It’s easy to write an article about West Ham United. Just use the phrases ‘cavernous London Stadium’, ‘perma-crock Andy Carroll’, and ‘Dildo Brothers’, throw in references to Bobby Moore, 1966, and the West Ham Way, and deliver it all with the right touch of disdain. It’s right there in Chapter Four of The Football Writer’s Handbook, just after How Not To Pick A Team Of The Week.
It all seems appropriate enough, given the shambles Friday night home to Brighton. Three points and a strong performance had been expected, in fact demanded. But although they outshot the visitors 16-7, West Ham never looked like scoring and always looked like conceding. They sent in 41 crosses, despite the notable absence of Andy Carroll. The back line was embarrassed by Glenn Murray, who’s a trier but not quite Sergio Aguero. The 0-3 scoreline may have flattered the visitors a bit, but given the Hammers’ abject showing, was by no means undeserved. Sneer all you like.
And yet we should resist the urge to oversimplify, and especially the urge to look down our noses. Things haven’t gone particularly well for West Ham in the last 14 months or so, but they performed superbly in 2015/16, and even in their recent struggles there have been moments worth savouring. As for Messrs. Gold and Sullivan, they don’t seem to excel at running a football club, yet they took care of its outstanding debts and have kept West Ham on a sound financial footing. Let’s try, then, for a balanced appraisal.
One place the club has been heavily criticised is the transfer market. We’ll always have Simone Zaza, and in the past few years there’s been a parade of on-the-cheap signings that haven’t panned out. A full list would take up most of my available space.
Some high-profile signings have looked like disappointments as well. It’s a little early to bury Marko Arnautovic or even André Ayew, and Andy Carroll really hasn’t been anything other than you’d expect. But right now Joe Hart is an average keeper, decidedly not what the club had bargained for. Against Brighton he was caught moving the wrong way on the first goal, and probably should have saved the second. Two one-on-one saves from Glenn Murray weren’t enough to compensate.
But there have also been some transfer successes. Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio were very good acquisitions, Dimitri Payet something more than that. (And can the club be blamed for his departure?) Friday’s penalty notwithstanding, Pablo Zabaleta has been good at full-back and wing-back. He’s not the buccaneer of old, but still offers genuine quality, and his commitment is second to none. Chicharito is a pleasure to watch: great movement, great touch, that poacher’s instinct and a never-say-die approach. Even José Fonte, after a horrible start, is beginning to look like the Southampton version.
I’d say the greatest indictment of their transfer dealings has been the failure to sign a defensive midfielder. The last genuine holder of the position was Scott Parker, back in 2010/11. Since then it’s been a parade of all-rounders (Mark Noble), box-to-box men (Cheikhou Kouyaté), and players who obviously wanted to play a different position (Alex Song). The current occupant on most days is Pedro Obiang, who has his moments, but no one was shocked when on Friday night he was at fault for both the first and second goals.
The failure here clearly lies both in the VIP booth and on the touchline. Last summer we heard plenty about the pursuit of William Carvalho, but in the transfer market you get no points for effort. Considering the club has made high-profile signings in a variety of positions, somewhere along the line they could have done a deal for a DM, and Slaven Bilic should have pushed for it. It’s been their primary need all along.
As for the stadium, that was a devil’s bargain all along. There was no way no how that the Olympic Stadium, or whatever you want to call it, was going to match Upton Park for atmosphere, or for supporter goodwill. Of course, the club made the problem much worse with poor game-day management. More recently, they’ve made a monumentally silly request for the areas surrounding the pitch to be painted claret, thus providing more atmosphere and better visibility for the touchlines. It sounds desperate and it is desperate.
But the stadium meant and will always mean a shedload of cash, particularly given the grand larceny the owners pulled on the greater British public. And in football circa 2017, shedloads of cash is the best and almost the only way a club can move itself significantly up the table and stay there.
The other way, much chancier, is by hiring a very good manager, one who gets more out of the squad than the numbers game would seem to allow. Enter Slaven Bilic in June of 2015. As we contemplate the current mess, remember that he took the side to seventh place in his first season, putting West Ham in the Europa League. It wasn’t all Payet, either: when the Frenchman was injured for nearly all of November and December, the team eked out a series of draws that kept their momentum from flagging.
Last year wasn’t so hot. With Payet discontented and then gone, the goals didn’t flow as freely, and Bilic’s defensive weaknesses became harder to ignore. Continuing injuries suggested there was something wrong with his training methods. But after a very poor start, West Ham pulled themselves up to ninth place at the beginning of February. When five straight losses in March and April dropped them close to the relegation zone, Bilic righted the ship, and they lost only one of their last seven matches. Eleventh place wasn’t where they wanted to finish, but the board quite rightly felt it was enough to give him another chance.
Now, though, it appears he isn’t likely to take the team further. At this level, there are few managers who don’t grow stale at a club after a few years, and Bilic seems to be reaching that point somewhat sooner. For all their faults, Gold and Sullivan aren’t quick on the trigger, and that’s very much a point in their favour. Still, Bilic probably won’t last too much longer, and may even have walked the plank by the time you read this. But Super Slav has brought the supporters some super moments, and all lovers of football should remember him accordingly.
There’s no bottom line, because all clubs are a work in progress, except maybe Arsenal. Right now the owners have given the club pretensions which they can’t fulfill, and that’s a sure recipe for ridicule. But down with derision, I say. Unless you’re a Millwall, Sheffield United or Tottenham supporter, the Golden Rule seems the best way to go here. My club, DC United of MLS, has just finished the season 22nd out of 22, and one of their owners is also running Swansea City.
West Ham United, I wish you all the best.