West Ham fans showed last season how powerful a force they can be, even if it was in a way that reflected poorly on the east London club. Having grown insufferably frustrated with the direction the club has taken since the move to the London Stadium and then been denied the right to protest as a pre-match march was suspiciously called off, tempers infamously boiled over and a 3-0 defeat to Burnley was marred with pitch invasions followed by a late storm on the director’s box.
Ugly, ugly scenes that only made the loss more inevitable, but scenes that demonstrated the impact supporters can still have – even in football’s increasingly corporate and commercial era. There’s no doubt the owners responded to the sheer anger shown towards them during the summer transfer window; David Sullivan took a step back, a talented manager in Manuel Pellegrini was appointed and his choice of Director of Football, Mario Husillos, was given around £94million to spend on new recruits.
You certainly can’t accuse the owners of trying to take shortcuts or refusing to invest in the first-team squad, at least not in the context of 2018/19.
The revolution, of course, is yet to get truly underway. Sullivan may stand in the box wearing a coat befitting of a Soviet leader but his new general, Pellegrini, is still coming to terms with the mission at hand. West Ham have failed to take a point from their opening four Premier League games or keep a clean sheet from five across all competitions, and while the Irons can be excused for losing to Liverpool and Arsenal on the road, home defeats to Bournemouth and Wolves – the calibre of club West Ham should be competing with for a solid midtable finish this season – no doubt represent six obtainable points dropped.
More than anything else, West Ham are suffering from the sheer scale of change at the club since the end of last season. The style of football alone is being dragged from one side of the philosophical spectrum to the other, but with that shift comes a completely new manager, Director of Football and subsequent coaching staff, a different formation and nine summer arrivals – only two of which have played in the Premier League before – in an attempt to almost entirely rebuild the defence while adding to other departments. It will take time for all those different components to truly settle and gel together – four games just isn’t enough.
The problem though, is that the fixture list just isn’t on West Ham’s side – and that’s where the fans really come into the equation. By the end of November, West Ham will have faced all of last season’s top nine with seven more still to come, while Brighton and Huddersfield hardly represent the most accommodating of away games.
It’s quite conceivable then, that the Irons could enter the hectic Christmas period at the bottom of the league, with just a handful of points to their name. Accordingly, the fear of relegation is already lingering in the east London air; reports earlier this week opened the debate on Pellegrini’s abrupt departure, detailing how much it would cost the Hammers to get rid – a lofty £15million.
In the next few months, the pressure will only increase on West Ham but particularly Pellegrini, and then it becomes a question of perceptions. If West Ham feel and act like they’re in a relegation battle, that’s exactly what they’ll be; if, however, they act like only a few points have been dropped in real terms because of the quality of their opposition, then the demand for abrupt, panicked decisions like sacking the manager is greatly reduced. After all, Palace didn’t score during their first seven games of last term, let alone pick up a point, but still ended up finishing higher than the Hammers, so there is always time to recover.
But whether West Ham fall to the psyche of a relegation battle will largely rest on the mood and the atmosphere in the stadium and amongst the supporters – whether the fans view the situation with grave concern, or keep their faith in Pellegrini and fully support the new manager. With vultures in the British media already circling, that will be an intrinsic aspect of Pellegrini’s mandate to rule over the next few months when positive results will be even tougher to find.
As long as they continue to believe in his project, Pellegrini – a fantastic manager with a well-stocked squad – has every chance of turning this poor start to the season around. It’s just a matter of faith and full-blooded backing in spite of the pressure that will now be placed on the club.