I almost felt like I had to go to confession on Saturday evening. I never thought I would be in the position of cheering on Manchester United and it still feels slightly wrong to admit that I let out a cheer once Jesse Lingard popped up with that extra-time winner. I’ve previously expressed the opinion that I believe we had a successful campaign this year and 7th position in the Premier League was a credible achievement, not least because of the football that we saw over the 38-game season. It felt like one thing was missing, the players and coaching staff had worked so hard and deserved Europa League (if not Champions League) qualification for their efforts. Although our final position in the table didn’t confirm the prospect of European football in our first season at the Olympic Stadium, a Manchester United victory on Saturday did. Entering the tournament at the third-round qualification stage may not be ideal but we’re there nonetheless and it makes a huge difference to next season. Now that we know the extent of our commitments, the club can properly plan ahead for what is certainly an exciting period for West Ham United. But what needs to be done to give us the best possible chance of competing in all four of the competitions we find ourselves in?
First things first, I’m not going to delve into the politics of fixture arrangements and what will be the official ‘curtain-raiser’ for our new stadium in Stratford. That subject has already been touched upon on this site and although, like everyone else, I have my own opinion on the matter, I’d rather focus on what matters most. The football. The chairmen didn’t hang about in getting their face in the press after Palace failed to capitalise on taking a 1-0 lead in the FA Cup final. ‘Optimism’ and ‘expectation’ seemed to be the buzz words dished out to them by the PR team as they both made bold claims about providing additional funds to help strengthen the squad and ensure we have both the quality and quantity of players needed to cope with the demands that European football brings.
Unlike some, I have confidence in our board to help the club progress. That’s not to say they go about things in completely the right way. Yes, they could take a different approach to achieve the same goals but they’d still be towards the top of my list for preferable owners given a selection from every other Premier League club. I’d like to think there is substance to some of the claims that have been made recently. A marquee signing is definitely needed and there’s been so much talk about it, I can’t imagine we’d see the usual tricks of pursuing big name players, only to end up with a cheap alternative. Although the majority of premature transfer talk has been about an incoming striker, there’s several areas of the squad that need strengthening. An out-and-out goalscorer is one, with an experienced right-back, a proven centre-back and an understudy left-back just the start. I’d also like to see a wide player for either side of midfield join as well as another forward option and versatile central midfielder to guard against injury, suspension and the guaranteed fatigue that will come about from constant midweek fixtures.
We haven’t even made it to the start of the transfer window yet and everyone seems rather fed-up with the rumours flying about already. I must admit, I quite enjoy all the theories doing the rounds and the various ‘inside sources’ providing their contradictory reports. We can all play manager, scout and chairman but regardless of who is most popular in a forum or who we’ve signed and been impressed with on a computer game, the decision makers we’ve got at the club have the final say and seem to be doing alright in that department. One of the highlights of this season for me was the success of our recruitment. Payet is the obvious one, but Lanzini looks sure to go on to big things, Antonio has proven to be a real gem and Ogbonna was one of our best players towards the end of the season. I have confidence that Sam Byram will fulfil his potential and even though he was given little opportunity, Pedro Obiang showed real quality when he was on the pitch. I have faith that whoever ends up signing in this window, Bilic will make sure that they are right for our team, our style and our desire to grow as a club.
One thing I feel is imperative is that we get business done early. It’s certainly an approach Bilic has confirmed he would like to implement but with Euro 2016 kicking off in a matter of weeks, it might be easier said than done. Havard Nordveit is a done deal and a great way to get the ball rolling, especially on a free. I’m not too sure what constitutes a transfer ‘war chest’ but my understanding from those ever-creative tabloid journalists is that it must be around the £150m mark. Unfortunately, our rumoured £50m is more of a transfer kitty, but it’s one that can still make a huge difference if spent well. It may well be that sizeable offers from China for the likes of Enner Valencia and the now confirmed Europa League qualification could boost that figure even further. It’s easy to get carried away in a market of overinflated prices but everyone is in the same boat and I have faith that those who contribute towards our transfer recruitment won’t be caught out.
I know you’re all expecting my suggestions or preference for potential signings. I debated not including them but I know that deep down, you all want to read the names everyone else has been mentioning. Lacazette seems unlikely but would be a great addition, failing that, I’d take Mauro Icardi as our ‘marquee signing’. Mathieu Debuchy offers experience and value to rotate the right-back position with Sam Byram while Marc Batra would be an investment worth making at £10m (due to limited appearances at Barcelona, a clause can be triggered in his contract). Celtic’s Kieran Tierney has developed rapidly this season and the 18-year-old would be a useful option at left-back after Aaron Cresswell. I believe Gokhan Tore will be one of the first signings we make and one I’m certainly looking forward to. I know I’m already around the £55m mark but if we could stretch to Callum Wilson, as well a loan deal for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (cheeky, I know), I’d be more than pleased with our business. Yes, slightly unrealistic but it’s not a million miles away from what we should be aiming for.
Whilst signing new players is of great importance, keeping hold of existing ones is also essential. I’m sad to read about (although it may only be rumours) the club ‘listening to offers’ for James Tomkins and Pedro Obiang. Granted, they may not be starting XI players but they definitely posses the kind of quality we should keep hold of and have ready for when those who have performed slightly better than them need a rest or are forced into a spell on the sidelines. It may well be that the aforementioned players want regular game time and you can’t begrudge them of that, but I’d like to think the club is sensible enough to keep hold of them for next season if they can. Another player who falls into that category is Reece Oxford. He’s certainly a player of great promise and indeed confidence in his own ability if media reports are to be trusted. In the games I’ve watched for the development squad, the 17-year-old looks a cut above the rest. Who can blame him for wanting the chance to cement a position in the team, I firmly believe that if he was given the chance, he’d rise to the occasion.
Aside from buying and keeping players, we need to use the right ones we’ve already got in the various competitions we will be playing in. This season offers a great chance to develop the youth prospects we have at the club and enable them to show what they can do. Loans for Martin Samuelsen and Reece Burke proved just what talented players they are and although another loan spell at a Championship club might be a good idea, I feel they should stay with the squad in the earlier part of the season and be given a chance in the cup competitions.
Finally, while the club has a great deal of planning and work to do before next season begins, we to, as fans, can play our part. Expectation can be dangerous and so often has a negative impact on players and their performances. Whilst it’s easy to get carried away after one great season, we need to keep our feet on the ground and be realistic. We might be the only team moving to a wonderful new stadium this year but everyone around us has the same ambition and the same, if not more, amount of money. Certain teams may have had a poor season this year and although we’d want to improve on a 7th place finish, I’m sure the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool will have something to say about that. In an ideal world, I’d like a nice run in each of the cups (obviously a trophy would be great but I’d take a semi-final), 6th-8th is my realistic expectation and one I’d be happy with if it came into fruition.