We don’t ask much out of life at West Ham. Contrary to public perception, we don’t want to see tricks and flicks all the time – that’s not what the ‘West Ham way’ is all about.
We’re not terribly bothered about consistency. Some of us don’t even care about going to the so-called ‘next level’. But we do like beating Tottenham. In fact, there’s only one thing better than beating Tottenham, and that’s beating Tottenham when they think they’re about to win something. Oh, and if you can do it under the lights, so much the better.
That, of course, is precisely what we did on a glorious, blustery Friday night in May. Th ere can be no argument that beating Spurs was the highlight of the season. Victory over Chelsea in the League Cup back in October runs it a pretty close second, but the Tottenham game stands out for so many reasons. If nothing else, it dispelled the myth that the squad won’t play for Slaven Bilic.
The team that turned out in claret and blue that night might not have been the greatest West Ham XI of all time, but they certainly put in the effort that every supporter wants to see. It looked like they cared as much as we do.
We needed a night like that aft er a season that clearly had more low points than high notes. Moving to the new stadium was always going to be disruptive, but no one anticipated that we would have to overcome the almost insurmountable problem of having a player who simply didn’t want to be there. And not just any old player. Th is was our best player.
No one was unduly worried when Dimitri Payet made himself unavailable for our early season European campaign in the Europa League.
He’d had a demanding summer, taking France to the finals of the European Championship. He had been brilliant, especially in the early part of the tournament, and it was clear that he and Slaven Bilic had an unbreakable bond when the West Ham manager celebrated the Frenchman’s goal against Albania by jubilantly climbing onto a table in front of the ITV cameras.
Ian Wright, a pundit on the same broadcast, had the temerity to suggest that Payet was playing so well West Ham would struggle to keep him. Bilic was having none of it. ‘He knows what he is going to do. I see it every day in training. He has got a plan.’ It was music to our ears. Bilic had brought the almost unknown Payet to West Ham from Marseille at the start of our final season at the Boleyn Ground.
Payet had repaid him with some breathtaking performances and had himself been rewarded with a recall from an international wilderness to the French side in time for the Euros. These two men were made for each other. What’s more, our playmaker had a plan. Unfortunately, we were to learn later, Payet’s plan was to leave West Ham at the earliest possible opportunity.
He told the club of his desire to go even before the showpiece fixture against Juventus in what would have been West Ham’s first game at our new stadium if a bunch of rather ungallant Slovenians by the name of NK Domzale hadn’t pushed their way in front of the Old Lady of Turin three days beforehand. The owners turned him down. Given the number of season tickets that had been sold on the back of his performances at Upton Park it was impossible to do anything else.
Maybe if it had been a normal season we could have cashed in our prize asset and used the money to rebuild. There would have been complaints from some supporters, but it could have been done if we were staying in E13. Th e move to Stratford, complete with promises about ‘the next level’ meant that selling Payet was never an option.
Payet’s disenchantment with all things claret and blue dominated the first half of the season. Th ere were fl ashes of brilliance – his goal against Middlesbrough was a stunner – but it was becoming increasingly clear that he wasn’t anything like the player he had been the previous season. If anyone was in any doubt that Payet was unhappy they only had to study his performance in the 4-1 League Cup defeat by Man Utd at Old Trafford at the end of November.
Quite frankly, he could have had no complaint if the club had withheld his wages that night. By coincidence, his last game for us was another cup humiliation at the hands of a Manchester club – the FA Cup third round mauling by City at the beginning of January. With the transfer window open he again asked for a move and was again turned down. So he went on strike. The official line was that he wanted to return to France because his family had failed to settle in the UK. Th e truth, it emerged later, was rather diff erent.
He has since told a French newspaper: ‘I had no desire to play in the lower reaches of the Premier League. Th e defensive system that we put in place did not give me any pleasure.’ It was, in Payet’s native tongue, a fait accompli – the owners had to let him go. It could have been the moment at which our season disintegrated altogether. Instead, in true West Ham fashion, adversity became a turning point.
The first game without him was against Palace. Th e atmosphere in the ground was the best it had been for weeks – displaying utter contempt for our former No 27 and loyal support for Bilic. A fabulous bicycle-kick goal from Andy Carroll was the icing on the cake as West Ham United proved, if proof were needed, that no player is bigger than our magnificent club.
That win took us up to 12th – a win at Middlesbrough the following week lift ed us into the top half of the league for the first time since August, and any lingering fears about relegation were laid to rest. Not that the rest of the season was a triumphant procession, of course. Our home form, in particular, was disappointing.
