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Forgotten Managers: Gianfranco Zola

Welcome to this brand-new series exploring former Premier League managers who have seemingly slipped off the face of the earth. We’ve all been down the pub having casual footy chat with our mates when a manager’s name pops up and you wonder: What on earth are they doing now? Or sometimes, how earth were they ever allowed to manage Premiership club……

First up is Premier League legend Gianfranco Zola, a creative player who captured the hearts of many Chelsea fans as well as gaining admirers amongst all those who followed football. A maestro on pitch, his Premier League managerial career didn’t quite live up to the glory of his playing days.

Pre-Managerial Career

Zola was born in the quaint town of Oliena, located on the Italian island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea. He spent the early part of his footballing career roaming around the lower leagues of Italian football, with Sardinian sides Nuorese and Torres.

After impressive performances in his home region of Sardinia, a young Zola was snapped up by Serie A side Napoli in 1989 for a fee of ₤2 million (Italian Lira), where the world-renowned Diego Maradona took him under his wing. Zola had a successful time at Napoli, netting 32 league goals in four seasons and winning Serie A in 1990.

Napoli were forced into selling Zola in 1993, and fellow Serie A side Parma were the suitors. Zola justified his ₤13 million price tag with an impressive scoring record, finding the back of the net 22 times in his first season, and 28 times in his second. In total, the Italian managed to score 49 league goals for Parma, with his silky playing style attracting the Premier League’s Chelsea FC.

Following his transfer to the Blues, Zola quickly became a fan favourite at Stamford Bridge, and is still regarded by many of the faithful as one of the greatest ever players to wear the Chelsea shirt. Zola had a knack for spectacular goals, ranging from sublime free kicks to outrageous chips and curling efforts.
After helping Chelsea to four major trophies with 80 goals in all competitions, Zola ended his 7-year love affair with the London club and returned to Italy to play for Cagliari, playing for two seasons before hanging up his boots.

Time in the Premier League as a Manager

Zola’s first managerial appointment at a domestic club was with West Ham United in 2008, hired as a permanent replacement for Alan Curbishley. In his first season, Zola guided the Hammers to a 9th place finish. The Italian’s second season was much poorer in comparison, and his side spent the season languishing in the bottom half of the table, eventually finishing 17th, five points above the relegation zone.

Zola was subjected to enormous amounts of pressure during his tenure and was eventually sacked by the West Ham board who decided to pursue a replacement with more managerial experience. He left the Irons after 80 games in charge, with a win rate of 28.75%.

Life After the Prem

Following his dismissal from West Ham, Zola was appointed manager of Watford in 2012. During his first season, he guided the Hornets to a third-place finish in the Championship, losing the Play-Off Final to Crystal Palace after extra time. Just like at West Ham, Zola’s second season proved to be poor, and he resigned as manager with his Watford side sat in 13th place in England’s second tier, having endured a torrid run of form.

Seeking pastures new, Zola found himself back in Cagliari, but managed just 10 games before heading East to be appointed the boss of Qatari side Al-Arabi. Zola was sacked after 26 games, mustering just 10 wins.

Gianfranco Zola’s final managerial appointment came in 2015, where he was selected as manager of Birmingham City, tasked with challenging for promotion. Zola failed spectacularly, achieving a win-rate of just 8%, securing only two wins in 24 games, leading to his prompt dismissal.

The Italian is back in the Premier League, however, having been appointed as assistant first-team coach for Chelsea, alongside new manager Maurizio Sarri. If Zola can be part of a successful coaching team at Stamford Bridge, there is no reason he cannot return to a managerial position, although one would hope he has learned a great deal from previous roles.

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