Talking Point

We might win on Saturday, but it will mask a dreadful season

The past few weeks have not been enjoyable. Scrap that. The whole season has been forgettable. Bereft of a full 90 minutes of good, confident football, West Ham are a shadow of last year. Some blame the board, some blame the new stadium, some blame the players. Only now, it seems, are some blaming the manager. True, I have never been a huge Slaven Bilic supporter, but neither do I want to see him go.

That has been the conundrum in my mind recently. The modern West Ham that I particularly don’t like is our tendency to sack managers. Since Harry Redknapp left, it’s been a revolving door. Bilic’s last season gives him a bit of credit in his bank. It should provide him enough space to last until next year. But if next season starts like this one, it will be over.

But let’s not get bogged down in managerial speculation. As with Arsenal this year, as with Spurs when Redknapp was flirting with the England job; it never, ever helps a team to have such a distraction and with us on a losing run (without a win since February), speculation is not the answer.

None of this is a surprise however. For too long, and still to this day, many of us seem content to say: “Oh, it’ll get better, we’ll beat team X and everything will be fine”. We have ignored the problem for too long. When we beat Hull and Burnley at the end of last year, we were content to ignore the awful performances and focus on the 1-0 wins. Well, now those shocking victories are what’s keeping us out of the relegation zone. We comfort ourselves by saying: “Oh well, the other teams around us are awful”. True, but are we that much better? We can barely beat Burnley and Hull at home, and then lost against the latter away. We beat Sunderland at home with a last-minute winner.

We will look towards Saturday with optimism. We always do. Heading to the Emirates, I thought we might get something. At half time, it looked okay. But then I realised as we went 1-0 down, that the floodgates were about to open. Not only can we not win at the moment, we cannot help but lose badly.

3-0 and 5-1 against Arsenal. 4-0, 5-0, and 3-1 against Manchester City. Bilic loves losing big. 3-0 at home against Southampton. Shipping 3 against Leicester and Bournemouth. Letting in 4 against Watford and West Brom. Bilic should be given time but let’s admit this, based on last season and this: he cannot sort out a defense. Regardless of signings and injuries, a manager should be able to make players work in a team and be greater than the sum of their parts. Bilic needs help. Most managers would lose 5-1 or 5-0 and say: “Enough”. Bilic seems to say, “Oh well, maybe next time”.

Slow starts, bad defending, a lack of shots on goal. These were all there to see last season and they are bloody obvious this year. We will comfort ourselves if we beat Sunderland and Swansea. We will ignore this debate and say we’re still a Premier League club.

But remember where we were last year? I argued on here that Champions League was far too optimistic for us and that we’d get battered. Europa League was more achievable. Many said I was a pessimist, that we’d do better than Leicester City in Europe.

A year on, Leicester are doing far better in Europe, while we went out early in the Europa. We are now fighting against relegation. Leicester, who were 12 points behind us not long ago, are now above us. All other clubs around us, bar Sunderland and Boro, have realised their failings and moved on, improved. We have not. To those confident of wins against Swansea and Sunderland: look at this season as a whole, and think whether we actually could win those games and whether we even deserve to. Maybe we will, I hope, but we won’t win them pretty.

Two years ago, we hired Bilic to take us to the next level. Now, we’re in a relegation fight. I want him to stay, but this is not what we were promised. This is not the bright future we had envisioned. I knew the next chapter of West Ham would take a long time to become one of success, I just didn’t know it would be this bad to start.

Talking Point

Papering over the cracks: still waiting for a big league win in January

Last season, Slaven Bilic was the giant killer: victories at Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool; home wins against Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool once more. I don’t think anyone expected last year to be matched like for like: new managers and more money meant most of the top clubs came back stronger. But did anyone expect this come January? It is a complete reversal, and what’s more worrying, that reversal doesn’t look like itself reversing.

At least Bilic has changed one thing: he can beat the weaker sides. No win against Norwich last season, a big defeat against Swansea, and a draw against bottom side Aston Villa showed an inability to kill off lesser clubs. The club has seen off Crystal Palace, Burnley, Bournemouth, Hull City and Swansea. Four of those were 1-0 wins, the other was an emphatic 4-1 against Bob Bradley’s Swansea City. He was sacked soon after.

This season is already forgettable. And nothing will change that: we will not get into Europe and I think a top ten finish is still far off. For a year that was meant to be full of promise after the success of last season and the excitement of a new stadium, this is surely the worst outcome for all of us. The fans have been sold short, the owners have been found wanting.

