On Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to attend a Fans’ Forum at The Boleyn ground which featured Slaven Bilic, James Tomkins, Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson. This was a free event made available to season ticket holders, Academy and corporate members, as well as those who have joined the new stadium season ticket priority list. The format of the evening was a Q&A session and attendees were invited to submit questions for the quartet via email before the event.
You’ll notice that I haven’t added much in the way of personal comment or analysis to this account and that it’s simply a transcription of the evening’s events. That’s partly because it would make an already long article far too cumbersome and also because my intention was to give those of you who weren’t able to attend the Forum the experience of being there by proxy. I hope the Q&A format doesn’t prove tedious to read.
On arrival we were shown into the Legends Lounge to await our audience with the trio of players and West Ham’s new manager. As the bar began to fill up it was obvious that I wasn’t alone in wanting to get up close and personal with our new saviour and that our victory over Arsenal on Sunday has inspired renewed optimism and enthusiasm among the fans. The audience was probably twice as big as that as last season’s Forum, despite the fact that it had featured fans’ favourite Carlton Cole and our charismatic keeper Adrian.
We were finally allowed into the adjacent conference room and there was a real air of expectancy as around 200 fans scrambled for the best seats. West Ham’s Press Manager Paul Stringer was there to oversee the event and when he introduced Super Slav and his boys there was a standing ovation as they filed slightly self-consciously on to the stage.
Despite his air of quiet confidence there’s also a degree of shyness about Slaven Bilic and he broke the ice by drawing attention away from himself and on to a fan’s lovely black Labrador guide dog. So he’s an animal lover ….. he just went up another notch in my estimation.
The first question was inevitably directed at Mr Bilic and a member of the audience asked him to give us some technical insight into his approach to the Arsenal game. He began by saying that we’ve made a great start; especially in view of the fact that it was a local derby against a side that we haven’t beaten for 9 years and one which has had a very good pre-season. He also hoped that we’ve all enjoyed having the bragging rights over our Arsenal supporting friends this week, which inevitably caused much mirth among the audience. He went on to say that he was particularly proud that we did it in such style and that he is very proud of our team.
As far as his tactics for the game were concerned he said he asked the team to focus on which Arsenal players they had to challenge so that they didn’t have a chance to do anything with the ball. He claimed that it wasn’t that difficult to keep the ball as Arsenal are not ‘ball takers’. He said that what our squad did brilliantly was to show such determination and to demonstrate an ability to play a real ‘thinking’ game. In other words, they engaged their football brains.
Slaven said the team had taken the day off on Monday so this was the first time they had been back together to celebrate our victory. He said that it had been a very special day and that we should all take confidence from it. However, he also said that we can’t afford to be complacent; and his actual words were:
“It was a great win but if we think we are that good then we are dead, dead, dead.”
The next question was aimed at Aaron Cresswell and James Tomkins and a fan wanted to know what they felt had changed at the club since Slaven’s arrival. Tonks answered for them both and his first comment was that Sam Allardyce did a great job at West Ham. He went on to say that the players’ priority now was to impress Slaven and that they were all embracing a new job and a new beginning. He said that Bilic gave them the confidence that they could beat Arsenal and that it had been a massive turnaround from their pre-season, especially as “the gaffer” and some of the squad members don’t yet know each other.
Slaven was then asked what the three biggest things are that he’d like to change at West Ham and what finish he is targeting in the Premier League. He was also at pains to say what a great job Sam did at the club and that he has given us great stability. He highlighted our fantastic start to last season and said that although the second half had not been so good he thought we had been very unlucky with injuries. He said that Sam has left him with a good situation to build upon and called it a “quality cornerstone.” He described West Ham as “a good club, not a massive club, but a good club” and said that he saw this as a great opportunity to bring in some new players who would help the existing squad members to improve by 10 or 15 per cent. He stressed that he wanted to hold on to the talent we have and that he was very disappointed that Stewart Downing left as he hadn’t wanted to lose him.
He went on to say that his aim is to play total football like Barcelona (!) and his priority is to “do the job properly.” He acknowledged that this Saturday’s game against Leicester could be difficult but that we will be attacking space and players as well as defending. He said that we will have ups and downs but he’s trying to instil self-belief into our squad. He said:
“Some players believe, some don’t, but we got the proof at Arsenal.”
