Why Slaven Bilic’s West Ham can ill-afford to regress this season
Contending with ambitious owners, a new stadium and a new waft of supporters, Slaven Bilic needs West Ham to start winning
Slaven Bilic’s task upon taking charge of West Ham last year was a pretty straightforward one. The Hammers simply had to retain their Premier League status.
Bilic accomplished that particular mission – and then some. So swiftly did the Croat bed into the job that any doubts surrounding his appointment were quickly banished. Furthermore, he was an instant hit with supporters.
Bilic’s predecessor, Sam Allardyce, by contrast, never won over the West Ham faithful during four years in charge – even after restoring the team to the top-flight in his first season at the helm. But while affection for Allardyce in east London is in short supply, owing to the perceived dour nature of the football played under his command, his presence removed the potential for relegation from the Upton Park equation.
So the club’s owners – Davids Sullivan and Gold – were rolling the dice when they hired Bilic, one year before the Hammers’ move to the Olympic Stadium.
And how the pair’s numbers came up. The new boss started by winning 2-0 at Arsenal and didn’t really look back all season. Bilic’s side kept knocking over the big boys – and in some style, for good measure.
Only defeat in two of their final three games of the campaign restricted the Hammers to a seventh-placed finish. If they had taken points from those fixtures at home to Swansea and away at Stoke then West Ham would have been playing Champions League football in their new home.
The margins are fine, then. But from an alternative perspective, Bilic and his team had nothing tangible to show for their efforts across nine months, bar qualification for the initial stages of the Europa League.
An FA Cup quarter-final was the best of it in the three knockout competitions in which they participated. But none of that really mattered. West Ham; vibrant, invigorating, flexible, fearless West Ham were going to Stratford as a high-end Premier League club.
And now the dynamic has changed. Being dumped out of European competition by Astra Giurgiu is no longer written off as an accident. Not when the home tie against the Romanian minnows was played in front of the best part of 60,000 people.
West Ham’s Europa League involvement 12 months ago was ended at a similarly early stage and by the same opponents (incidentally, has a side ever run into a more peculiar bogey team?).
But back then, a continental campaign was not high on the agenda. More likely, Thursday night football would have been regarded as the nuisance of common conception.
Now, in their athletics stadium home, West Ham are on a fast track to the top. They have colossal ground to make up on the Premier League and European superpowers. Being booed off the field after defeat by the team currently 11th in Romania’s 14-team top-flight is no way to start closing the gap.
Bilic has plenty of currency in the bank with his employers. He remains immensely popular with supporters. And not only supporters of his own club. Already broadly admired by the wider football public, the 47-year-old was acclaimed for his insightful, humorous, compelling contributions to ITV’s coverage of this summer’s European championship.
Being a first-rate pundit, however, only carries a certain amount of weight when you’re back in the day job. Just ask Gary Neville.
Bilic is not going to come under any overbearing pressure following a one-off European defeat, one in which he was shorn of a number of his key players, to boot.
Nevertheless, he will know he cannot oversee a period of regression this season. And the manner in which his first year at the club unfolded actually serves to place the former Croatia national team boss is in an especially tricky predicament.
He set the bar extremely high with respect to what is now expected from West Ham in the Premier League. But there is no silverware to act as a buffer should Bilic’s side hit a rocky patch. Lose four or five league fixtures on the bounce, for example, and a manager able to point to the previous season’s FA Cup in the trophy cabinet will be afforded extra time to ride out the storm. The Hammers’ boss does not have that luxury.
And now he has a raft of new ‘customers’ to satisfy. A feted former player at Upton Park – even if his departure for Everton in 1999 was somewhat acrimonious – Bilic was able to rapidly rekindle his healthy relationship with the traditional fanbase when he returned after 17 years away.
A number of the people filling those 60,000 seats in the club’s cavernous new home, however, don’t have any affinity with the man in the dugout. Hence the catcalls after Astra’s smash and grab act.
Four days earlier West Ham had beaten Bournemouth 1-0 in the same stadium. It was a stodgy affair, settled by a late Michail Antonio goal. Waiting 85 minutes for the first telling penalty box action wasn’t what a section of the paying punters had in mind for their Sunday afternoon and, again, they let the home players know it.
Messrs Sullivan and Gold would have been rather more forgiving on that occasion. But the degree to which they are backing their manager in the transfer market dictates that the joint-chairmen’s patience is unlikely to be boundless.
Plenty of teams will be turned over at Manchester City this season, just as West Ham were on Sunday. But on the near horizon is a run of games the club’s supporters and owners – and one suspects Bilic and his players – will consider winnable.
The Hammers next encounter Watford, West Brom, Southampton, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Sunderland – all before the end of October.
With the arrival of Juventus’s Italian international striker Simone Zaza on loan, the manager has now made 10 stellar additions to last season’s squad – albeit he has already lost Andre Ayew to injury.
With such a strong hand at his disposal, then, the amiable Bilic must emerge from the next couple of months with his team in good shape.
Anything else and ‘Super Slav’ will be in some bother before the clocks go back.
He achieved everything asked of him and plenty more in his first year as West Ham’s manager. Now Slaven Bilic is back at ground zero, having to do it all over again.