When Slaven Bilic was appointed manager of West Ham after the departure of Sam Allardyce, there was one final season left at the Boleyn Ground before the Hammers moved into their new home in Stratford.
Hammers fans, who had wished Allardyce gone for months, were warned to be careful what they wished for, as the general consensus from a variety of onlookers seemed to agree that it would have been a shame if that stadium move took place in the Championship and not the Premier League.
The paternalistic implication wasn’t so much that Allardyce was a better manager than Bilic, but that the Irons were somehow getting above their station to trade in a solid if unspectacular pair of hands for a manager who would provide a style of football closer to the fabled West Ham Way.
Bilic was a choice that seemed to marry what most people tend to want to see in their football teams to some degree: intelligence and passion. The Croatian is a charmingly erudite man, but where the charm often wins through over the intellect. In other words, he’s clearly smart, but he won’t bore you.
Perhaps that’s why the players took to him so quickly. In his first season at the club. Before September was out, Bilic’s men had won four of their first six fixtures; and a daunting assortment of games they were, too, as they beat Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool all away from home in the first month and a bit of the season. The game at Anfield sparked a run of seven games without defeat to kick start the season, and five wins were picked up in that time, and although they failed to win between Halloween and Christmas, they only actually lost twice, dealing admirably with injuries to stave off defeats and grind out something from most of their games.
It wasn’t just a grind, though. Dimitri Payet was fast on his way to becoming a hero at the club, so much so that they would put his face on the new stadium, and the dream of European football started to look closer and closer. Champions League football wasn’t even out of the question until just the final few weeks of the season.
But with hindsight, all of the pride – the emergence of Payet, the new stadium, the excitement around European football, and the new manager who had an emotional tie with the club – served only to heighten the fall.
This weekend, as West Ham face Liverpool again, this time at home, they’re reminded of how far they’ve come, or rather, fallen, since the last days of the Boleyn. No longer do West Ham aim for the elite just above, but they look back towards the relegation zone below. At least for now.
Dreams have been known to fade and die, but that’s not the worst part. The biggest disappointment for the Hammers is that if pride came before the fall, so too did pragmatism. The very principles that their new manager was supposed to overturn in reaction to the direction in which Allardyce had supposedly taken the club were the very same habits Bilic has fallen into since the Autumn 2015, when anything seemed possible for a club on the up.
On a podcast with Scottish journalist Graham Hunter last summer, Bilic told a story of his time at West Ham. Designed to illustrate how English football has come a long way from the time when he played in the Premier League, it also shows his own pragmatic streak and understanding of the competitive edge needed to win football matches. But it also now serves to highlight his own shortcomings as a manager in the modern game.
“I was playing for West Ham, it was season 96/97 and we were struggling,” he told the Graham Hunter podcast. “We had something like seven, eight games to go and we were not in the relegation zone, but we were in a relegation battle. We were playing at home against Chelsea – a very good team, not with Abramovich, but with Vialli and Zola, they were good! And we needed points.”
“We were leading – 2-1 or 3-2, I don’t remember – with three or four minutes to go and there was an offside free-kick for us. I wanted to take it, but I wanted to waste some time. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to play it long into the channel, but I’m going to put the ball down and pretend to play it, and then I’m going to call [West Ham goalkeeper] Ludo Miklosko from the goal but when he comes, I’ll tell him to go back again and I’ll take it. Maybe i’ll get a yellow, but it doesn’t matter because we’re going to waste some time and rest because we were under pressure.’”
“While I was doing that, our crowd – and we were winning! And they were praying for us to win and stay up! – someone in our crowd goes ‘Any chance?!’”
Maybe that’s not real pragmatism: maybe it’s just common sense. But pragmatism is a hallmark of Bilic we don’t usually think about. He may not be the most attacking coach in the game, but he’s not the most tactically flexible to suit the opposition, either. And yet that in itself may point to his lack of success over the past year and a half.
In his first season, he was able to rouse the passions of his players. Since then, though, he has been unable to build on that because there’s only so much geeing-up a player can take. At some point, you have to stop relying on passion and start dealing in tactics, which is something Bilic has failed to do.
Indeed, his lack of a discernible philosophy seems to point to something oddly jarring about his interview with Hunter over the summer: just how can a manager who regales his audience with stories about trying to waste time when leading by a narrow margin in such a crucial game find himself in charge of a team who, when leading by a narrow margin in a crucial game, flat out decline to keep the ball in the corner in favour of a tame cross straight to the opposition goalkeeper? And when the other team go on to score from the resulting counter-attack, just what does that say about Bilic? Just how can he be so keenly aware of the problem and yet be so unable to actually transmit that warning to his own players?
Maybe the blame should be laid squarely at the door of Michael Antonio, but then there were three Hammers players getting up in support. Surely, if nothing else, that’s at the manager’s door?
But the answer to it all might lie in the lack of philosophy which seems to be Bilic’s only philosophy.
When Antonio came to the club, signed by Bilic in his first season, he made his debut in the victory over City at the Etihad, and went on to make a name for himself. Since then, he’s starred in a team that plays fast, attacking football but also a team that lumps it long to a big man up front. And yet, through it all, it’s been the same team and the same manager.
And so maybe West Ham should have been careful what they wished for when it came to appointing a manager post-Allardyce. In Slaven Bilic, they found a manager who could keep it going for only one season, but saddled with owners who don’t appear to want to pay off sacked managers, they’re stuck with him for three.