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Zola changed our game – Holloway

Everyone loves Gianfranco Zola. Even the man who sees the delightful Italian standing in the way of his club's £120m dream at Wembley today loves Zola.

"A wonderful fella, just a very dignified human being," coos Ian Holloway.

Indeed, if Holloway fancied seeing anyone in football land another crack at managing in the Premier League other than himself, it would be good old Franco, the wizard he feels did so much to help change the image of the English game.

"In a funny way, if I don't get there myself, then I would be delighted to see him there," says the Crystal Palace boss of his Watford adversary. "But I will do my utmost to make sure he isn't. One of us will be delighted; the other will have to start absolutely all over again."

SMILING

So, who's it to be? The battler or the legend? The comedian or the crown prince? Even Holloway cannot help smiling when you ask him to compare the paths which have brought such contrasting adversaries together in a play-off final of monumental financial import.

"Different careers? Cor, that's an understatement, isn't it? When did I ever score a backheel at the near post?" laughs the old midfielder, thinking of Zola's flights of genius. "You should never compare yourself with anybody but let's get this straight. I'm not on the same page as a footballer. Not in million years.

"The way he played the game was the right way. He was so entertaining and yet so humble, you wouldn't know how good he was. So polite and dignified, there is not one air of conceitedness about him. That's why I'm delighted and honoured for my team to play his, because they play in the way he was.

"If there's anyone who changed the course of Premier League football, then you have to look at him, because he was one of the early imports, who changed the mindset of kids. They wanted to do these flicks and turns, they wanted to be Zola. He must be immensely proud of that. Me? I'm altogether more competitive. I've had to compete because I wasn't anywhere near as good."

A very good job Holloway has done too, a third Championship play-off final date in four seasons again suggesting a manager who gets by on inspiration as well as perspiration and underrated skill. Because his image is so often defined by his eccentric, often comedic off-field persona, does Holloway think he does not get the credit he merits?

"Only at the end of my life will you judge what I did. It will either be all right or it will be rubbish or it will be good. I'm in the middle of trying to write my story and I don't care what anyone else thinks. If you did, then you wouldn't be able to get up in the morning, considering what we get called. Even by our own fans."

Holloway was accused by some Palace fans of not understanding their rivalry with Brighton prior to the semi, which was marred by excrement being left in the away dressing-room ahead of the second leg at the Amex Stadium.

The play-offs could also have thrown up meetings with Holloway's former club Leicester or a Bolton team managed by his predecessor at Palace, Dougie Freedman, who only missed out on a top-six spot on the final day.

FAILED

"It's not Leicester, who I failed with, it's not Bolton with the previous manager and it's not Brighton, who our fans couldn't stand losing to," said Holloway. "It's Watford, they're pretty middle of the road really. We don't hate each other or anything..."

He accepts there may be a well of sentimental support for seeing Zola back in the Premier League after his underwhelming spell in charge at West Ham, but Holloway should appreciate there are probably just as many who would be happy to welcome back his outspoken burr.

For, while Holloway waxes lyrical about Zola, he has no regrets about criticising the "ludicrous" regulations which allowed Watford to use so many overseas loan players.

"If you can't say what you feel, what's the point in having vocal chords?" Holloway said. "It's a shame other people can't do that. Nick Clegg when he was saying it (what he felt), we all believed in him. Now look at him."

Priceless Ollie. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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