For West Ham, it was a watershed moment. They had lost games before – now the joint-most in the Premier League, along with a woeful Sunderland side – and the performance was no worse than in their defeats to Watford or West Brom. Instead, it was their reaction to losing 3-0 to Southampton which revealed a club in crisis.
Slaven Bilic forlornly searched for answers, as he has done far too often this season. The fans sought to share the blame: the sterile and unwelcoming feel of their new London Stadium home, the move from their beloved Upton Park, a summer transfer window which has now been exposed as one of the worst of any Premier League club and a squad seemingly bereft of confidence, talent or organisation. The players, for the most part, issued the same tired cliches – “we must improve”, “we go again”, “something about bubbles”.
It fell to captain Mark Noble, a man who would bleed claret and blue were he cut – and his abject form throughout West Ham’s nightmare start to the season must cut deep – to issue the most scathing and truthful assessment. “Everyone was buzzing after last season,” he said, “and like this club does all the time, it gets carried away and talks about the Champions League”.
Noble had a point. West Ham, and particularly their owners, Davids Gold and Sullivan, spent much of the summer making grandiose claims in the media. They had just finished seventh in the Premier League, but their previous three seasons saw them finish in 12th, 13th and tenth. Before that, they were in the Championship.
“We should take this competition seriously and we are good enough to win it,” said Gold on May 23. He was discussing their prospects in the Europa League, a competition they would be knocked out of before September began. “What we don’t have is a 20-25 goal-a-season striker,” Sullivan said as far back as March. “If we did we’d be even higher up the table,” he added, dressing up the obvious as a revelatory claim. Just three players broke the 20-goal barrier in the Premier League last seasons.
Gold saved his best material for July. Having previously promised squad investment totalling £50million, as well as an elite striker, the co-owner had to defend what was turning out to be a low-key summer. Manuel Lanzini joined permanently for £10m, while their only other signings – Gokhan Tore, Sofiane Feghouli, Havard Nordtveit and Ashley Fletcher – were either free transfers or loans.
“It’s hard to get those very, very top players to come to West Ham because they want Champions League,” he explained, before adding the following, complete with wry smile: “That means they’re going to have to wait a year before they can play in the Champions League.”
West Ham had been caught up in the dream, but lost sight of the reality of their situation. Southampton did not make public predictions of securing a Champions League place the following season, despite having just finished a place and a point higher than the Hammers. Liverpool, a place and two points behind, were thrust into the top-four discussion based on reputation, but Jurgen Klopp was always keen to distance them from such lofty expectations too soon. Stoke had finished two places behind Bilic’s side, yet their aim remained one of consolidation, not ideas above their station. Gold and Sullivan were guilty of being caught in the moment, just as Noble said.
There's absolutely no reason why we can't be playing in the champions league with in the next five years. dg https://t.co/LRj1Z4ll00
— David Gold (@davidgold) September 13, 2016
Free from the shackles of Sam Allardyce, West Ham’s only destination was up. They had a shiny new stadium, they signed more players than any other Premier League club this summer, they had a manager whose stock was continually rising, and their crown jewel, Dimitri Payet, had starred at Euro 2016.
They – Gold and Sullivan – had not legislated for failure. Yet the 3-0 defeat to Southampton was their fifth defeat in six games, with their European journey cut short for a second successive season. It was a symbolic loss against a side who represented their polar opposites. Saints have built their foundations on small steps, ensuring to take each rung of the ladder one by one. They did not get ahead of themselves; they paced themselves. But West Ham had enjoyed their brief seat at the top table, and tried to go from two-mile runs to the London marathon within an instant. It was inevitable they would suffer from a stitch.
That they made a striker their priority signing this summer was their first mistake. West Ham scored 65 Premier League goals last season – only Manchester City, Tottenham and Leicester were more prolific. They conceded 51 – nine teams boasted a better defensive record – yet sold James Tomkins and saw fit not to replace him. They targeted Christian Benteke, with Sullivan stating, “he’s a player we admire but the problem is that he is on huge wages that no club can afford”. No club except Crystal Palace, who had finished eight places lower. They courted Alexandre Lacazette, Jamie Vardy, Carlos Bacca, and even Zlatan Ibrahimovic; they ended up with Simone Zaza.
The Italian’s loan signing captured the essence of a confused and confusing transfer window: New, weird players with no affinity towards the club, perfect for their new, weird stadium with no affinity towards the club. The desperation to make a statement signing was their undoing; the desperation of one of the co-owner’s sons to reveal transfer updates via social media was at odds with a club attempting to establish themselves as a permanent top-six side. It was hardly the ‘West Ham way’.
Some would say it was never in the script for West Ham to be sitting in the relegation zone at this stage of the season. Gold and Sullivan had promised so much more. Perhaps the chant that used to ring out at Upton Park and no longer does at the London Stadium was more prophetic than first thought.
“They fly so high, nearly reach the sky. Then like my dreams they fade and die.”