Slaven Bilic is the new West Ham manager. It’s hard to say how this news has been greeted by Hammers fans, given the sheer number of supporters of any decent-sized club dotted hither and thither means trying to accurately gauge a collective mood is a foolish task to attempt.
However, one thing is for sure is that it’s an appointment designed (at least in part) to please the fans, in that sort of vague, ephemeral way those in charge of football clubs seem to think is a good idea. Chairmen, generally out of touch with the pulse of their fanbase as they are, of course wish to keep the mob happy. They try to distract them from ever-increasing ticket prices and inconvenient kick-off times and all the other nonsense that makes their life as difficult as possible with little tidbits like appointing a former player as manager. It’s a bit like a pet owner giving little Precious a treat while the vet looms with a massive needle.
You can’t really blame them either, because the evidence in front of their eyes tells them this is exactly the way to go. Fans halted by the bright lights and shiny technology of a Sky Sports News camera will grunt their approval, those inside the ground will sing in the adorable optimism of the innocent.
Of course it makes sense to pander. It’s not only an easier life to have the supporters on side, the suits neatly avoiding being chased down the street or their lovely executive boxes being invaded, Blackpool-style, but important to at least make them feel like they’re being listened to. A little credit in the bank is useful for when things start to go south; fans are much less likely to start rioting in the streets/expressing their mild disapproval with slow hand-claps if they like whoever’s in charge, so everyone has a slightly quieter life.
“It is very good for the Club and the supporters,” said West Ham co-chairman David Sullivan about Bilic’s appointment, presumably saying the C in ‘club’ extra loud so it had to be capitalised by their website. “We have taken a man who understands the West Ham Way. It is important how we play and that the players play with passion.”
And herein lies the pandering to those in the stands. It’s easy to mock ‘the West Ham Way’ (there’s that capital letter again – someone really needs to have a look at the keyboards at Upton Park), because…well, it’s easy to mock it. The idea that only nice, passing, flowing football is good enough for West Ham and their fans is something of a nonsense, but it’s one that has stuck around, and is perpetuated by statements like Sullivan’s. It’s dog whistle populism, like when anyone involved in Cardiff City is told to do that weird Ayatollah thing to the fans, or a new Manchester City signing saying something about United fans all living in Surrey.
This was the perceived central issue with Sam Allardyce who, despite doing a job that at the very, very worst could be described as ‘par’, went against the ‘West Ham Way’. He played long balls and he liked a little rough and tumble and bloody insisted on always picking Kevin Nolan, as Bobby Moore and Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst spun in their graves. Which is especially impressive considering the latter two aren’t dead.
It’s all bulls**t, obviously, and if Sullivan and David Gold really cared so much about this apparent ‘West Ham Way’, then they wouldn’t have hired Allardyce in the first place, even if their curious decision to not sack Big Sam but instead ask him to go against every instinct in his managerial bones did actually work for a little while.
The idea of the ‘West Ham Way’ gives the impression that they think they’re better than everyone else, that fripperies like pragmatism and defending and winning games is beneath them, and they want something more.
That, again, is basically bulls**t, but does it really matter? Most clubs have the same thing, who they regard as ‘their type of player’, something that somehow sets them apart from the primordial soup of football, because otherwise what is the point of supporting a football club? It would be, to fall back on the old Jerry Seinfeld line, just be like cheering laundry. Every club has their own myths and folk stories, and we should all be bloody proud of them, even if nobody else understands them.
If clubs want to play on the ego of their fans and make them think they’re special then who cares? Every parent thinks their child is special and beautiful and a unique snowflake, but while they aren’t you wouldn’t say that to a new mother or father. You let them wallow in their del/illusion because it makes them feel good.
There’s not a great deal to make football fans feel special these days, so if West Ham fans want to buy into their ‘Way’ then good luck to them. It’s not our business, so why should anyone care?