When all is said and done, the principal attraction of the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium was the prospect of becoming a top six side.
Prior to that, neutrals described us as a yo-yo club and as fans we had to endure the repeated losses of our best talents to ‘bigger’ clubs. As such, the lure of bigger status was undeniable but having taken the plunge, we might well ask how well are we progressing in the journey towards top six status? We were well warned about teething problems with the move and indeed there have been significant problems both on and off the field.
Although the crowd unrest and general atmosphere has definitely improved, it has become clear that breaking in to the top six is no easy feat and, even if we do, the Leicester City example demonstrates how difficult it is to maintain progress. So, with that in mind, here is my five point plan for Premier League greatness.
Use finances wisely
Although it is pretty obvious that successful clubs are invariably well off, rich clubs are not necessarily successful! Financial clout needs to be used with considerable care as it only takes a few underperforming stars to sink a club.
Expanding too quickly rarely works and can result in a QPR-like experience. Whatever grumbles you might have about our chairmen, there’s no denying that they have transformed what was a financial basket case of a club into the 16th richest club in the world.
Our problem is that despite being ranked amongst the top 20 clubs in the world in terms of wage bills we are still in the bottom half of the Premiership – no wonder we are described as ‘underperforming’. In short, having developed significant financial wealth we need to match that with a high performing team.
Have a decent stadium and fan base
For Hammers fans there will always be a sense of sadness about leaving our spiritual home at Upton Park. However, we acquired a fantastic stadium for next to nothing and, importantly, have mobilised a previously dormant fan base – did anyone really think that we would not only fill the OS but increase its capacity whilst also have a 50,000 waiting list for season tickets?
So far the experience has been mixed but there is definitely a sense that we are starting to build an atmosphere at the OS – and the smart money says that the club will eventually buy out the OS and make the modifications in terms of proximity to the action that can rediscover the intensity of Upton Park. We are getting there but it will take more time.
Get a balanced high quality squad
Building a squad takes time and requires a careful balance between attracting high calibre players and managing wage bills. A big signing signals big intentions and attracts more high profile players, but can also destabilise existing players who may feel they are being relatively underpaid.
Importantly, until a club breaks into the Champions league there is a catch-22 effect where you cannot attract the calibre of players that will push you into the top four until you are actually in the top four. The best players see coming as a comedown and worry about their international status.
The reality for West Ham is that our last major trophy was in 1980 – 37 years ago. Moreover, in 25 years of the Premier League we have finished in top half on only 10 occasions and only once in the top six (5th in 1998/99). We are a long way from being viewed as a major player and need to patiently build that profile over three to five years.
Squad building is like growing a snowball – as long as you keep up momentum it will get bigger, but if you stop moving you run the risk that it will diminish and melt. Dimitri Payet was an example – in the background there is a genuine sense that if we had pushed on from seventh in 2015/16, he would probably have stayed and although we got a reasonable return for him, his departure sent out all the wrong messages to other potential recruits.
It will probably have to wait until the summer, but we really need a big and rising star to set up stall at the club – maybe as captain, and try to build the team around them. At 25 years old, and very much on the rise. Maybe William Carvalho can still be that person?
Prioritise the development academy
It’s been a while since we produced players of the highest standard through our famed academy but with Declan Rice, the Reeces and Toni Martinez we seem to have re-opened the production line.
The recent thumping of Man United’s U23 side demonstrates the quality that is coming through. It’s really hard to find opportunities for developing players to get first team experience, but for developing clubs like West Ham this is our best chance of getting players who are willing to show some loyalty and wait patiently for their chance.
Even more importantly, homegrown talents are more likely to have a genuine sense of connection with the fans and maintain a sense of identity at the club – something that is a key component of the much debated “West Ham Way”. Under Super Slav and especially under Big Sam, developing upcoming talent was not a major priority, but hopefully Moyes will give our youngsters more opportunities. The early signs are good.
Get the right manager
West ham have been very lucky with managers in recent years – whatever is said about Big Sam, there can be no denying that he delivered upon his job to get us back into the top flight and build a stable base for Premier League success. Super Slav pushed us on and gave us a glimpse of what it can be like to compete with the big guns – pretty much every hoodoo was ended under his reign – even the 53 years of Anfield disappointment.
Sadly, he had a bad run of signings and we lost our way. Whether David Moyes is the answer is still unclear but it’s worth noting that it’s not so long ago that Manchester United trusted him with their reigns. So, we are looking good in terms of finances and facilities, the squad needs to reflect that better and we must find room for developing players. Moyes deserves time and flexibility to do things his way but the reality is that we are better positioned than ever before to become a major force in English football.