GIANFRANCO Zola will always be a special figure in Junior Stanislas’ football career.
The Italian maestro gave the wide man his debut while West Ham boss, and the 23-year-old views the current Watford manager as something of a mentor.
Stanislas was at Upton Park from the age of 10, and made his West Ham and Premier League debut in March 2009 against West Brom, scoring his first goal on his first start in a 2–0 home win against Sunderland the following month.
Days later he signed his first professional contract - a four-and-a-half year deal.
But after Zola’s departure in 2010, he found himself down the pecking order under Avram Grant and then Sam Allardyce, and joined Burnley in the summer of 2011.
Stanislas is looking forward to seeing his old boss tomorrow - and hopes he can break into the side to show Zola the potential he saw in him: “It will be good to see him, I haven’t seen him for a little while.
“He was always good to me when I was there, a good manager and an unbelievable player, obviously. He achieved a lot in his career, everyone knows that.
“He gave me my senior debut and stuck with me and put a lot of trust in me.
“He played me in a lot of games in his first season and then again in his second season, so I’ve got a lot to be thankful to him for.
“Obviously it was nice working with him, and he had Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen working with him at the time as well. It was a good experience.”
Stanislas, like many players his age, was in thrall to the Chelsea legend, who also shone for Napoli and Italy, and he added: “I think he’s a mentor for everyone.
“He used to work with me tirelessly on the training pitch after training.
“That was one-on-one.
“I think a lot of the younger players at the club at the time, he showed a lot of faith in them and took them under his wing, if you like, and gave you that confidence that you probably needed at the time.
“He was really good for the younger players.
“He’s a very likeable man. He’s always smiling, always laughing, always joking. But when it’s business time he’s quite firm as well.
“He’s a really good manager, and a really good guy as well.”
Zola has guided Watford to sixth place in the Championship so far this season, coming in as part of a unique project under the Pozzo family, taking 12 players on loan from their clubs Udinese and Granada.
But Stanislas is not surprised at his success: “Players respect him straight away.
“No doubt they’ve got a lot of quality in their side but I think they would have just stepped it up a few per cent more.
“I think he might bring that extra few per cent out of you that you have anyway, it sometimes just needs nudging out of you.
“Seeing him do things like take free kicks after training - he used to train with the boys and he was the best player at training as well; hard to get the ball off.
“He didn’t just used to coach us, he used to show us.”
Stanislas has had to be content with a place on the bench of late, but is hoping to force his way into the side tomorrow after a number of impressive cameos, coming on to create goals for Sam Vokes at Ipswich, and the equaliser against Blackburn.
And he admitted: “I haven’t played too much recently but any game is good to come into and this one would be more special for me I suppose.
“The new manager’s come in and things have changed, but you’ve just got to get on with it, work hard every day and try to get in the team.
“I’ve set a few goals up and when I have come on I think I’ve done quite well.
“You’ve just got to work hard every day in training and see what happens.
“It’s been very frustrating personally. I wouldn’t say I’m not used to not playing but I like to think I’m good enough to be a part of the starting XI and I’m disappointed I haven’t been.
“But every day you get the opportunity to go in and train so you’ve just got to work hard and hopefully change his mind.”
It has been doubly disappointing as Stanislas felt he was coming to the fore in a Burnley shirt: “I thought I had a decent start to the season, scored a couple, and I think I’m one of the top assists as well.
“It’s disappointing for me because I want to play every game, as any player wants to, but managers can obviously only pick 11 players and if you’re not one of them you’ve got to get on with it.
“You can’t really moan.”
And of his link-up with Vokes, he smiled: “You can’t really miss him, he’s a big man.
“But it’s noted. He knows where his bread’s buttered!
“As long as he buys the coffees on the way in when we travel together he’s all right!”