During his playing days, Gianfranco Zola became famous for the wide smile he wore during matches, as well as his supreme technical ability. Nowadays, as manager of Watford in England’s second-tier, the trademark grin remains, and he wants his players to enjoy their football too.
The Chelsea legend has stepped into coaching after a remarkable playing career in England and Italy, and his Watford side are playing the kind of free-flowing attacking football that Zola relished during his time on the pitch.
“I have enjoyed every single moment since I have been here,” Zola told FIFA.com. “I have very good support from the club, the owners have been really good with me. They have created the best conditions for me to give the best for the team.”
The Pozzo family took over the Vicarage Road outfit in the summer of 2012, appointing Zola shortly afterwards. The family also own Udinese in Italy and Granada in Spain, and the manager had to integrate no fewer than 14 loan signings, with 12 arriving from the ‘parent clubs’.
“Not only did you have to integrate them but they came late,” Zola said. “We started the season with one group of players and then we had to add more later on. It is tough for me to leave so many players out but I’m assuming it’s tougher for them. They train well every day and to not play is not good.”
Watford fell out of the Premier League in 2007, after finishing bottom of the top flight. Zola’s side are just three points off the automatic promotion places in England’s second-tier, but in spite of the Italian’s early success at the helm, he insists there are no set targets.
“Because we had a lot of players that didn’t know the league there was no pressure to win straight away. What we are getting now is a bonus. We have seen the potential here and we are determined to go until the end.”
Zola’s preferred managerial style does not fit the calcio stereotype that hangs over most Italian managers. Only Manchester United have scored more goals across England’s top two divisions.
“I think that although I appreciate many types of football, I do not admire the way Milan used to play. I think the way that Barcelona have played with Pep Guardiola in recent years is quite remarkable. They have won a lot and in a lot of style. That is what we are trying to do here.”
One reason the Hornets have found the net so regularly is the form of top-scorer Matej Vydra, one of the loanees from Udinese, who has 19 goals in 27 league games this season. The 20-year-old Czech Republic forward has already made his full international debut and there has been talk of a permanent move to Watford.
“Obviously Matej Vydra is in the spotlight right now,” Zola smiled. “But there are other players like Fernando Forestieri who is doing very well and Nathaniel Chalobah has been doing great. I have a few young players that in my opinion have got very good futures.”
It is this emphasis on youth that Zola is forging a reputation for in his burgeoning managerial career. After his stint as a coach with the Italian U-21 side, a team that included current internationals Giuseppe Rossi, Sebastian Giovinco and Riccardo Montolivo, the Italian had a two-year spell at West Ham.
“It is a part of the job that I enjoy, trying to improve young players. That is why I was happy to be there at West Ham, I enjoyed my time working with the likes of James Tomkins, Jack Collison and a few others.”
The influx of foreign players into the English game has often been cited as a negative impact on the development of young British players but Zola, voted Chelsea’s best ever player by the club’s fans, reputes that opinion.
“I think foreign players are very important to the English game. It is similar to when I was growing up as a player, having Maradona and other players in front of me. As a young apprentice you look at those players and you try to get inspiration from them and learn something.
"Maradona had a massive impact on my career. Spending time in training with him, watching him play, it was a fantastic thing for me.”
Zola developed into an elder statesman during his time at Stamford Bridge, passing on his knowledge to the younger players by the end of his time there. The adulation for him amongst Chelsea fans is obvious to this day and Zola himself told Sky Sports five years ago: “One day I would like to be good enough to manage Chelsea. They are in my heart.”
Zola has dismissed recent speculation linking him with a move to Stamford Bridge though, and he recognises his former side are in a difficult period of transition, similar to the end of his Chelsea career.
“It’s a difficult year for them,” Zola said. “After last year you would expect some difficulties this year. The highs that they reached last season were unbelievable. Chelsea is one of those teams that is in the middle of a change of generation.
“They have such important players in the team and they are getting older so the club is trying to find replacements for them. You go through an era of transition and that is what is happening now.
"I think it is what happened when Ranieri was there. We had a very good team that had done such a wonderful job for the club and all of a sudden it was time to start changing some players. It is always a difficult time for a club. Whatever you do, it is always painful.”
The Italian would love to be facing his former side in the league next season, and Zola has been impressed with the meteoric rise of the top flight since he last took to the field in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge in 2003.
“Of course the Premier League has gone up in attention, interest and the amount of money that has been invested into the league. A lot of good players and managers came over and this has brought the level of the game very high and that is a good thing for this country.”
Asked if Watford would be facing the Blues in the top flight next season, Zola flashed that trademark grin once again.
“The team is responding and I am very pleased with that. I am delighted that things are going in the right direction.”