Zola brings back West Ham’s flair

WEST HAM S 2009 vintage was almost identical to last year s production - so why did it taste so much sweeter? A final position of ninth in the Premier League and missing out on a place in Europe to little Fulham is hardly the stuff of dreams, but West Ham

WEST HAM'S 2009 vintage was almost identical to last year's production - so why did it taste so much sweeter?

A final position of ninth in the Premier League and missing out on a place in Europe to little Fulham is hardly the stuff of dreams, but West Ham seem to have uncovered their identity again, they seem to have rediscovered their flair and they seem to have found their entertainment value.

The resignation of Alan Curbishley at the end of August was badly handled by the club, who seemed to make his position untenable by selling his players without proper consultation, but out of that shambles came a brave and in the end fruitful decision.

The new excitement down at Upton Park and a whole lot more besides was down to the management team of Italian marvel Gianfranco Zola and his wise and trusted assistant Steve Clarke.

It wasn't as if it was plain sailing from day one either. Just before Christmas, the Hammers were hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone; their new 4-3-3 formation simply wasn't working and many were beginning to doubt the wisdom of bringing in a foreign Aboss with absolutely no managerial experience of any league, let alone the Premier League.

Dean Ashton was injured during Zola's first game in charge and never returned, while the loss of Craig Bellamy in January to Manchester City was a blow every bit as big as Ashton's absence.

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The speedy striker may have been troublesome, but he gave West Ham something different up front and he frightened even the top defences.

One of the few failings of Zola this season was not adequately replacing Bellamy back in January; if he had then West Ham would undoubtedly be playing European football next season. That is something he must address during the summer.

It was the spine of the West Ham team that finally saw them gain the results to move up the table. Robert Green, Matty Upson, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole all had excellent seasons, and their excellence allowed Zola to blood young and gifted players into the first team in a way that Curbishley never dreamed of.

'Curbs' established Mark Noble in his first team, but only when his hand was forced after saying that he wasn't going to play him for a while. James Tomkins, Freddie Sears and Jack Collison all had chances under the previous regime, but they seemed like stop-gap inclusions, half-hearted and token selections that the former boss never really believed in.

Under Zola's tuition, those youngsters have flourished. Sears may need to go out on loan to find his way, but Collison was a revelation from the moment he came into the first team and towards the end of the season, Tomkins made the centre half spot his own.

Added to that the arrival on the scene of exciting young winger Junior Stanislas, and you have a manager who is not afraid to give youth a chance amid the experienced players, and that can only give them a huge boost next season with that game-time under their belts.

Draws at Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool proved that West Ham could compete with the best, but they never looked like beating any of them, and indeed they lost to all three, plus champions Manchester United at Upton Park.

Indeed, the Hammers lost more home games than they did away matches this season, a bizarre statistic which serves to highlight how well-organised West Ham are, but how lacking in a cutting edge they were for much of the campaign.

Cole was superb and rightly earned an England call, but with Ashton out, he found no adequate partner to back-up his 12-goal haul, and his eight-game absence towards the end of the season was the final nail in West Ham's European coffin.

David Di Michele can flick the ball, but he can't put it in the net, while Diego Tristan arrived with the pace and turning ability of the QE2, and was little better by the end.

Seven goals between the 33-year-old strikers were simply not good enough, and it was for the simple reason - they were simply not good enough.

We have seen a transformation at West Ham this season. Curbishley has seen us through the Great Escape and consolidation and now Zola and Clarke have taken the baton and are beginning to run with it.

However, the Hammers fans will have high expectations next season, and even if Ashton, Parker and Kieron Dyer stay fit for the whole campaign, it may be difficult to live up to that.

Tottenham and Fulham will be in West Ham's sights, but can they really catch the likes of Everton and Aston Villa? Can they really challenge the big four?

That may be beyond them, but one thing is for sure, under Zola it is going to be exciting to watch them try.

* See this week's super Recorder for our picture review of the season.