goals before half-time, while Troy Deeney then saw red for two daft challenges, leaving Watford looking once again doomed. An injury-time penalty for Hull seemed to confirm their fate, but that fate was then sorely tempted when the home fans launched a premature pitch invasion in celebration - once finally cleared, in a remarkable repeat of the final day in League One, the penalty ended up saved before Cardiff stormed up the other end and scored themselves.

Watford now only needed a goal, and thanks to the earlier injury to Jonathan Bond delaying the game, had fifteen minutes in which to get it. Despite having more men, Leeds could not get out of their half, their only respite being aimless hoofs downfield. But Ross McCormack latched onto one, hit a tame and half-hearted effort towards goal... and gave a young man the most humiliating, soul-destroying start to a career possible.

That left Watford in the playoffs - where, in yet more bad writing, the 'missed penalty followed by counter-attack in the last minute' narrative - for which there is no particularly memorable precedent - happened for the third time in the space of two weeks, once again to Zola's advantage. Once again, however, the forces of evil would get the better of him, as yet another member of the Legion of Doom, Ian Holloway, prevailed in the playoff final.

Zola should have been promoted this year. Few people outside of Luton didn't want him to succeed, but something went badly wrong and he quite clearly and painfully had no idea what it was. Some suggested he's off to West Brom, which, given his heartfelt open letter to the fans upon departing, would be surprising and distinctly rum. Ordinarily, the relentless and tiresome praise of any footballer who manages to go a few seasons without doing anything violent or racist leads a lot of people to love a classic heel turn - Ryan Giggs and Lionel Messi are two of the great latter-day examples.

But Zola is different. Nobody wants to believe Zola could harm a fly - and everybody that now wants him as their next manager will have their wishes tempered by the fact that one day, he will in all likelihood face the sack, and given his track record of enemies, probably to be replaced with Neil Warnock.

He is survived by Gianluca Nani and Savio Nsereko, currently a free agent after being released by fourth-tier Viktoria Koln.

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