Pulling up in front of the Fota Island Hotel, Gianfranco Zola hops off a golf buggy, offers a warm handshake and, with it, that familiar beaming smile.
But the Chelsea legend, now the manager of Watford, hasn’t been relaxing on the golf course. He has been busy out on the training pitch, overseeing the final session of a week’s pre-season in Cork, which included a game against Cork City at Turner’s Cross.
A fair bit was riding on the whole experience, not least because the decision to use the sports training facilities and hotel in Fota had been taken by the previous regime at Vicarage Road, before all changed utterly this summer with the takeover of the club by the Pozzo family, owners of Udinese, and then Zola’s appointment as a replacement for Sean Dyche.
Happily for a man who reckons that pre-season is “crucial in getting the shape for the team and preparing the players physically”, Zola had no complaints about inheriting the plan to hold Watford’s training camp in Cork.
“It’s been brilliant,” he says. “I didn’t know the place, to be honest, and it’s been a surprise in a positive way. The facilities are magnificent and the training pitches are perfect. We found it really more than we were expecting.”
Throw in an impressive win against an admittedly understrength Cork City and it all helped make for an encouraging prologue to Zola’s second coming as a manager in England, the first having ended in controversy and disappointment with his sacking at West Ham two years ago.
Of course, his appointment at Vicarage Road was not without controversy either, many Watford fans dismayed by the abrupt dismissal of popular gaffer Dyche after what was widely regarded as a good campaign for the Championship club. Even though Zola has dubbed the coming season a transitional one for Watford, he knows the only way to convince the doubters is by moving things on to a higher level.
“Obviously we want to improve on last year when they came 11th and made 64 points,” he says.
“But I understand that it’s going to be a year in which we face a lot of challenges. First of all, the players are playing in a different way, they have a new manager and a new set-up. That’s a challenge for them.
“And it’s a challenge for me, because I’m playing in a league I don’t know as well as others. So there are many tasks in front of us but the targets are clear and we’re going to try to achieve them.”
Even a cursory glance at the action in Turner’s Cross was enough to confirm that Watford are indeed playing in a different way. Once synonymous with the long ball game, the traditional 4-4-2 which was favoured last season has given way to a variation on 4-3-3 that puts the emphasis on possession, passing, pace and mobility. Zola, a little magician of a footballer, always seemed to play with a smile on his face and that’s what he wants to see from the team he now manages.
“For sure, that is my philosophy and I want to try and do it the same way as a manager as I did as a player,” he says.
“And I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to get results doing that. If you play with joy I guarantee you have more chance of achieving results than if you’re not enjoying yourself when playing.
“But, of course, you’ve got to do everything possible to make sure that it works. And we will train the players to play in a certain way in every training session. And that way is to play with the ball on the floor as much as possible and try to attack with as many players as possible. And I stop at that point because I don’t want to tell you all my tactics!”
This much he will allow: a rigid adherence to 4-4-2 is definitely not the way to go.
“No, I don’t believe in that. Life is fluctuation. Nothing stands still in life, everything is moving and therefore a team should be moving.
“As long as they move in the right direction and in the right patterns, it’s no problem. It’s not the system — the players are the most important thing. If you tell the players the right things and get them to do the right things in training, I believe they get better and better.”
His experiences as an Italian international and as a player in Serie A and England’s top-flight, have all fed into what the 45-year-old calls his “culture of football”.
But he cites one man, more than any other, as the greatest influence on his football life — Diego Maradona, with whom Zola helped Napoli win the Scudetto in 1990.
“Can you imagine?” says Zola, still smiling at the wonder of it all. “I was 23 years old, I wanted to learn and he was the best player in the world, if not the best player ever. And I had the possibility to learn so many things by watching him, by talking to him, by playing with him.
“It was unbelievable. He taught me how to behave on the pitch, what to do with the ball, how to do things for the team — many, many things. And still there were some things I didn’t learn simply because he was so good and on such a different level. The things he found easy were difficult for anyone else to do. He’s been huge for me in my life, I must say. And still is. Every now and them, I meet him and talk with him. And it’s always a pleasure.”
So who better than Zola to ask for a verdict on the great Maradona v Messi debate?
“I’ve never liked the comparison between players of different eras because I think it’s unfair.
“Maradona in his time was on acompletely different level to everybody else — the same as Messi is now. But if I can say this: if Messi is missing anything it’s being as different class for the national team as he has been for Barcelona.
“He probably hasn’t been as decisive in matches for Argentina as he has been for his club. For me, that is an important factor in making a player one of the greatest ever. I believe when he can fulfil that task, the comparison with Maradona will be made easier.”
Given his vast experience in Italy and England, there’s probably few better qualified than Zola to ask why, as Euro 2012 confirmed, the footballing nations of these islands are lagging so far behind the current European leaders in the field.
“My honest opinion is that it’s about learning more styles,” he replies.
“British teams tend to play only one way most of the time. The 4-4-2 system or some other structured, well-organised way of playing. But it’s still only one. In life, everything changes and you have to be able to adapt.
“The same applies in football. As a footballer, the more knowledge you’ve got, the better player you are. You can’t say that the English players are not skilled; they are. And I believe there are very good coaches. But the tendency is to get stuck on one system and stick to it. In football, you need to play different ways in order to get around whatever problems you face. And you have to be able to adapt to these changes.
“You can still play the 4-4-2 system but in a modern way. It’s learning to change and be adaptable.”
Think of Zola the player, and the image is always that of a puckish little character with stardust in his feet and a twinkle in his eyes. Think of Zola the manager — struggling in his second season at West Ham, at odds with owners David Sullivan and David Gold and eventually given the boot in May of 2010 — and a more sombre picture forms in the mind.
“For a footballer, pressure doesn’t exist, there is no pressure,” he reflects, with the certainty of a man for whom the game seemed to come easy. “Pressure comes when you think about it, but when you’re playing, and you’re concentrating on controlling the ball, where to pass and how to move — there’s no time to think about pressure.
“But as a manager, yes, the pressure is there, I can assure you. And I felt it for the year and half when I was working at West Ham, I felt it very painfully. But I’ve learned a lot from that experience and I will try not to make the same mistakes I made before.
“Yes, there will be pressure at Watford but I will try to keep my mind occupied with important matters rather than with things which don’t matter.”
Zola needs no telling that the going can be much harder in the Championship than the Premier League, especially for a side committed to playing the beautiful game.
“We have a challenge,” he concedes. “They say you can’t do this because certain pitches aren’t suitable. But this is what we are going to try to do.
“I personally believe you can be successful playing this way. And I’m certainly not going to compromise my philosophy for the result or anything else. I believe this is the way to play and if it doesn’t work, they are going to look for another manager.”
And is this manager still as much in love with football as the player was? .
“I was in Sardinia where I’ve got a nice house, a nice lifestyle and I was enjoying myself,” he grins. “If I’m here it’s because I love the game. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved