West Ham have comfortably survived their first season back in the Premier League and should be delighted with their achievement.
Surviving again next season will be the real test for Sam Allardyce’s men, though, and preparation begins now. It is reasonable for the Hammers to fear that they will succumb to ‘second season syndrome’ because many teams before them have found themselves stricken with a severe dose of this illness. In fact, four sides — Reading, Hull City, Birmingham City and now QPR — have been relegated in their second Premier League seasons in the last six campaigns alone.
Then there are more dramatic cases to add to the mix, such as Ipswich Town, who, having been promoted to the top flight through the play-offs, finished fifth in the league and qualified for the UEFA Cup in 2000/2001, only to be dumped back into the First Division (as it was then) the following year. West Ham were themselves almost relegated in their second season back in the Premier League when they were last promoted under Alan Pardew in 2005. ‘The Great Escape’, which we, and Sheffield United, remember so well, came a year after the Hammers performed excellently during their first campaign back in England’s elite division and also reached the FA Cup final.
Why newly promoted sides go belly up in their second season in the Premier League could easily be attributed to confidence. When clubs come up from the Championship they do so as one of the best teams in the league and can often ride the resultant wave of confidence throughout the following season; their first with the big fish. Difficulties then arise during the following campaign when that confidence disappears and the stark reality of life as a small fish in a big pond hits home.
It would be easy for West Ham to be overwhelmed in such a way next season. They do, however, have experience on their side. The likes of Jussi Jaaskelainen, Kevin Nolan and even the relatively young Mark Noble will all have the wisdom the Hammers need to remain focused on consolidating their Premier League status. There is a lot of work that needs to be done though.
The first thing West Ham should do is secure Andy Carroll’s services with a permanent deal now his loan from Liverpool is set to expire. Recent reports suggest the Hammers are extremely keen to sign Carroll and talks are apparently underway. The fact he received the Chairmen’s Player of the Year award suggests the West Ham owners will do everything in their power to reach an agreement with the suits at Anfield.
The main hurdle Gold and Sullivan will have to leap over is, as it always is, money — Carroll will not come cheap. In fact, with the Geordie striker rumoured to be valued at £17m, West Ham will have to clear out a lot of dead wood to make enough funds available to be able to buy Carroll. When it comes to stripping away players whom the club could do without, a few names spring to mind immediately.
Matty Taylor has never done in claret and blue what we thought he was capable of when he arrived at Upton Park, so could easily be sold on. Modibo Maiga’s days as a West Ham player have been numbered for a while now; since before the January transfer window, in fact, when there was much speculation that he would be on his way back to France due to Allardyce being unhappy with the striker’s work rate. Alou Diarra actually made the hop over the Channel in January having forced a loan move to Rennes with scathing comments about Big Sam, so the veteran midfielder is bound to leave West Ham for good in the summer. Getting rid of those three players should free up a considerable amount in West Ham’s wage budget and hopefully raise a few million pounds for the Carroll deal.
Every Hammers fan will have their own opinion of who else the club should sign as they attempt to prepare the squad for another tough season in the Premier League, but there are some obvious areas that need strengthening. The first of those is up front. The West Ham attack has looked as sharp as a teaspoon at times this season, especially with Carroll being injured for long periods, so goalscoring reinforcements are a necessity for Allardyce’s side.
It is also agreed among the majority of the Claret and Blue Army that another goalkeeper should be brought in, even if he is just an understudy for Jussi, who, despite his heroics this season, is 38 years old now and cannot have many more games left in him. On top of those essential additions, a natural left-back could be required to replace George McCartney, who Joey O’Brien has had to deputise for due to long-term injury. The Hammers could also do with a replacement for Gary O’Neil, who can still be a useful squad player, but a stronger central midfielder may be required in case Noble or Mohamed Diame get injured.
This may actually prove to be a necessity if Diame follows Diarra out the exit door as rumours have long suggested he will do. Finally, because Joe Cole cannot play games in quick succession and Ricardo Vaz Te is worryingly inconsistent, another option may be needed on the right side of midfield. If and when West Ham have managed to acquire new players, embedding them into the team quickly is a must. One of the frustrations the Hammers faithful has faced this season is seeing their club’s summer signings take far too long to integrate themselves into the side and play to the best of their ability. Carroll, Matt Jarvis and, to a lesser extent, James Collins have all come good for West Ham, but late on in the season.
Ultimately though, no matter who West Ham do or do not recruit, the best way for them to survive again is if they put thoughts of relegation to the back of their minds and aim to exceed expectations by being more confident and adventurous going forward. After all, the team’s best results this season have come at home where they have been more attacking.