The day after we defeated Fulham 3-1 at the London Stadium, David Gold tweeted: ‘Best West Ham bench for a decade. Adrian, Fredericks, Marko, Andy, Manuel, Pedro and Samir’.
And whilst a 10-year trawl of our various substitute benches would be a rather tedious tale, it does pose some questions. Namely is this the best squad we have had under Gold and Sullivan’s tenure? The Davids took ownership of the club in the January of 2009, with Gianfranco Zola suffering a difficult second season.
Against the backdrop of the financial crisis Zola’s squad had some quality in the likes of Scott Parker, Matthew Upson and Rob Green. They were joined by fan favourites such as Valon Behrami and Alessandro Diamanti, who were arguably more likeable than they were actually good, and some young academy graduates in Noble, Collison, Tomkins and Junior Stanislas.
However this decent looking spine was supplemented by some questionable depth with players like Radoslav Kovac, Jonathan Spector, and the ever-injured Kieron Dyer. Gold and Sullivan looked to improve this on deadline day with deals for Benni McCarthy, Ilan, and Mido, but whilst Ilan notched a vital four goals in 11 during the run in, the less said of the other two the better.
The squad finished 17th, just one place and five points above relegation – which is a pretty fair assessment of their quality. Following the near fatal season, the owners added Winston Reid and Pablo Barrera, fresh off the back of the World Cup, Inter Milan’s Victor Obinna, Freddie Piquionne and experienced campaigners in Thomas Hitzlsperger and Tal Ben Haim.
And whilst Reid would eventually establish himself as one of our best defenders over the next nine seasons, he looked more like bambi on ice in his debut year.None of the summer arrivals did much to improve our fortunes, or the quality of the squad.
As January arrived, and with the club having won just three games all season reinforcements arrived in the form of Demba Ba, Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane.
And despite the unmitigated success of Ba, who scored seven in 13, and Scott Parker’s herculean efforts, we crashed out of the division, finishing rock bottom – which again, tells you all you need to know about the strength of the squad.
The following season was Big Sam’s first at the helm. Charged with returning us to the Premier League at the first attempt, Allardyce was actually backed well by the board. Kevin Nolan was a huge coup, joined by Premier League stalwarts Matty Taylor and Norwegian John Carew.
Others such as Henri Lansbury and Abdoulaye Faye played their part over the course of the season and obviously January acquisition Ricardo Vaz Te, with 12 goals in 18 games, helped secure a dramatic and euphoric play-off route return to the big time.
However for all the joy that day at Wembley brought, I think few would argue that the squad that secured our promotion – like those of the first two years of Gold and Sullivan’s ownership – would measure up to the one we have today. Big Sam and his rather tenuous relationship with the board and fans would retain our Premier League status for the next three seasons.
Over that time the trio would bring a number of players into the club – of varying degrees of success and standards. Jussi Jääskeläinen, Andy Carroll, Matt Jarvis and Stewart Downing would contribute significantly more than Alou Diarra, Modibo Maïga, Marouane Chamakh or Razan Rat, who were woeful.
Looking at some of those names it is testament to Allardyce that he was able to secure two relatively comfortable seasons before his final year. In that 2014-15 season we added Alex Song, Diafro Sakho, Enner Valencia, Aaron Cresswell and Cheik Kouyate.
Up until Christmas things looked very promising – it is easy to forget now how threatening Sakho and Valencia were up front with Downing at the point of the diamond. We lost just four times before December 20, the squad with its shackles off looking like genuine contenders for European football.
However, we won only three more times in the league after that – suggesting that once the inevitable injuries arrived, those in reserve didn’t have enough about them. In the end, we finished an encouraging season 12th and Big Sam waved goodbye, leaving us with a stronger squad than he had when he arrived but our strongest in the last 10 years?
The following season we employed Bilic and recruited the unknown talents of Manuel Lanzini, the raw power of Michail Antonio, the destructive Pedro Obiang, the class of Angelo Ogbonna and of course Dimitri Payet – arguably our best player of the Premier League era. This coupled with Kouyate’s best season for us and Mark Noble having the season of his life meant that we were in contention for a Champions League place finish until the final few weeks of the season.
But in truth we rode Payet’s coattails that year and the waves of emotions of our farewell to the Boleyn nearly carried us through. Sakho and Valencia, whilst scoring some crucial and memorable goals, weren’t as prolific as you would want.
Payet still holds the record for the most chances created in the period since his debut to present. The fact that none of our strikers finished in double figures that year tells a tale. Alex Song was a shadow of his first season. We still had to call on the questionable talents of Jelavic and Emenike on 26 occasions. When Payet was injured we struggled for results. Was it better than today’s squad?
The litmus test for this would be – would you swap our current squad for that of the 2015/16 season? Possibly but purely to have the joy of peak Payet once again. Tellingly, much of the same squad were involved in our inaugural season at the London Stadium but without the mercurial Frenchman they were miles off the levels they reached the year before.
So in principle, yes, our current squad is probably our best under Gold and Sullivan. Most, if not all, of those named as sub against Fulham would walk into the starting 11 of any of our previous squads over the last 10 years.
The loss of names such as Wilshere and Yarmolenko, whose injuries mean they weren’t even on the bench that day, would have been crippling in years gone by. The fact that we could leave creators such as Lanzini and Nasri on the bench and not risk their fragile fitness due to necessity is a at odds with our normal circumstance.
That Marko’s tantrums don’t need to be indulged with a starting role because we still have one of the best poachers in world football to count on is unheard of. Diop and Balbuena have proven to be astute signings, and Fabianski is the one of the best keepers in the league and definitely our best since Green.
Declan Rice has been a revelation, and Anderson is a match winner on his day. On paper it is hard to argue with Gold’s tweet. And yet, too many powers have waned. Recent weeks have shown that the names on paper aren’t as good as their reputations. Obaing is not the player he was, and the same could be said of Antonio and Carroll. All three have struggled to have any real impact.
Snodgrass’ workrate sadly isn’t matched by his quality. Zabaleta is beginning to look his age and there are still question marks over Fredericks’ ability in the top flight. And, of course, Arnautovic seems to have only returned in body after his flirtations with China. So whilst it is probably our best squad under Gold and Sullivan, it is still a work in progress. A big summer awaits, the challenge is to have an even better bench next year.