Adored Zola back amongst fans

Few foreign footballers have proved as popular in England as Gianfranco Zola. It may have been because the joy he evidently had in playing football was equal to the pleasure the Italian forward gave during seven years of superbly skilled football at Chelsea.

At a time when the term 'Premier League player' became synonymous with arrogance, greed, embarrassing off-field behaviour and an inability to kick with both feet, Zola was living proof that professionalism need not be a dirty word, and was appreciated all the more for it - and not just at Stamford Bridge.

Of course, being a great player is no guarantee of being a great manager as the likes of Ruud Gullit, who brought Zola to Chelsea for £4.5 million in 1996, have discovered.

But Zola's appointment as West Ham's first overseas manager will start with a flurry of good wishes for the former striker - something not always common in an era when foreign players and managers are often blamed for many of the ills of English football.

The now 42-year-old Zola scored 89 goals in 249 appearances for Chelsea, but his impact went far beyond the scoresheet with his array of deft flicks, passes and brilliantly executed free-kicks living long in the memory of fans.

He first came to prominence at Napoli, where he understudied Argentina great Diego Maradona and absorbed all he could from one of the most talented players in football history.

"I learnt everything from Diego," Zola admitted later. "After one year I had completely changed. I saw him do things in training and matches I had never even dreamed possible.

"He was simply the best I've ever seen. I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage of my career, but I do know I wouldn't be the player I am now."

After moving to Parma, Zola's flair play did not find favour with manager Carlo Ancelotti and Gullit could not believe his luck when he was given the opportunity to bring him to west London. "You don't get an opportunity like this every day, and when I heard he might be available I knew I wanted him," said a delighted Gullit.

Zola helped Chelsea win trophies at home and abroad, playing a key role during the years of transformation which turned Chelsea from also-rans to a major force within English football. His old Chelsea and Italy team-mate Roberto di Matteo is learning his trade as a manager with English third tier side MK Dons.

Zola, by contrast, after working as an assistant to Pierluigi Casiraghi with the Italian U-21s, has been pitched into the high profile pressure of the Premier League. Hammers chiefs must hope Zola hasn't climbed too high too soon, and they won't be the only ones in England who will be disappointed if Zola isn't a success at Upton Park.