The next member of the audience wanted to know what our points target will be for this season. Bilic said that he doesn’t think that way – he called it “the England way” and said that he finds that “very scary.” He doesn’t automatically think that if we don’t reach 40 points that we will go down and his approach to every game is to play good football rather than focusing on the points. He is obviously aiming as high as possible but hasn’t set himself a specific target. He was emphatic in his optimism that we won’t be facing relegation at the end of the season and he said that he “know(s) we can do it.”
Aaron Cresswell was then asked why he made the decision to stay at West Ham when he had had offers from other clubs such as Man City and Chelsea. It raised a great laugh in the audience when he quipped “you’re first person who’s told me I had offers.” He went on to say that he was immensely proud to have signed a new deal with us and that he was looking forward to exciting times ahead with the Slaven.
Carl Jenkinson was then grilled about the unusual move to sign two consecutive one year loan deals. He said that he always knew that he wanted to come back to us but that Arsenal “hold all the aces” and that the decision was really out of his hands. He was at great pains to say that he’s always wanted to stay at West Ham and that he’s loved his football here.
This was followed by a heart-warming moment when a very young fan called Finley, who has been a regular at these events and is known to some of the players, told James Tomkins how he had used him as his inspiration for a school project which had earned him top of the class and his head teacher’s special award. He then cheekily asked Tonks if he could trade his project for his match day boots, which earned a big laugh to go with his top marks. Inevitably James agreed, which resulted in one very happy little Hammer. Finley then went on to ask Tonks whether he expected us to qualify for the Europa League again this season (presumably through the front door this time) and Tomkins said they would be taking it one game at a time and trying not to get too carried away with the Arsenal result but that they were all hoping for a top half finish and to be pushing for the Europa League.
An older fan followed on from this by asking Slaven about the combination of ‘kids’ and more senior players that he selected for this season’s Europa League games. He wondered whether he had been “caught between two stalls” and if in hindsight Slaven thought he should have played the academy squad all through the competition. Slaven explained that it hadn’t been a normal pre-season and that many players had struggled to play three games a week. He admitted that his priority was “to not jeopardise the Premier League.” He said that ideally he would have liked players on the pitch for only 45 or 60 minutes at a time but that the depth of our squad meant that he’d had to play the majority of them for 90 minutes. His strategy was to try to qualify with our best squad at home but to go with ‘kids’ and a less strong team for the away games. He recapped the question ‘why not use all kids?’ and admitted that in hindsight he wished that he had used all academy players for the tournament but didn’t because he wanted to go through.
The next fan to speak said that the consensus on social media is that we need another winger and he asked Aaron Cresswell if he could see himself pushing forward to play on the left wing like Gareth Bale (I wish). Cressy said that he really prefers the left back position but that he would be happy to play anywhere that Slav asks of him.
All three defenders were then asked if they had enjoyed their stints playing out of their normal positions. James Tomkins responded by saying that he’d only played at right back a handful of times and that the position was still very new to him. He said that the gaffer had given him the confidence that he could play there and that the experience “didn’t get much tougher than playing at Arsenal at right back.” Despite finding it challenging he said that he had enjoyed it and that he could really see how playing in different positions could improve him as a player. It raised a few laughs when he and Jenks exchanged looks as he said that he understands Carl’s perspective much better now and that he was less likely to “have a go at him” on the pitch.
Aaron Cresswell was also asked if the left back spot in the Euros is in the back of his mind and he said that while he would love to play for his country he’s concentrating on his job at West Ham for now.
The subject then got on to the one and only Terminator: Julian Dicks. Slav was asked which of Dicksy’s qualities had convinced him that he was right for the role as assistant coach and he replied that there were so many. He cited the fact that they had played together as being very important and that he considered Julian to have been a great captain. He also said the fact that they had been roomies had made them very close. He explained that although the spine of his team came from Croatia and Germany he felt that it is always important to have a minimum of two ‘local’ members in his back room staff. He clearly feels a genuine bond with Julian Dicks and went on to describe him as a good and loyal man – “Mr West Ham United.” He said that although they were different players they share a very similar philosophy to football and to life and dramatically said:
“He is my gift from God.”
Unsurprisingly Slaven continued to be the focus of attention and the next person to pose a question asked him what clinched his decision to come to West Ham and this country. Slav said that although we had our ups and downs in the two seasons that he was here, he felt that he played the best football of his career at Upton Park and that he had even enjoyed the bad days. He said that West Ham was a good family club then and that’s still true today. It felt genuine when he said:
“I consider West Ham United as my club. I feel really connected to England – my son was born here.”
