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.