Another thumping by Man City was followed by a draw against West Brom and defeats by Chelsea and Leicester, before we edged out Swansea in a scrappy affair. Our next home game, against Everton, saw Adrián back in goal having been out of the side since November.
Darren Randolph had been looking increasingly uncertain, and the defence had suffered as a result. Not for the first time in West Ham’s history, goalkeeper has become a problem position for us. A bigger problem, however, was the fact our season resembled an extended version of Casualty. If we had finished as high in the Premier League as we did in the table of injuries compiled by PhysioRoom.com we’d be in the Champions League next year.
Aaron Cresswell set the tone for what was to follow by sustaining a knee ligament injury in a notso friendly pre-season encounter with German club Karlsruher. He didn’t return to the starting XI until mid-October, when he was unlucky to be sent off at Selhurst Park. In the first League game of the season at Chelsea, record signing André Ayew limped off with a thigh injury after barely half an hour.
It was the end of October before we saw him again – coincidentally against the hated Chelski once more, this time in the League Cup. Diafra Sakho was on the point of moving to the Hawthorns in the summer but the deal fell through following concerns about his fitness. It was hotly denied that he had failed a medical, but West Brom clearly dodged a bullet. After returning to London the Senegal international missed the first three months of the season due to a back injury.
He managed two appearances in November and actually scored at Manchester United, where he suffered a hamstring problem which ruled him out until December – when his back trouble struck again and he underwent surgery. He remained out of action until April, when he finally made a couple of appearances as a sub. This, you will recall, is the man who scored 19 goals in his first 50 appearances for West Ham. Oh, what would we give to see a rejuvenated Diafra Sakho?
Andy Carroll appeared in just 18 Premier League games, starting 16 of them and scoring seven goals. Given his track record it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that he spent so much time in the treatment room, but his fabulous goal against Palace showed just what we are missing when he doesn’t play. Angelo Ogbonna was sorely missed after he had to undergo surgery in January, as was Pedro Obiang who sustained a knee injury in the defeat to Leicester.
Even the squad players struggled to stay fit. Doneil Henry, who remains a man of mystery to most of us, is currently recovering from a knee injury, while Gökhan Töre, Arthur Masuaku and Álvaro Arbeloa all had injury problems as well – although it’s fair to say the Spanish World Cup winner looked about as fit as I am on the few occasions he actually made an appearance (and Töre looked about as skilful).
Kouyaté, Noble and Reid were all sidelined at one time or another, and the team looked vulnerable without them. But perhaps the hardest injury of all to take was Michail Antonio’s. He sustained a serious hamstring injury early in the home game against Swansea, and we didn’t see him again. Not that the injury prevented him rightly being named Hammer of the Year and the fact that he has signed a new four-year contract is an encouraging sign for the future.
Perhaps the injuries wouldn’t have disrupted our season quite as badly as they did if we had not made such a mess of the summer transfer window. All the talk pre-season was about signing a world-class striker. We were told by David Sullivan, often via his son’s Twitter account, that we were in the market for a 20-goal-a-season striker, and were prepared to spend big to get one. It was all part of the move to the ‘next level’.
However, Alexandre Lacazette wasn’t interested. Neither was Michy Batshuayi. And, despite a barrage of optimistic tweets from Sullivan Jnr, Carlos Bacca couldn’t be persuaded to join us. It looked like an act of desperation when the owners decided to break the club’s transfer record by spending a fraction over £20m on Ayew, who is happier playing out wide than carrying the responsibility of being a lone striker.
Calleri, who joined on loan from Deportivo Maldonado, was willing enough, but had no pace. Ashley Fletcher still looks very raw, and the less said about Simone Zaza the better. We simply have to do better in the transfer market season. And we need a lot more than a decent striker.
In most years, finishing 11th with 45 points would be considered a reasonable season, but this time it somehow feels more like our glass is half empty. Is that, I wonder, partly down to the expectation that went with the move to the London Stadium?
Some supporters have settled in more readily than others. Happily, the in-fighting – mainly between those who want to stand and those who like to sit – that marred the early games in Stratford appears to be a thing of the past. The popcorn and ice cream are here to stay, however. What does need to change is the pricing policy. There are many seats at the very back of the stadium that cost as much as £900 for a season because they are listed as Band 1. I have sat in those seats, and I can testify they really are not worth that sort of money.
So, what does next season hold? That is anybody’s guess, of course. All I hope is there are games like the Tottenham one. That night, for me, the London Stadium felt like home for the first time. I’d like to feel that way again.
Brian Williams is the author of Nearly Reach the Sky – A Farewell to Upton Park