He added that every manager’s ambition is to work in the Premier League, so even though he felt very drained after his role in Turkey came to an end and that he had planned a period of rest, that plan was soon forgotten when he got the call from West Ham and he found a renewed sense of energy at the prospect of managing us.
The mention of Turkey took us on to the next question when a fan cited the fact that Bilic took Besiktas to the Champions League and Europa League. He wanted to know how far West Ham has to go before we can aspire to the same level. Slaven’s response was realistic and he said that it was important to realise that there are more chances to qualify in Turkey than there are in the Premier League in England. He assured the audience that he will do everything possible to qualify in the next few years but to bear in mind that it was easier to achieve in Turkey.
Next we were asked to cast our minds back to an episode of Saint and Greavsie when it was suggested that Slaven had chosen to move to Everton in 1997 because he thought they were a bigger club. This particular fan wanted to know if Slav still considered Everton to be a bigger club today. Mr Bilic squirmed a little at this question. He replied that at that time Croatia had a good national team and he admitted that when he was awarded Footballer of the Year in Croatia the accolade went to his head. He said that he had been impressed by the ambition of Everton’s Chairman, Peter Johnson, to win the league but that he had asked them to wait until the end of the season so that he could see out his term at West Ham. Initially Everton were annoyed by this and had wanted him to leave by the March deadline but ultimately they praised him for his loyalty when he insisted that he couldn’t leave West Ham until the end of the season. He smiled wryly when he said that the following season he’d got nowhere near the promised Champions League with Everton. He went on to say that he still wouldn’t say that West Ham is a bigger club than Everton but that we are in a growth period and our move to the Olympic Stadium coupled with our ambitious Chairmen will take us to the next level.
The next subject to come up was transfers, when a member of the audience asked Bilic if Carlton Cole is still on standby if we don’t sign Austin or Hernandez. Slav was quick to assure us that they are actively seeking to add a quality striker to the squad, particularly now that Enner Valencia is going to be out for 10-12 weeks. He called this a big blow but was also keen to report that Andy Carroll is now fit and injury free and his decision to use him will depend on his fitness level. Despite this he’s still very keen to add one more striker but admitted that it’s very frustrating when you can’t get what you want. He said unfortunately it feels like the whole world is trying to sign a striker and at times even those with a much bigger budget struggle in this pursuit. However, he did confirm that:
“We are close to finishing one deal.”
This prompted the question of whether he is looking for a regular starter or a backup striker and he described his choice as “not a typical backup.” He said that strikers are special people and that he doesn’t want too many. If they’re left on the bench for too long it begins to affect their confidence and the art is in trying to achieve a balance. He said he wants a versatile striker who will compete for a place; we already have quality and it’s important not to overload the squad.
The focus moved back to our trio of defenders and they were asked who they would consider to be the hardest striker to play against and which defender they would like playing alongside them in their dream team. Carl Jenkinson answered first and he said that Eden Hazard would be his most formidable opponent. He then mentioned ‘Robin’ and said that he was in a similar mould. Although he was meant to be choosing a fellow defender I can only think that he was referring to Robin van Persie as being in a similar mould to Hazard. James Tomkins then went on to choose Torres during his time at Liverpool as his most feared striker and he said that he was “on fire in his prime.” Tonks would most like our very own Rio Ferdinand alongside him in the defensive line and said that he would love a career like his. Aaron Cresswell also chose Hazard as his biggest hazard (pun completely intended) and made the morally debateable but technically understandable choice of John Terry as his dream team mate.
Next they were asked how close our centre backs are which caused a bit of laughter and innuendo that wouldn’t look out of place on WHTID. The questioner went on to clarify that he meant how they are helping new players to settle in? Tonks said that Angelo Ogbonna hadn’t needed any special help to settle in and he attributed this to the fact that West Ham really is like a family. He described the squad as being very close and tight-knit and laughed as he said:
“There must be something in the air at Chadwell Heath. I’m not a morning person but there I find myself high-fiving everyone in the mornings!”
The laughing continued when somebody asked James Tomkins which top centre halves he would compare Reece Oxford to and he replied “he’s a holding midfielder isn’t he?” In a more serious tone he said that Reece has proved himself to be a really versatile player and that he did exceptionally well on Sunday. He went on to say that with the right mind-set and discipline our prodigious talent can be as good as he wants to be.
