Chances are, the majority of West Ham fans will not be turning up at the London Stadium wearing flowers in their hair this season – but, make no mistake, we have just enjoyed our very own Summer of Love. It’s hard to picture the super-cool San Francisco of 1967 twinned with sun-scorched Stratford in 2018 – even though some of the tower blocks are higher than a hippie on LSD – yet the two locations now have one in thing in common: both can rightly claim to offer the precious gift of hope.
I am not a wild optimist by nature – 50-plus years of supporting West Ham has seen to that – but even old curmudgeons like me had to concede that the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini as manager is a serious upgrade. This man has won league titles in four different nations – including, of course, England. You will recall he did that with Man City in his first season at the helm. He actually sealed the deal by beating us 2-0 at their place (having stuffed the Mighty Hammers 9-0 over two legs in a League Cup semi-final). But I refuse to hold that against him.
Not only is Pellegrini a proven winner, his teams play attractive, progressive football. In many ways, his appointment was tough on David Moyes, who had fulfilled the terms of his brief and kept West Ham in the Premier League. But the Scot’s cautious tactics would have meant another season of mediocre results and disappointing performances. He had to go.
It’s no secret that a manager alone cannot turn around the fortunes of an under-achieving football club. He needs major financial backing to bring in the players who will put his vision into practice. Money can’t buy you love, according to popular wisdom. But it sure can purchase some metaphorical hugs and kisses from supporters if you are the owners of that under-achieving football club and finally get the platinum credit card out of your collective wallet. Thank you, Messrs Gold and Sullivan, for doing just that. Did someone say “not before time”? Please! We’re trying to have a love-in here.
By not dawdling in appointing a new manager, the owners allowed Pellegrini to get cracking in the transfer market while other clubs were still examining the fluff in their navels.
His first signing was Fulham defender Ryan Fredericks, which worried me slightly. Don’t get me wrong: Fredericks is a very decent option as an attacking right back, and Pablo Zabaleta isn’t getting any younger. The signing, on a free transfer, of a player who made the Championship team of the year is not to be sniffed at. Yet, unless Pellegrini had been neglecting his day job coaching Hebei China Fortune and regularly popping back from the Far East to attend games at Craven Cottage, I found it hard to believe that young Ryan would be the first name on his teamsheet. Was David Sullivan playing real-life Football Manager again? That hasn’t always worked out so well in the past.
My fears were laid to rest the following week when West Ham named Argentine Mario Husillos as director of football and loudly proclaimed that he would be responsible for all senior player recruitment. This appointment had to be at the insistence of Pellegrini. They had previously worked together at Malaga, taking the Spanish club to the quarter-finals of the Champions League and a top-six finish in La Liga. I’m guessing most West Ham fans would settle for something similar.
Whether or not Pellegrini and Husillos have spent their huge transfer budget wisely remains to be seen, but there is no denying that they have gone for players with impressive CVs.
Given that Chelsea have now set the bar for a world record fee for a goalkeeper at a fraction over £70m, Lukasz Fabianski looks to be a steal at just a tenth of that price. He has been phenomenal for Swansea in recent seasons, and was the player their fans least wanted to lose after being relegated. Everyone knew Joe Hart would leave, and much as we all love Adrián there are still question marks over his keeping. Fabianski is better than both of them.
The day before West Ham signed the Polish goalkeeper, the club splashed out what for a while was a club record £22m on central defender Issa Diop. Despite being just 21, Diop was club captain at Toulouse, where he made almost 100 first-team appearances. He has represented France at junior level and is tipped to be good enough to reach the senior squad in time. He is clearly one to watch.
However, despite the hefty price tag, Diop may not be the best central defender we’ve signed this summer. That honour could well go to Fabián Balbuena, who is my tip to go on and reach the cult status enjoyed by the likes of the Ginger Pele and Christian “Curly Hair” Dailly. And as we picked him up for the ridiculously low price of £3.5m he could prove to be the biggest bargain in the entire Premier League this season.
He comes from Brazilian league champions Corinthians, where the adoring fans christened him The General. Pundits who follow South American football closely reckon Balbuena was the rock on which the championship was won – he has a reputation for fearless defending and an uncanny positional sense. And if that wasn’t enough, he scores important goals too – which he celebrates with a trademark military salute to the crowd.
General Balbuena didn’t make Brazil’s World Cup side for the simple reason that he hails from Paraguay. He did, however, win a place in the Brazilian league’s representative team of the year. We were able to buy him so cheaply because he insisted on a buy-out clause in his contract which would enable him to try his luck in Europe if a club came in for him. West Ham did just that. South America’s loss could well prove to be East London’s gain.
