Sometimes the biggest bombshells shouldn’t really be bombshells at all.
When Slaven Bilic announced that Dimitri Payet no longer wanted to play for the club, it was an explosive comment, but only because Bilic lent a voice to a thought we all had anyway. The intrigue isn’t so much that Payet wants a move, it’s that a manager would so openly say so in a press conference during the January transfer window.
A dismal last few months made it almost inevitable that Payet would be unhappy. After a glittering season last year, he could be forgiven for thinking that European football and a push for Europe again this season would have been his reward. Instead, West Ham have looked every bit the mid-table Premier League club they so desperately wanted to avoid becoming when they parted ways with Sam Allardyce.
When the club’s owners decided not to renew the contract of the manager who won their promotion via the playoffs in 2012, West Ham looked to be taking a risk. Allardyce was a safe pair of hands who gained promotion and kept his side in the Premier League. Wishing for any more than that seemed like a gamble.
That would have been to show a lack of ambition, though. To renew Allardyce’s contract would have been against the wishes of the fans, his unattractive style of football rankled with a desire to see the game played the ‘West Ham way’.
The club’s move to a new stadium, and with the Premier League’s massive TV rights deal in place, West Ham should have been looking to become one of the biggest clubs in the country – or at least compete with them. A London club with an iconic stadium, a great location, and a shed-load of Premier League money should be able to attract some of the best players in the world. That was the thought, anyway.
And so to appoint Bilic and back him with money was an ambitious move, but hardly an unfettered gamble. West Ham were supposed to be a team on the up. Last season seemed to prove it. This season, it’s a different story.
And so to the big question: have West Ham actually made the progress that they should have done given their situation? The obvious answer is no: elimination from the Europa League before it even started, from the EFL Cup with a bit of a whimper at Old Trafford and a 5-0 defeat at home to Manchester City to crash out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle can all be added to their current 13th place in the Premier League to sum up the failure this season has been.
There is another way of looking at progress, though. It’s not just about results on the pitch, though that is obviously the ultimate measurement. You also have to think about the process. The fact that West Ham are aiming their sights on bigger name players than they really ever have before is a sign that there is a process in place. The problem is that the inevitable teething problems are starting to look like they may not be teething issues at all, but rather institutional failures.
The fact that the club’s hierarchy and their offspring take to Twitter so regularly to conduct what is usually behind-the-scenes club business, the fact that all of their transfer dealings seem to end up outed in the media before steering into the rocks and scuppering, the fact that the club’s website, for so long, persisted with the ‘Insider’ blog – all of these things are signs that those at the top of West Ham’s affairs are actively hindering the club’s progress rather than helping it.
Getting rid of Allardyce was a statement of intent, but as they welcome him to their new home this weekend, you wonder what sort of change the former manager will notice at all. A new stadium, a new badge, some new players, a new manager. Sure, some material change. But has there been any change of substance, any profound difference to prove that the club of Allardyce – a club of functional football – is now a club reaching for the stars whilst playing the West Ham way?
If not, you wonder what really is the point of moving to a new stadium, changing a badge or even changing the players? If there’s any point at all, it looks like it’s so the owners can sell a well-packaged club to outside sources for a fortune.