To paraphrase The Who – ‘meet the new boss, nothing like the old boss’. After all the talk of contenders with Champions League victories, league titles and World Cup experience to their names, West Ham’s choice for the most important managerial appointment in club history is Slaven Bilic.
It might be stating the obvious to say the most striking thing about the 46-year-old Croatian is that he’s not Sam Allardyce, but at the same time, it’s very true. Allardyce barged his way into the club with a cry of ‘so what is this West Ham Way business then?’. Bilic has arrived talking excitedly about the ‘big privilege and big responsibility’ of being manager – in other words, genuine enthusiasm. If the elusive West Ham Way is a state of mind, rather than anything more tangible, then it is definitely one that Bilic shares with fans. When he arrived from Karlsruher in January 1996, Bilic was 27 and at his playing peak. His physical presence, seemingly telescopic legs and all-round defensive dominance provided a welcome mix of finesse and steeliness.
When he departed for Everton just a year and a half later, there was a genuine sense of disappointment at the Boleyn, but it soon began to look like a wise move, as increasingly frequent injuries took the edge off his game. That was someone else’s problem, however, and in the eyes of many West Ham fans, Super Slav remained one of their own, and as his managerial career has progressed, he has stayed in their thoughts.
Having been a key player for his country in the 1990s as Croatia emerged on the world football stage and rapidly built a formidable reputation, upon his retirement Bilic began learning his managerial craft at his first club, Hajduk Split, before famously denying Steve McClaren’s England a place at Euro 2008.
Since then Bilic has coached in Russia and Turkey, dealing with some of the most demanding and high-pressure playing environments in world football, all the time improving his credentials and reputation. Then, finally, nearly 20 years after he left West Ham fans thinking ‘if only we could have seen more’, he has come back to answer that call.
Clearly, West Ham made as big an impact on Bilic as vice versa, and his enthusiasm for the role is palpable. He may not have the medal collection of Rafael Benitez, the cool of Jurgen Klopp, or the managerial endorsement of Pep Guardiola as Marcelo Bielsa has, but he has one thing that has been agonisingly absent from the West Ham dugout for years – passion. Fortune may finally be out of hiding, and for what feels like the first time in ages, West Ham fans have a reason to smile.