Zola power will light up West Ham, says former Chelsea team-mate Le Saux

Gianfranco Zola finally knew he’d made it as a player in English football the day Sir Alex Ferguson described him as 'a clever little so-and-so'.

Today, Zola was expected to return to the Premier League as a manager, not in west London, where he is still idolised, but in the east, where some West Ham fans will still remember him once making a fool out of Julian Dicks in a London derby against Chelsea.

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Graeme Le Saux believes West Ham have pulled off a major coup by attracting Gianfranco Zola

Blues brothers: Graeme Le Saux believes West Ham have pulled off a major coup by attracting Gianfranco Zola

The Upton Park supporters should cast aside pointless parochialism, though, and instead be excited by the return to these shores of the little Sardinian who enriched our game for almost seven seasons as a player at Stamford Bridge.

Zola has no experience of club management and there are some who believe he will find it tough when dealing with prickly individuals such as Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer in London’s East End.

But Graeme Le Saux, who was a team-mate of Zola’s at Chelsea, believes the West Ham fans, far from being sceptical, should be rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation.

'West Ham have pulled off a major coup,' said the former England full-back. 'It’s been a bit of an unsettled time for the club but every one of that squad will be excited. They will be looking forward to that first training session.' 

As a player, Zola’s pedigree is faultless.

His first major club was Napoli, where he was taught by Diego Maradona how to bend free-kicks plus a lot else and then took over from the Argentine maestro when he was banned after failing a drugs test.

A spell at Parma brought Zola more success and ended when Ruud Gullit signed him for Chelsea in a £4.5 million deal.

That was in November 1996 but by the end of that season Zola had made such an impact that he was voted Footballer of the Year, the first player to win the award without playing a full season in English football.

The Chelsea fans grew to love Zola and his style of play, so much so that, when he left to join Cagliari seven seasons later, one was moved to write: 'He was the only Chelsea player I have watched as an adult who made football seem as magical as it did when I was a child.'

Zola, along with other foreign icons, have enriched our game beyond measure and the Italian did it with a smile on his face and dignity in his bearing. All that should and will count for something when he begins his first big managerial challenge.

Le Saux believes the Italian will command instant respect from the West Ham players.

He said: 'First and foremost, Franco is competitive and emotional about the game.

'Number one priority for him is his family, while number two, three, four and the rest, is football.

'His approach would be one of reason, thought and respect. He would give it to his players and expect it back from them.

He wouldn’t shout and throw teacups, he realises that’s not the way to deal with the modern player.

'At Chelsea he had strong opinions on the game, along with others. We were all encouraged to contribute. Inevitably, when a new manager comes in, he inherits some good things and some bad. Franco will be in control, he will look and work out the dynamics.

'It is great for those West Ham fans. The club have a tradition of playing attractive football and so does Franco. There will be disappointments but the fans stay with you if they see some pattern, a philosophy emerging.

'With Franco you will have that. He may need some help on the defensive side of coaching but I am sure he has ideas on who to bring in.'

Chelsea fans still talk about the goal Zola scored from a corner, back in 2002, in an FA Cup tie against Norwich at Stamford Bridge.

Then manager Claudio Ranieri said afterwards: 'He is a wizard because only a wizard would try that.'

It’s time now for Zola the wizard to work his magic for West Ham.

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