Zola discovers size of West Ham task on and off field
West Bromwich 3 West Ham 2
How to win over West Ham fans? Start a row with Chelsea. The only problem for Gianfranco Zola is that the increasingly bitter dispute with his former club is over the desire to bring in Steve Clarke, who will further the Chelsea orientation of the Hammers dug-out.
For all the talk about Zola's personality transcending tribal rivalries there are clearly reservations among Hammers fans. Their travelling support is among the Premier League's most vociferous but after 10 minutes at the Hawthorns they fell silent. There was no easy response to the home fans' chant of "Zola's a Chelsea fan".
However, if Mark Hughes can be accepted at Manchester City, Zola must have a chance at Upton Park and the other way to win over the fans is through results. To that end Clarke, a defensive organiser, would be a valuable recruit. After watching West Brom edge an attractive, if error-strewn game between two permeable teams Zola remained for a while in his seat, looking pensive. Alongside him various Hammers executives, now acutely aware that Zola is going to need experienced help to fix the team's defensive shambles, were hardening their stance on Clarke.
West Ham are understood to be "bewildered" and "frustrated" at Chelsea's "farcial, bizarre and unfortunate" demand for £5m compensation for a man who had just two years of his £600,000 per annum contract to run, and had been "marginalised" by the arrival of Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Clarke resigned on Friday after West Ham had been refused permission to speak to him. The next step, West Ham suspect, is that Chelsea will seek an injunction to prevent Clarke crossing the capital. If necessary the Hammers, who believe Chelsea's response is in part motivated by pique at West Ham appointing a Chelsea legend as manager, are prepared for "the legal battle".
West Ham might be prepared to pay up to £1m, though they feel a fair price is half that and are further constrained by the implications of last week's collapse of XL. Not only were XL shirt sponsors – the logo was obscured by patches sewn on to the shirts at Albion – Hammers owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson stands to lose millions with the travel company's demise.
Unsettling though this may be, all Zola can influence is events on the pitch. He starts work today with the advantage granted all great players. "He will get instant respect," said Matthew Upson. "There is a very good positive mood towards his arrival.
"It is an interesting appointment. I think he brings a really good culture to the club. He was very professional as a player which would indicate he will carry on that as a manager. Having spent 10 days in the England squad with [Fabio] Capello I think the Italians are very sure of their thoughts on football. They are very sound and spend a lot of time on technical and tactical play. I know the Premier League is very physical but they will bring a different type of culture to West Ham."
Carlton Cole, a former Chelsea team-mate of Zola's, was even more enthusiastic. "I was so happy when he got the job. He's a proper pro. He'll always put 100 per cent into everything he does. I don't see it as a risk, he's been through all levels of football and I think he'll do a great job here.
"He's one of those guys that, if he sees something wrong in your game, he'll tell you and how you can improve it. He was always out on the pitch after training doing extra work for half-an-hour and he'd tell me to do the same thing. There's not a lot of young players who do that now. Those kind of things really rub off on you. He made an impact on my life."
Cole, like several West Ham players, promises more than he delivers. If Zola can enable him to develop his talent the striker could become a significant player. On Saturday Cole led the line well, but never looked like scoring. Nevertheless Hammers appeared set for victory when Mark Noble and Lucas Neill punished loose defending to put them ahead, overturning the early lead established by James Morrison's glancing header. But Roman Bednar soon levelled from the spot and a see-saw game went Albion's way when Chris Brunt broke away with 10 minutes left.
"You don't want to be going into every game looking for your first three points so hopefully it's a kick-start to the season," said the winger. Barely a month into the season and already clubs are looking for new beginnings. Zola will hope to achieve his on Saturday, against a club in even greater chaos, Newcastle.
Goals: Morrison (2) 1-0; Noble (29) 1-1; Neill (35) 1-2; Bednar (37) 2-2; Brunt (84) 3-2.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-1-1): Carson; Hoefkens, Barrett, Olsson, Robinson; Morrison (Kim, 65), Valero (Moore, 65), Koren, Brunt; Greening; Bednar (Cech, 86).Substitutes not used: Kiely (gk), Beattie, MacDonald, Donk.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Davenport, Upson, Ilunga; Behrami (Faubert, 66), Parker, Noble, Boa Morte (Etherington, 78); Ashton (Di Michele, 25), Cole. Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Mullins, Bellamy, Tomkins.
Booked: West Brom Kim; West Ham Di Michele.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).
Man of the match: Carson.