It’s not you, it’s me – Zola and Watford: The Perfect Mismatch

It’s not you, it’s me – Zola and Watford: The Perfect Mismatch

By Mark McWilliams, Trainee Solicitor at Leathes Prior


Online dating’s a wacky idea.

You’ve seen the adverts, with the floppy haired bloke serenading the blushing blonde across the platform, or that other one with the blue-eyed girl who always says being single is amazing.

Call me a cynic, but two random people with hardly anything in common meet up, fall in love and decide to live happily ever after – sorry, never going to happen, not for me, not in a month of Valentine’s Days.

Zola WatfordBut then Gianfranco Zola was appointed manager of Watford.

As of this morning Sean Dyche, hard-hitting former centre half and a much more likely partner for the Hornets, had been sacked paving the way apparently for Zola to replace him.

Here’s the thing.

Under ‘personality ’, Zola would tick artistic, creative, cultured, extrovert, flamboyant and mischievous.

Watford would go for cautious, dependable, direct, honest, humble and hard-working.

So how did Cupid’s usually pin-point arrow tempt one of the most skilful strikers these shores have ever seen to shack up with a club renowned for its love of the long ball?

As matches go this is Paris and Juliet, Ross and Phoebe, the Beauty and the Beast without the spell-breaking, prince-unveiling transformation at the end.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps Zola and Watford should be given time to get to know each other because after all miraculously unlikely transformations have happened before.

In 1997 Arsene Wenger – stylish, innovative, sophisticated – met Arsenal (recently separated from George Graham) – industrious, efficient, guarded – and transformed the players, the team and the entire ethos of the club.

Wenger used the defensive strengths of the previous era as a platform for creative progression and very soon 1-0 to the Arsenal became the one-touch untouchables, the je-ne-sais-quoi and the Invincibles.

In 2003 Jose Mourinho – young, confident, exciting – swept Chelsea off their feet and transformed them from the flash, fancy-Dan side of the 90s into a combative, physical, well-oiled machine.

Zola became Drogba, Veron became Lampard and Desailly became Terry.

The chemistry was immediate and ever since Chelsea have found themselves fixed on Mourinho’s  footballing imprint and fixated on the hope that one day their special one might return.

Different ones have come and gone but none could replace their beloved Jose.

And perhaps least likely match of them all, Alan Pardew and Newcastle United.

An arranged match by an unpopular owner, Pardew was the wrong background, age, accent and character. Most agreed it would never last and gave it weeks rather than months.

But two years on Newcastle and Pardew have flourished.

Newcastle, traditionally naïve, reckless and highly prone to disaster have become organised, trustworthy and sensible.

But tap much further below these successes and you find a scrap heap littered with managers who whose conflicting ideals preceded a swift and painful break up.

Andre Villas-Boas, hired to reverse Mourinho’s spell-binding impact on the club, found his fresh methods met with discontent from the fans, revolution from the changing room and very soon a P45 from the owner.

George Graham, out to prove a point to Arsenal, moved across the way to Spurs. Spurs – demanding, extravagant and extremely high-maintenance – quickly ran out of patience with Graham’s pragmatic management style and, if truth be told, could never really get over his history with boys over the road. Out went Graham and in came the far more compatible Glenn Hoddle.

And let’s not forget Fabio Capello – smooth, smart, successful – linking up with England – the opposites of all those three things – and failing to transform a side scarred by previous failures and stunted by a breakdown in communication.

You don’t have to look too far to find countless other glaring oxymorons. Allardyce and West Ham, Eriksson and Leicester, Merson and Walsall, and quite pertinently, Vialli and Watford.

The bottom line is when a club is looking for a new manager it isn’t just a matter of picking ‘the best man for the job’. For better or for worse, certain clubs have certain values etched into their changing room walls that only the most talented coaches, with the right circumstances, can erase.

Clubs have to consider the level, the style and the culture of a coach, not just the number of trophies on their Curriculum Vitae.

Mourinho might be a world-class coach when it comes to buying world-class players, motivating them and picking the right tactics for those players to beat other world-class teams.

But throw Jose into League 2, would he know about that young right winger turning heads in the Conference? Would he know how to motivate recovering criminal Lee Hughes at Notts County? Would he know about the sloped pitch at Stevenage or that boggy penalty area at Crawley?

Of course successful coaches must make the jump from one level to the next at some point in their careers but the bigger the jump, the bigger the gap in level, style and culture, the riskier that appointment becomes.

This is the problem that Zola will face at Vicarage Road.

Sean Dyche ticked the boxes – he knew the level because he had played in the Championship, he knew the style because he had played for Watford and he knew the culture because he played for six different football league clubs and made 460 appearances between them.

Zola’s UEFA Cups, Super Cups and football writer’s player of the year award will earn him the respect of the players but it won’t earn him the right to understand what it takes to manage Watford.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. We should give them a chance, it might work out. Besides, whatever ever happened to opposites attract and love conquers all?

Now, where’s Gianfranco’s first date going to be? Ah yes, pre-season friendly – away at Boreham Wood…


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