The game against Manchester City was not just an embarrassing team performance: it was an embarrassment all round. So much has been made in recent months of the media conspiracy against West Ham: all they [journalists] want to focus on is the violence, the teething troubles. On Friday, there was no violence, there was no bad media surrounding the ground or the club leading up to the kick-off. It was there on a plate for the club and owners to give their best: show the ground and the team at its best. They both utterly failed. The performance was tepid, just like every other game this season bar Chelsea in the League Cup. That led to talk of the new stadium and its problems. The media is not against the move, but if West Ham continue to perform so meekly – one writer called it a “non-performance” – then obviously talk will focus on the stadium and whether that is part of the problem.

As someone who supported Big Sam and was against his departure, I was happy to admit my mistake last year as we outperformed expectations and anything that Allardyce had ever achieved. But to go from losing 5-0 against Nottingham Forest three years ago in the FA Cup to losing 5-0 again against Manchester City, seems to lack any sign of progress. Yes, City are a much bigger and better squad, but the team Bilic played was a better first team squad than Allardyce’s youngsters. Allardyce focused on the league, Bilic focused on the Cup – and both outcomes were the same. The game against Crystal Palace, against Big Sam no less, becomes ever more important.

Many of us including myself expected us to give City a run for their money. Why? Because we expect it on the basis of last season and because we’re West Ham, we like a giant killing and we like a good Cup run. But it made me realise that this season has seen a majority of poor performances, with the occasional win [Accrington Stanley] or wins [Burnley, Hull, Swansea] used as a boost and made to seem like a turnaround. There has been no turnaround. We are still leaking goals. We are still playing dire football. Nothing has arguably changed enough since the beginning of the season to make me believe anything will change over the next few months. That puts a hell of a lot of pressure on this January transfer window to alter the course of this season.

Perhaps the City game is what the club, the manager and the team needed: no longer are we hiding behind other teams who are performing badly. We became an embarrassing headline and maybe that might force a realisation among the players. What worries me is that every other club around us has either improved or made a change: Hull, Swansea, Palace have ousted their managers. Sunderland have made great strides, Burnley have a strong home form, Middlesbrough have put in good performances, as have Watford. We, for me, remain an anomaly: no change, no passion, and no desire to turn this season around.

The Palace game is geared up to be a big one. But with Allardyce still waiting eagerly for his first win as Palace manager, I fear he may get it at the London Stadium.

Talking Point

Things Can Only Get Better?

Football. Bloody hell. The recent media coverage around the Labour Party is almost identical to that of West Ham: a leader with sufficient support but a small, vocal opposition; key members calling for unity; worrying predictions that the group is heading for oblivion.

The back papers say it all, although I am sure some will point to a media conspiracy, or an exaggeration of the problems that are evident on the pitch – and off it.

What is similar to the current breed of politics, both here and in the US, is people’s need to brashly fall down on one side or the other: there is no space for the middle ground. There are those among the Hammers faithful who remain optimistic: stand by Slav, things will turn around, this is a blip, think of last season – we’ll find our form. Listening to Bianca Westwood on the KUMB podcast last week, I found myself frustrated: I agree with her on almost everything, but maintaining faith in the logic “oh, it’ll get better”, seems naive.

But on the other hand, some are calling for Bilic to go, for things being worse than under Sam Allardyce, for a situation that is so far removed from last season that we need to – in the words of Jeremy Corbyn – “wipe the slate clean” and start again.

Not to sound like a bore who enjoys sitting on the fence: can’t the reaction to our worst start to a Premier League season be somewhere in between these two diametrically opposed camps?

It is weird to be writing this post, and it is one I have dithered on for a while. Last season, I was frequently called out for being overly critical of West Ham: for saying the Europa League was better for us over the Champions League, for worrying about our defence, for saying we had a problem at winning games against smaller teams. Every couple of weeks, I would receive a tweet from someone laughing at how wrong I was to defend Allardyce and raise concerns about Bilic. “Apologise, take it back,” would be the cries. Now those people – often rude, often too quick to pass judgement – are quiet.

It gives me no pleasure to see my worries come true. If anything, I am more encouraged that we are now, as a family, coming to terms with deficiencies that were there all along last season but we were too caught up in our own hype (myself included) to notice the niggles. I mean, we all now know the stat: in 15 of the last 23 games, we’ve let in at least two goals. But no one was saying that at the end of last season when we lost 2-1 to Stoke. The narrative then was of how close we had come to Champions League football.

For me, it’s best summed up in last season’s performance away to Everton. We voted it the best team performance of the year. But does anyone think it was that amazing a performance bar the last 12 minutes when we finally woke up? It could have been different if they had scored their penalty to make it 3-0 and if they hadn’t had a player sent off. That for me sums up how lucky we were last season in some games and how – just like this year – we take ages to really get going.

