‘This is my club. I played the best football of my career here’

Slaven Bilic tells Marcus Johns why this is more than just business

As the Premier League campaign reignites itself in the early weeks of the season, already managers are beginning to make rash, bold statements. The final whistle goes, and hurting from the defeat, managers are rushed straight in front of the media where more often than not they proceed to shoot straight from the hip, waving goodbye to rhyme and reason.

Not so with Slaven Bilic. Every time he speaks, you can tell it is with careful consideration, thought and planning. Something which appears to transcend across to his team. Gone already are the panicked long punts into the box hoping to find a West Ham head. His patient and calculated approach is already beginning to show through. With Bilic, you suspect that preparation is key in every way – none more so apparent than when he was discussing the Arsenal game

‘The players now think about the game. Against Arsenal, we wanted some of their players to have the ball. Not all of them – not Cazorla, not Ramsey . When they have the ball, we attack them. But others, we could rest in our positions. The theory is simple, but in practice – that is where it matters, and the players did this brilliantly. But it is just a start. The confidence is now there, but there is much more hard work to do.

‘The players now think about the game. Against Arsenal, we wanted some of their play ‘Some people have tried to call it total football….but I don’t know. Maybe Barcelona can play and say ‘ok, let’s let our opponents have a few chances, we’ll get 25 ourselves’ but even they have times where they need players behind the ball against good opponents. It is not to sacrifice your attacking, but doing the job properly. We spent the few days before the game telling everyone ‘come on, we can do it’. Some believed, some didn’t some say maybe. But they played the way I wanted – and they did it extremely well but it is still early days.’ ers to have the ball. Not all of them – not Cazorla, not Ramsey . When they have the ball, we attack them. But others, we could rest in our positions. The theory is simple, but in practice – that is where it matters, and the players did this brilliantly. But it is just a start. The confidence is now there, but there is much more hard work to do.

Early days indeed. Early days into the season, into Bilic’s reign and also into a new philosophy at the club that has already seen an excitement from the fans that wasn’t there under Allardyce. Not that Bilic is prepared to hear anything bad said about his predecessor. ‘I have to say that Sam did a great job. It’s a very stable club. We’re not a massive club, so stability is important – which is a situation for me to build on, a very good cornerstone. Watching last year I thought it was a good season. The first part was probably the best part of a season West Ham has had for many years. The second part, not so good. But they were unlucky injuries, unlucky results, and perhaps a little bit of a lack of motivation when the team knew they were safe.

Not that you can imagine motivation being a problem with the imposing figure of Bilic watching over you, especially with Julian Dicks alongside him. A name that at its mere mention brings a huge grin to Slaven’s face. ‘Wherever I manage, I have my usual team of two from Croatia and one from Germany, but I always like to have a local coach – but one who I trust, and I can have in what I call my first ring (of confidants). With Julian, we played together, he was my captain, he was my room-mate and he was my friend. He was a great captain, he’s a great coach and he’s very loyal. But this is not just a friendly appointment. His football knowledge is great, and he has a superb philosophy. He’s great for this club as he is Mr West Ham. We are close, but also very different. As you have seen, I sometimes need half an hour to say something, but Julian comes in, says five things and pow! He’s nailed it. For me he’s a gift from God!’

A gift from God he may be for Slaven, but also for us West Ham fans. One of the things that was perceived to be lacking under the previous regime was a passion for the club. Not so with Bilic ‘I always say West Ham is my club. I played the best football of my career here and enjoyed every moment. It really felt like a family. After I left, I used to check with people, and everyone says it’s the same. Sure, different faces, but same ethos. It’s a very special club, in a city I love – my son was born here – and when you throw in the fact it’s the Premier League. Wow. That’s every manager’s ambition.

‘I’ll be honest, after managing Besiktas, part of me wanted a rest. I really enjoyed my time in Turkey, but it is intense. When I made the decision to resign, it was with a plan to take a few months out to rest. But when the West Ham chairman called, I suddenly say “I don’t want a rest.”’ With his affinity towards West Ham so obvious, it begs the question as to why he ever left us in the first place ‘At the time, I’d been voted Sportsman of the Year back in Croatia. The National Team was doing well and suddenly everyone was asking me why I was involved in relegation battles and not winning trophies, or competing in the Champions League. Then Everton came in with a plan on how they were going to start challenging for the titles, how they had money to spend and where they wanted to get to and I believed it. They had wanted me before the March deadline, but I knew West Ham had tough games coming up, so I said no, I’ll sign at the end of the season.

I wanted to make sure West Ham was safe. Everton didn’t like it, but they had to accept it.’ It’s clear that Bilic is a man who has ambition. With Besiktas, he took them to the Champions League qualifiers, then the last 16 of the Europa League. Is this something he believes he can emulate with West Ham, and do our ambitions match his own? ‘With the Premier League, competition for places is tough. Many teams finish with similar points, one or two results and it all changes. If we can remain positive, we will go as high as possible.’

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