The S J Chandos Column
Slaven Bilic has told the club’s official website that he could not turn down the opportunity to return because he missed the Hammers in the 18 years that he was away. Of course, that period of absence included his abortive move to Everton, the end of his playing career in his native Croatia and his subsequent managerial career with Hajduk Split, the Croatian national side, Locomotiv Moscow and, latterly, Besiktas. And during that whole time he continually followed West Ham’s results wherever he happened to be anywhere in the world. He stated, ‘I followed West Ham wherever I was.’ Why? Well it seems that ‘once an Hammer, always a Hammer’ and it also seems the fan base has quite a bit to do with it. He asserts:
‘Once you play for West Ham, or once you have been connected with West Ham, it stays with you for life. I missed it during my time away from this club because it is a special club, a cult club, but what really makes West Ham special is the fans.’
This interview needs to be quoted because it provides the perfect antidote to the critical stuff coming from Sam Allardyce, upon his appointment as Sunderland’s new manager. I know that the comments are in response to the loaded questions of sports journalists, but why be drawn in to opening up old wounds with former clubs? A less supremely self-confident manager would have given a stalling, non-specific answer, and focused on his move to a new club. Yes, praise your new fan base, but avoid making negative comments about the fans of former clubs. The stuff relating to Mrs Allardyce reading the comments on the Hammers fans websites is classic. Negative or offensive comments on social media can only hurt you if you let it. There is always the ultimate option of logging off and staying away from it. Perhaps Mrs Allardyce should have tried that? Now (for the time being at least) all is ‘sweetness and light’ with the Sunderland fans. One Toon website did make me laugh when they made the essential point that the difference between Newcastle and Hammers fan (on one side) and Sunderland supporters (on the other) is that the former have actually experienced the football that Allardyce teams play at their worst! While the latter still have that dubious pleasure to come.
There were undoubtedly aggressive and offensive comments regularly posted about Allardyce during his managerial tenure. Some of it was unfair, some of it was OTT and some of the criticism was understandable. I always sought to be fair about Allardyce and attempted to provide a balanced appraisal and critique. One factor that was always worrying was Allardyce lack of respect for the traditions of the club, a questioning of the ‘West Ham Way’ that he has popularised, with the likes of Alex Ferguson and media types, like Alan Shearer, propagating that disrespect. Funny that – Alex Ferguson used to know what the ‘West Ham Way was’ and he clearly stated so on previous notable occasions, only to suffer a failure of comprehension by the time he re-published his biography with those added chapters. He has clearly acquired an antagonism towards the club after Man Utd lost two titles at Upton Park and, latterly, suffered a 4-0 league cup humiliation at the hands of Grant’s poor (destined for relegation) side of 2009/10. Generations of journalists knew as well, I grew up reading match and other reports that regularly waxed lyrical about the Academy, our footballing philosophy and role in winning the 1966 World Cup. Indeed in the 1960s and 1970s we were referred to as the ‘Aristocrats of English football.’ What a accolade, that has now apparently degenerated in to widespread, media disrespect. How that happened is another story!
Anyway, my minor rant over, back to Allardyce and Bilic. The reality is that Sam Allardyce created most of the problems that he had with the West Ham fans (I cannot comment on his relationship with the Toon fans). The questioning of our traditions and the cupping of the ear incident after that Hull City match were major low points. When he became Manager, I urged him to confound his critics and try to play attractive football within the playing resources at his disposal at that point. Yes, be direct on occasions, but also mix it up. Acquiring the Hammers post was a great opportunity to draw a line under the ‘long ball’ reputation that he so bitterly resented.Unfortunately he did not take that advice. Rather than do it voluntarily and early in his tenure, he was forced in to it as board policy in his final season at the club. And it has to be said (in fairness) that Allardyce’s improved squad (with superb players like Sakho, who he allegedly did not even want!) did play some very good stuff that season, especially prior to Christmas. But it become very obvious that a parting of the ways was inevitable at the conclusion of last season and rightly so. It is virtually impossible to argue for the retention of a manager with a record of 3 PL victories after Boxing Day. Although that record was conveniently forgotten when bewilderment at his exit was widely opined in the media!
Still, ‘what has been done, has been done’. Why cannot Allardyce just take pride in his ‘achievements’ over his four seasons at the club, leave out the controversial stuff and concentrate on his new club? In contrast, Bilic has handled his public relations expertly and with some considerable skill. I believe he has a genuine love for the club, but pragmatically, Bilic also knows the value of having the fans on-side. However, where Bilic also scores highly is with his ability to manage expectations and ground them where the club actually is in its ongoing development. Similarly, he is also very gracious to others and even publicly acknowledged the value of Allardyce’s work in the club’s resurgence and re-building the squad. It is a great that quality that many other managers really could learn from.
Incidently, and in conclusion, everyone talks about Bilic’s brief stint at the club, lasting under 18 months (January 1996-May 1997). But few recall that he very nearly re-joined the club after he was released by Everton. In fact, Bilic was training with the West Ham squad in pre-season and Harry Redknapp was very keen to sign him again on a free transfer. Only for the deal to be scuppered by the results of his medical, which revealed an underlying major injury. He subsequently returned to Hajduk Split and played for a final season until retiring and then entering management with his home town club.
So, there could have been an earlier second coming as a player in 2000. Instead, it happened in 2015, as Manager. If you doubt me, check it out! .