But this is not a piece to say “I told you so”. No, for I am more shocked at the collective negativity that now consumes us a family, from rumours of fake cheers being played out at the London Stadium to the calls for Bilic to go. Wait, what happened to the bright new start that Bilic offered us after Sam? Last season, he could do no wrong. Now, he’s a disaster? Surely, if we are to believe he has the potential to be a great manager – and I still believe he can come good – then we owe it to our faith in him and our support for the club to give him a chance. If Allardyce can be given a season to turn it around, then Bilic can too. For those who last season were always angry at me for criticising Bilic, this is the time to not turn your back on him but believe that – if he is a great manager – this “crisis” is something that he can easily solve.

Bilic out is not the way forward. The chairmen and we as a club have cheered him since day one and now we must stick by him. If football has taught me anything, it is loyalty. If we go down – and I don’t think we will – then so be it: the majority wanted Allardyce out and we wanted Bilic. That’s football, that’s life.

And for Bilic, this is nothing new: the warning signs have been there all along. Conceding early and not starting well have been a trait of Bilic’s side since last season: against Norwich twice, Swansea at home, Newcastle away, to name but a few. Slow starts and turgid football were a hallmark of some first halves – even Southampton at home last season, where we were lucky to only be 1-0 down at half time and managed to win it in the end. Luck was on Bilic’s side last season. Now, he has to prove he can work a team when the luck is missing.

But similarly, I’m not saying back Bilic and don’t be worried: it is time for us to address the problems of last season that have become so evident now. Some are saying: don’t be worried, you only need to be worried when we’re bottom with ten games to go. Well, that’s not the way to look at it: if we don’t address the problems now and understand the weaknesses that exist, then we’re all fools.

At times of crisis, it is easy for us to argue and to – at worse – fight in the stands. Especially when the nature of the performances on the pitch leave us feeling incredibly gloomy about the state of the club in its new garb. I have only been to one match at the new stadium; my season ticket is being used by a friend while I work weekends until November. Therefore, I am not going to enter the stadium debate until I’ve experienced the place myself. However, regarding stewarding, policing and the placement of fans, my appointment for my seat was over a year ago, the owners have planned for this move for years and the stadium operators have also had plenty of planning time. Some of those problems should have been anticipated and prepared for.

This comes to the type of the club we now have: it is no longer at the Boleyn, it is in a new look area of East London. With that comes change but also expectation – a lot of that put forward by the owners themselves. Whatever you think of the stadium, the owners or the general set-up, we as fans must remember that we are the constant, we make the club what it is and we must stick together. So much talk these days is of the old football versus the new, big-money football. Now we are part of that and while we have to embrace that, we can also ensure we retain and keep what makes us what we are.

That means in some respects ignoring how we have become a PR driven club. The way the owners have to send out messages about turning things around, the way Payet’s free kick was turned into social media post after social media post to prove that we were on the way up again. That’s my main take away from the move: from the way fans are called customers to the PR heavy approach of the club to the recent dip in form: we are now clearly a business. But we as fans need to not throw away our tickets or protest that this is no longer our club. We need to shout louder and continue to fight for the soul of West Ham.

I would love to be back at the Boleyn. But I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m not going to go to the stadium for just one season and make my mind up and leave. I’m not going to argue that Bilic should leave, the owners should go, the players should be let off and start from scratch. We are a club going through a huge amount of change. And yes, the owners, bless them, didn’t realise the magnitude of that.

For some of us, the problems of Bilic’s side and the teething problems of the new stadium were expected and predicted. But that doesn’t matter. What matters now is sticking by the manager and expecting him to get the most out of the players. The manager, the team, the board – they all promised big things and they delivered last season. Let’s get behind the squad: that can mean calling them up on their deficiencies without wanting the manager or any of the players to pack it in. Yes, I hear the same argument that this is the West Ham way, one season we’re good and then we’re bad. Well, under Bilic it was meant to change. So let’s give him the time to prove that.

Match Preview

Making the most of the moment

Narratives are often palpable when they come full circle. Yet the story of West Ham’s last season at the Boleyn could create a less desirable narrative: losses in the first two league games – Leicester and Bournemouth – followed, possibly, by losses in the last two – Swansea and then Manchester United.

Of course, that is something I truly hope will not happen – but there is something creeping up in recent league and cup games that I find interesting: whether players or teams deal with pressure and the awe of big games well – or whether they fail to live up to the expectations of the moment.

It’s happened a lot recently: Spurs crumbling against Chelsea and then Southampton; Manchester City not showing up over two legs against Real Madrid; Newcastle not putting in a shift against Aston Villa and thus almost consigning themselves to relegation. And with West Ham, after all the hype of the last FA Cup game at the Boleyn and the last Saturday match at Upton Park – we never showed up at either games.

What is it that makes these teams – with a big game staring them in the face – not perform to their best abilities? That City performance still baffles me. For them to reach their first ever Champions League semi-final, a competition so difficult and challenging, and yet to not give a good showing of themselves is a disgrace to their fans and the badge they wear. While Spurs’ implosion against Chelsea was a delight, why they didn’t concentrate and focus when 2-0 up is beyond me.