The summer signing that put the biggest smile on many West Ham faces was that of Jack Wilshere, who had become surplus to requirements at Arsenal after the departure of Arsène Wenger.
At his best, Wilshere is among the most gifted midfielders in Europe and had he not been plagued by injuries he would surely be a regular in the England side. But, more importantly, he is one of our own – a West Ham supporter as a boy and family connections to back up his credentials as a proper Hammer.
Football may not be coming home, but Jack Wilshere is. We all wish him well. And if he does nothing else I desperately hope he scores a blinder at the Emirates just so I can ram the phrase “Jack Wheelchair” back down the throat of my Arsenal-loving acquaintance who was less than complimentary about their departing No 10 when we signed him.
Another player considered redundant at Arsenal was Lucas Pérez, who we picked up for just £4m on deadline day. The Gooners paid £17m for him two years ago, but after a disappointing first season he went out on loan to Deportivo La Coruña. It looks like he’s been bought as a squad player. But if he does get a run in the first team, keep an eye on his left foot. It’s a bit special.
Deadline day also saw the arrival of midfield enforcer Carlos Sánchez from Fiorentino. Given the Colombian’s performances at Aston Villa, the jury’s still out on that one. More encouraging, however, was the signing a week beforehand of the promising young Portuguese striker Xande Silva, who joins the talented U23 squad.
The acquisition of Andriy Yarmolenko for a reported £17.5m from Borussia Dortmund came with less of a fanfare than many of the other big-name signings. The Ukranian international is generally described as a winger, but he is no stranger to the penalty area. The 28-year-old has notched up 35 goals in 77 internationals and is his country’s second highest goalscorer behind the prolific Andriy Shevchenko.
Apparently, Yarmolenko decided to join West Ham on the advice of his countryman Serhiy Rebrov – who some years ago spent a highly forgettable season at Upton Park after a more successful stint at Spurs. I don’t remember Rebrov doing us any favours on the pitch in his time at the club. Let’s hope that he’s done us one by persuading Yarmolenko to come to Stratford.
West Ham’s marque signing, of course, was Brazilian Felipe Anderson, who joined from Lazio for a club record fee of £36m – which could go higher still if he turns out to be the superstar we are all hoping for. In this case it appears we have Chelsea’s Willian to thank for Anderson’s move to London. The other major influences on his career have been Kaka and Neymar, and if he ends up being regularly mentioned in the same breath as those two we really will have a player on our hands.
He began his career playing alongside Neymar at Santos, making his debut at the age of 17 and earning himself the nickname of “Neymar’s little brother”. He moved to Rome in 2013, and within months began to look like Neymar’s tubby brother – difficulties with the language meant the only meal he could order was spaghetti carbonara, and he piled on the pounds as a result.
When he finally managed to shed the extra weight he showed the Lazio fans the speed and dribbling skills which had prompted the club to buy him. He’s had his ups and downs since then – including a bust-up with manager Simone Inzaghi – but since arriving in London he has made all the right noises about wanting to be the main man at the London Stadium.
For those who believe in omens there is an Olympic connection that is worth noting. It will not have escaped your notice that our current home played host to the 2012 summer games (which is why we have an unwanted running track encircling the pitch – but let’s not spoil things while we’re all feeling the love). For his part, Anderson has a tattoo of the five Olympic rings, commemorating Brazil’s success in Rio four years later. Put the two together and we’ve clearly struck gold. Superstitious? Me? Never. Blimey mate – don’t walk under that ladder! Are you mad?
Sorry, where were we? Ah yes, the transfer window. This year it closed three weeks earlier than usual – which means the initial games of the season won’t be overshadowed by all the usual worries about our top players being snapped up by the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.
It is inevitable that in future some of the current squad are destined to follow Cheikhou Kouyaté, Reece Burke and Domingos Quina out of the door. But, for the time being at least, let’s sit back and savour the quality that Pellegrini has brought in.
For once, frustrated West Ham supporters did not have to spend the close season reading endless reports linking us to a raft of unlikely signings, only to see the speculation turn out to be worthless because the players concerned either weren’t interested in coming to the London Stadium, or the owners weren’t prepared to pay the asking price for the ones who were.
Instead, we’ve been able to nod approvingly as a regiment of exciting new recruits have taken the Stratford shilling. Throw in some brilliant weather and a fantastic World Cup – during which we were reminded just how good a player Chicharito is when he gets the chance – and we have had a summer to remember.
The owners finally started to deliver on their promises; West Ham have one of the most respected managers in the Premier League and the club has had its best transfer window in years. I’m lovin’ it! Now cross your fingers and hope this wonderful Summer of Love doesn’t turn into a Winter of Discontent…
Brian Williams is the author of the best-selling Nearly Reach The Sky. His second book, Home From Home, charts the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium.