Dan Coker's Match Preview
With England playing Croatia in the Nations League tomorrow, the first part of my look at West Ham’s Croatian Connections focuses on two former Hammers who also played for and managed their country.
Slaven Bilic was born in Split on 11th September 1968 and began his professional career with Hajduk Split, making his first appearance for the club in the 1988/89 season, following loan spells with Primorac and Sibenik. After 109 appearances for Hajduk, the central defender moved to German club Karlsruhe in 1993 for a fee of £750,000. Bilic was soon appointed as the club’s captain and, in doing so, became the first-ever foreign player to be named club captain in Bundesliga history. He was voted the best centre-back in the Bundesliga after helping Karlsruhe reach the semi-final of the 1993/94 UEFA Cup.
Bilic, a law graduate fluent in German, English and Italian as well as his native Croatian, signed for Harry Redknapp’s West Ham United for £1.3m in January 1996. Due to a delay in the granting of his work permit, the 27-year-old had to wait a few weeks for his first start before making his debut in the 1-0 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane on 12th February 1996, playing a part in Dani’s early winning goal. Bilic did not taste defeat in any of his first five matches as a Hammer as the club went on to beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge and defeat title hopefuls Newcastle 2-0 at the Boleyn Ground, before a 2-2 draw at Coventry and 2-0 home victory against Middlesbrough. Indeed Bilic would not be part of a losing Hammers team at home until September 1996 when Wimbledon triumphed 2-0 in east London. Bilic would also play every minute of Croatia’s run to the quarter-finals of Euro ’96, where they would be defeated by eventual winners Germany.
Bilic’s first goal in claret and blue arrived on the 25th September 1996 in a 1-0 League Cup second-round second-leg encounter with Barnet at Upton Park, the Hammers going through 2-1 on aggregate. The classy, commanding defender scored his first Premier League goal just four days later but Liverpool went on to record a 2-1 win in east London. As the club became embroiled in a winter relegation scrap and were dumped out of the League Cup by lowly Stockport, ‘Super Slav’ set the side on the way to a crucial home win over fellow strugglers Sunderland, scoring the first goal in a 2-0 victory on 28th December 1996. It was to be his final goal in a West Ham shirt. Experiencing further cup embarrassment at the hands of Wrexham in the third round of the FA Cup, the signings of John Hartson, Paul Kitson and Steve Lomas ensured the Hammers’ Premier League survival – Bilic was named runner-up to Julian Dicks in the Hammer of the Year poll for 1996/97, signing off at Upton Park by keeping Alan Shearer quiet in a 0-0 draw with Newcastle. Bilic’s final game for West Ham came in a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford against champions Manchester United on 11th May 1997.
After three goals in 54 West Ham United appearances, Bilic signed for Everton in a £4.5m deal in the summer of 1997 – these three goals can be seen in my video below. The move had been agreed in March with then-Everton boss Joe Royle but Bilic claimed he had a debt of loyalty to West Ham to stay with the club until the end of the season to ensure the Hammers’ top-flight status was preserved. When he signed for Everton, the late Howard Kendall had taken over for a third spell with the Merseyside club.
Bilic impressed as Croatia reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup in France; however, his exaggerated response to a raised hand by Laurent Blanc in the semi-final against the host nation ensured the French defender was sent off and consequently missed the final. Bilic went on to ensure Croatia finished third in the tournament. Bilic looked set for a return to West Ham in July 1999 as Harry Redknapp sought to reunite him with the ever-developing Rio Ferdinand but concerns about the Croatian’s long-term fitness, and doubts about securing insurance following his pelvic problems, scuppered the deal. Redknapp signed Bilic’s international team-mate Igor Stimac instead while Bilic remained in limbo for the next six months, until an agreement for a £1m pay-off was reached in February 2000, representing around half of the balance remaining on his Everton contract which still had just over two years to run. After 28 appearances for the Toffees, Bilic re-joined Hajduk Split 48 hours later, playing nine matches before announcing his retirement.
Bilic, a rhythm guitarist in a Croatian rock band and self-proclaimed socialist, began his managerial career with Hajduk Split in 2001 and became coach of the Croatian Under-21 side in 2004. After two years he took over the reigns of the full Croatia side, enjoying a successful six-year spell which included knocking England out at the qualification stage for Euro 2008. He was appointed manager of Lokomotiv Moscow in 2012 where he spent a season before joining Besiktas.
After two years in Turkey, Bilic was announced as Sam Allardyce’s replacement at West Ham United. ‘Super Slav’ made an excellent start, defeating Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City away from home, making West Ham the first team to win at those three Premier League clubs in the same season for ten years, since Chelsea in 2005/06. The win at Anfield was the Hammers’ first there for 52 years – Bilic stated that “we parked the bus but we didn’t put the handbrake on”. Home wins over reigning champions Chelsea and Tottenham served to further endear Bilic to the Upton Park faithful before a 3-2 win over Manchester United in the final Boleyn match of all-time saw Super Slav in tears on the touchline at the final whistle. The Hammers finished seventh and reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, having knocked out Europa League finalists Liverpool along the way – it was the Hammers’ highest league finish for 14 years and the club’s first top-flight positive goal difference since 1985/86.
Following the move to London Stadium, Slav led the Irons to another cup quarter-final and an 11th-placed finish, becoming the first manager in Hammers history to record top-11 finishes in his first two top-flight seasons. Slav’s Hammers beat Tottenham at Wembley in October 2017 to reach the last eight of the League Cup, the first time the club had reached Cup quarter-finals in three consecutive seasons since 1989-91. Slav and the club parted ways in November 2017 – now 50, he was part of ITV’s team at the 2018 World Cup and is currently manager of Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Professional League.
Igor Stimac was born in Metkovic on 6th September 1967 and began his professional career with Hajduk Split in the mid-1980s. He also had a loan spell at Dinamo Vinkovci. After 64 appearances for Hajduk, the central defender moved to Spanish club Cadiz in 1992.
Stimac returned to Hajduk two years later before signing for Derby in October 1995 for £1.5m, helping the Rams to promotion to the Premier League in his first season. Stimac won 53 caps for Croatia, scoring two goals and appearing for his country at Euro ’96 and the 1998 World Cup.
After four years in the east Midlands, Stimac joined West Ham in late August 1999 for £600,000. With the Hammers experiencing a defensive injury crisis, the 32-year-old made his debut in a 1-0 home win over Watford on 11th September 1999. Stimac scored his only goal for the Irons in a 2-2 draw at Newcastle on 3rd January 2000, a match which also saw him captain the team – this goal can be seen in my video below. He was sent off twice for the Hammers – once in a goalless home draw with Chelsea on 18th March 2000 and again in a 1-0 home defeat to Leicester on 23rd August 2000. His final appearance for the club came in a 3-0 home win over Southampton on 5th May 2001. Having made 52 appearances for West Ham, scoring one goal, Stimac returned to his home country for a third spell at Hajduk Split in the summer of 2001.
Stimac became manager of Hajduk Split in 2005 before becoming boss of fellow Croatian side Cibalia the following year. He was named manager of NK Zagreb in 2009, spending a year with the club. Stimac replaced Bilic as Croatia manager in 2012 but, a year later, he tendered his resignation to Davor Suker, his former West Ham and Croatia team-mate and president of the Croatian FA (more on Suker in Part 2).
Stimac was named manager of Croatian club side Zadar in 2015 but quit after six months. He became head coach of Iranian club Sepahan in November 2015 but resigned in April 2016. Now 51, Stimac was most recently manager of Qatari club Al-Shahania, joining the side in 2016 before leaving the following year.