That is the story of the season though. The one club that fully deserves its finishing position in the league is the team that has never given up and constantly put in 110% shifts: Leicester City. High-pressure games were never a source of discomfort for them; every time they were tested, they passed with flying colours. That 3-1 win against Manchester City at the Etihad a particularly good example.

West Ham’s biggest pressure game this year was arguably against Manchester United in the FA Cup, where a poor 60 minutes essentially killed off all hope. Did the moment get to the players? Possibly. Perhaps this team is better when the pressure is off: those away wins against Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City were matches where pundits assumed we would fail – and we didn’t. Yet when the expectation is on a win – like when we travelled to Tottenham and again against Swansea this weekend – we crumbled and lost 4-1 on both occasions. Perhaps this team, in its first year under Slaven Bilic, prefers to be the underdog rather than experience the weight of expectation?

I’m not sure that’s definitely the case but it’s a question worth discussing. After all, there is a huge level of expectation on the team next year – mainly because the club hierarchy has told us that will be the case. We are constantly told that this is a new start and we will be one of the big boys in the Premier League next season. Well, with that hype comes a need to perform – but of course, with an understanding that there will be hiccups because everything won’t change overnight.

Hence what I wrote last week: Europa over Champions League – not because I prefer the former but because I thought it was more realistic. A lot of people were rightfully not happy with that – and many said we could easily give Barcelona et all a run for their money. And then Swansea happened.

Tonight is arguably biggest game any of these players will play in a West Ham shirt. The atmosphere will not just be electric, it will be unique, a one-off – not even the first game at the Olympic Stadium will come close to it even though there’ll be nearly double the crowd at that game.

I want a win and we need a win – and the Boleyn deserves a final win.

Talking Point

Europa over the Champions League for me

  • I wrote this before the Chelsea-Spurs game – so a quick massive congratulations to Leicester City – faith in football restored.

Taking the train back home after the Leicester game, bar the anger at the last-minute refereeing mishap, there was an overwhelming sense of a season petering out – somewhat confirmed by the loss against Manchester United. Yet I was – not for the first time – wrong to despair and recent victories, combined with results going our way, make the next three games vital for a still realistic push for the Champions League. How wonderful it is that the last game at the Boleyn is not just against a “big club” – but a big club we could overtake if we win.

Yet is the goal to finish fifth or fourth – and even if it is the latter, a top-four place may not guarantee Champions League football if Manchester City win the competition this year.

But perhaps that is not so much of a worry – I have always been sympathetic towards the Europa League and felt its denigration by many fans and pundits unwarranted. For if you look at a club like West Ham – or even Leicester City – is a quick catapult into the Champions League the best for the team’s progression to creating a consistent presence among the elite of English football? I cannot predict how the Foxes will fair – there is an argument that their old-style of English play will knock Europe’s elites off balance.

But regarding West Ham, as we embark on “a new and exciting era” – a phrase I feel has been drummed into our heads relentlessly by the chairmen’s PR team – I don’t believe Champions League is necessarily a jump that needs to be taken so soon. For the Europa League, laughed at or complained about by many, is the perfect tournament to focus on next season – and Slaven Bilic is a man who has shown his appreciation of trophies over league places.

Look at the trophy’s history: yes it has been tarnished since it became called the Europa League, but back in 1994, Arsenal’s Cup Winners’ Cup win arguably set the stage – pre-Wenger – of a team on the up and ready for a Premier League challenge. Chelsea’s victory in 1998 a sign of things to come; and more importantly Liverpool’s dramatic triumph in 2001 surely helped prepare them for the Champions League stage, the player in that final – Gerrard, Carragher et al – all participating in that famous final in Istanbul.

Even more recent than that – Wolfsburg had a strong run in the Europa League last season and it provided European football, as well as exposure, for a certain player called Kevin De Bruyne. Now, a year later, Wolfsburg took Real Madrid all the way in their quarter-final in the Champions League and De Bruyne has been crucial to Manchester City’s best ever run in the competition.

In this age of elites, oligarchs and an abundance of money, trophies – the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Europa League – are being belittled time and time again, as if the only thing worth playing for was the league and the Champions League. How dull and one-dimensional football would be if only those two mattered, rather than understanding the joy that can come from other competitions – and the stepping stone they may provide.

On a final note, if we were to progress into the Europa League, I would actually enjoy the trips to far flung European cities, big and small, and to countries both known and unknown. There is something great about away days as they are – but something even more exciting about the opportunities the Europa League may afford.

Europa may not be seen as desirable – and it could even be seen as something of a disappointment for some who wish for something greater – but for me, it is the perfect competition for this side to learn from.

Copyright © 2018 Iain Dale Limited. Terms and conditions. Cookies.
Website by Russell Brown.