The four tops!

WEST HAM management duo Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke signed new four-year deals at Upton Park this week and then vowed to turn the team into top-four challengers, writes DAVE EVANS. And Zola has told fans to expect some new players to strengthen the W

WEST HAM management duo Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke signed new four-year deals at Upton Park this week and then vowed to turn the team into top-four challengers, writes DAVE EVANS.

And Zola has told fans to expect some new players to strengthen the West Ham squad in the summer, despite the Hammers' precarious financial position.

The manager revealed that he had signed a new deal after Saturday's 1-0 defeat by his former club Chelsea, and then set out his vision for the future.

"I've just signed a new contract and I am delighted to sign it," confirmed the little Italian, who has been a great success since his arrival last September following the resignation of Alan Curbishley.


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"The club have looked after me and we have a project here that we are taking forward.

"It is for four more years - this year, plus four more - so you are going to get fed up with me," he laughed. "It is not going to be easy to get rid of me."

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West Ham fans would not want to get rid of Zola and Clarke, who have ambitious plans for the next few seasons.

"My ambition is that we have a project and we want in a few years time to be competing with the top four, or top five," insisted Zola.

"We started this year, but that is just the beginning. We have a lot of enthusiasm and we trust what we are doing, so we will see.

"One thing is for sure, it is a good team, not only on the pitch, but off the pitch too."

Zola confessed that he had no hesitation in extending his contract at Upton Park.

"I like what I am doing here, so it was easy to sign," said Zola, who is reportedly earning �1.5million a year under his new deal, with Clarke becoming the best paid assistant in the Premier League on around �1million.

"The next stage is that we will try to improve the squad. We know that we need to improve the team, so we are going to try.

"Don't be surprised if there are a few signings and hopefully the players that come in will take us to a level even higher."

Zola has done remarkably well during his time at West Ham, especially considering the amount of injuries to key players he has dealt with over the last few weeks.

Scott Parker and Carlton Cole - two of the most influential players in the team - have both been missing for the last five and six games respectively, while star striker Dean Ashton has been absent since the day Zola first saw his new players at the Hawthorns against West Brom in September.

In spite of that, his record is promising with 12 wins and 13 losses from 35 games so far, something he will look to improve next season.

Clarke signed on Tuesday and was excited about the future: "I am delighted," he said. "I have had a great time since I came here. We have done okay, but I think there is a lot more still to be done and the contract reflects that.

"It is a long-term deal and what we look forward to is improving things and working hard," added the 45-year-old assistant boss.

"Hopefully next year we will get more success than we have had this year. Not that I am saying this year wasn't good, but it could have been better, so we keep striving for that."

One player linked with a move away from Upton Park in the summer is Matty Upson, but the England defender was quick to express his delight at the news.

"He's contributed really well to the club and has shown he's got some very good qualities as a manager," said Upson.

"He's changed the atmosphere around the training ground, so I am very pleased," insisted the centre half, who also had words of praise for assistant Clarke.

"Steve is very important to the club too. He's worked under the best, if not the best.

"'Clarkeys' got so much knowledge, he's fantastic on the training pitches and you have to say they are an excellent combination."

Others have tried and failed miserably to compete with the top four clubs, with Leeds United the biggest casualties in that fight.

West Ham are certainly not able to compete on the same financial footing as the big four, but with ambitious, young coaching staff, exciting young talent, some shrewd moves in the transfer market and a whole lot of luck, you cannot rule West Ham out of rubbing shoulders with the big boys.

Bob Dylan sang 'The times they are a changing' at the O2 on Saturday night, well maybe just down the road, they finally are.

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