The focus stayed on the younger members of our squad when Slaven Bilic was asked if he was going to blood more of our youngsters or if they would be going out on loan. He confirmed that some will be loaned out to other clubs as it would be selfish for him to keep them purely as backup to our first team. He said obviously he will be keeping Reece Oxford plus a few more who are looking promising but he didn’t name names.
Next Aaron Cresswell was asked how he motivated himself to work his way back into the Premier League after he found himself at Tranmere Rovers following his release by Liverpool. He said that at the age of 14 it’s not about money so it wasn’t the end of the world when Liverpool let him go. He used his time at Tranmere to learn his trade and then spent 3 really good years at Ipswich. He said his advice to young players in a similar position would be to never give up.
James Tomkins was highlighted as being one of the longest serving players at West Ham and a fan asked him how things have changed at the club since he joined. Tonks said that he has seen many different management ideas since he made his debut under Alan Curbishly, who he cited as a very stable manager. He said he felt that same stability with Sam Allardyce but now he was looking for us to grow into something better under the new gaffer and that things feel very good right now. As Tonks said:
“The only way is up.”
The evening took a more light hearted turn when somebody asked James Tomkins to choose his favourite crowd chant or song, apart from Bubbles, and whether he could entertain us with a verse. He claimed that the only ones he could remember were unrepeatable and that he has a terrible voice anyway but he did say that hearing Bubbles, especially at away games, always gives him goose bumps. He said that our support at Arsenal was brilliant (thank you James) and that it hadn’t gone unnoticed that every West Ham fan and even some of the Arsenal fans stayed in the stadium to applaud the players at the end of the game.
Staying with the Arsenal theme Jenks was then put under the spotlight when he was asked how it felt to see us beat them so emphatically. He didn’t hesitate in his response when he said:
“I’m a West Ham player now, I want a good season and I felt no mixed allegiance …. I was happy, over the moon.”
This lead on to Slaven being asked about what was going through his head at the final whistle on Sunday. He said:
“I was very happy. It’s hard to say …. up …. high. When I played Reece Oxford I knew what would happen if it didn’t work out …. I felt relief and very proud.
Bilic was then asked if he would be playing our strongest teams in the FA Cup this season. He replied that with a bit of good form and luck he thinks we have a good chance in the cups this year and that he’s ambitious and looking forward to both of them. He went on to say:
“We aren’t going to take those cups just like that. Maybe I’m crazy but if somebody said to me you should only aim for the semi-final of the FA Cup and League Cup I’d say ‘no thanks’ because I believe we can win.”
The last word of the evening went to the young Hammer called Finley who asked what had been the biggest impact of the new players. Slav’s response was that he needs all the players to do their job and his plan is to improve a squad that’s already good. He said that they all have good qualities but that his focus is on bringing in new players who can make those around them even better. He finished by saying how optimistic he is for the season.
Inevitably the questions were carefully vetted and selected by the club’s PR team beforehand so there was never going to be anything controversial thrown at Slaven and the players but I still felt a candidness and honesty that’s been somewhat missing from our manager’s rhetoric in recent years.
Formalities over, the evening concluded with the opportunity for the audience to speak to Slaven and the players and to obtain any photographs or autographs that they desired. There were a lot of people to get through so while Slaven held court in his seat on the stage our personable young defenders made their way along the queue chatting and laughing with the fans as they scribbled and posed. I waited patiently along with the rest of them and was rewarded by a warm handshake and a quick chat with Super Slav as he signed my bits and pieces …. and no, that’s not a euphemism. Mind you, my friend was considering asking him to sign some very unusual items. He’s a very charismatic man is our Slav.
On the way out we bumped into our trio of defenders in the foyer of the hotel and they were very happy to stop and chat some more. I couldn’t resist pulling Jenks’ leg about the Arsenal game and he said that he’d watched it on his own at home. I suggested that he was sitting there on his sofa in his Arsenal scarf which he took in very good humour but he insisted that he’s a Hammer now so we said we’d let him off with one of those horrible half and half scarves.
Obviously this was a PR exercise but I didn’t come away feeling ‘spun’. I was left with the impression that we now have a very honest and straightforward manager who values the thinking game and that our players are as impressed with him as I am. Slaven, I share your optimism for our future.