After 18 long years away, Slaven Bilic is back at Upton Park. Now 46, and with a few more grey hairs, the fan favourite has returned to lead West Ham United into the Olympic Stadium. Entrusted by co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan with the responsibility of succeeding Sam Allardyce, the Croatian has arguably taken the reigns at the most important time in the club’s 115 year history.
With just 11 months before the Hammers make the move to Stratford, Bilic has been charged with keeping West Ham clear of relegation while adding style and flair to the substance produced in the Allardyce years – all against a backdrop of playing Europa League football.
It’s not a job for the faint hearted, but one the former Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas boss intends to take in his stride. ‘I’m really glad to be back,’ he explained after his appointment was announced. ‘West Ham are a special club. I love these kinds of special clubs. My last club, Besiktas, was that kind of club. It’s not about the size – West Ham is big club – there is something special about them – they are a cult clubs. ‘It is a great place to play and I felt like I was at home. It is a big privilege and a big responsibility.’
Having been linked with the likes of Rafa Benitez, who ended up at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp there was a sense Bilic was something of the back-up option. However, despite professing his love for the club, Bilic, who was originally signed by Harry Redknapp and spent 18 months in east London before leaving, says his desire to manage in the Premier League would not have been enough had he not felt the right chemistry when he sat down with the owners at David Sullivan’s house.
In every sense he was interviewing the club as much as they were him. ‘My first priority when choosing a club is to look at its ambitions,’ he explained. ‘When I spoke to the chairmen and Karren Brady, they made clear that it is not only the fantastic new stadium we are moving into, but they showed their determination and ambition to make what is a big club even bigger. ‘I saw their determination and passion that they want to do that. That was the number one reason. I could feel that they really wanted me so it was an easy choice.
‘I would say to the West Ham fans that I will give my best and together we will achieve great things.’ Unlike his predecessor, Bilic will benefit from a surge off goodwill from the terraces. While Allardyce mocked the fabled ‘West Ham way’ in his very first interview, Bilic will embrace it. The supporters’ love for Bilic is driven by twin factors. His performances on the pitch and his perceived loyalty off of it.
When West Ham elected to sell him for £4.5million to Everton in March 1997, the defender insisted the deal was delayed until the end of the season as he wanted to ensure the Hammers stayed in the Premier League – ‘I owe this club a great debt’ – something that was eventually achieved by just two points. Such things are not forgotten in East London. It is perhaps surprising that, given his reputation as being a natural leader, Bilic was at first a reluctant convert to management.
‘It was never my plan to become a coach,’ he revealed in an interview with the Guardian. ‘But then my club Hajduk Split called and I had to answer, so I caught the coaching virus. Later, I stayed with two of the best managers at the time – Arsène Wenger at Arsenal and Marcello Lippi at Juventus, studying their methods and approach.
‘They only confirmed what I always felt was right, but what stood in stark contrast with the old-school dogmas in former Yugoslavia: you don’t have to be a tyrant to earn the respect of your players. The only authority you need is the authority of knowledge.’ Knowledge, of course, is something Bilic has in abundance. The law degree graduate is as comfortable talking about different football philosophies as he is the respective merits of zonal and man to man marking.
‘My opinion is that formations are slowly dying out and a large number of experts will confirm that,’ he added. ‘It has become increasingly difficult to mark the movement of the players, with regards to the ball, just by assigning numbers to each line.
‘Fluidity is much more important – you want your team to stay compact, and your lines to remain close to one another, so they can flow over. You need to make sure that no gaps emerge, and that tends to happen often to teams who play with strict lines. A quality opponent will always find your weak spot and massacre you.’
But that doesn’t mean the system is any less important. ‘Organisation and automatism are the foundations for everything – only if you have that, will the individual quality of your players show in a positive way. ‘I will never underestimate the value of individualism and inspiration – but without a solid system, improvisation is just anarchy. And anarchy can also sometimes bring you a result, sometimes even better than your established schemes, but it cannot be a long-term solution.
Tim Sherwood he is not.
Nevertheless, while his sides have been known for playing attacking football, Bilic insists he will never prioritise attacking football over results. ‘It’s pure pragmatism,’ he explains. ‘Of course I prefer a passing, possession-based attacking game more than destructive, defensive play, but you have to look at what’s best for the team with regards to the players at your disposition. ‘When I took the Croatia job, my assistants and I analysed our pool of players and realised we’re much better covered in attacking positions. We concluded that our chances against the stronger teams will be better if we try to build our play with more offensive players. If we decided to go the other way, we just wouldn’t be as good and the players would be unhappy.
‘But even though we use many offensive-minded players, solid defence is the foundation of our play. You can never score as many goals as you can concede if your defence is porous. You know, for a long time the people have been saying that strikers are the first line of defence, but that was just a phrase intended to motivate the team. ‘However, today the strikers have the obligation to fulfil their defensive assignments, and that especially goes to my boys.
While Bilic enjoyed success managing the relative underdogs in Croatia and Besiktas, some have questioned whether he will be able to cope in the pressure cooker that is the Premier League. For the manager though, the high stakes should inspire and not hinder performance. ‘Pressure is important for every job – a journalist will generally write a better article if he’s under pressure or if he writes for a better newspaper. But the key is to channel that pressure into positive energy: you want it to be a drive, not burden. And that’s what the English do best.
‘In the Premier League you learn how to overcome fear and negative emotions, how not to dread what might happen but stay motivated and fight the best you can for your team.’