In a year where people’s lives have been turned upside down, in a world that’s been utterly changed because of the Coronavirus pandemic, and – if ‘normality’ ever returns – where recovery will be a long process, it is perhaps no surprise that football remains depressingly consistent with its sense of lunacy.
I’m referring, of course, to West Bromwich Albion’s sacking of Slaven Bilic last month.
Now, I’ll come right out and say it – I am a fan of Bilic and probably will forever remain so.
I know that you might accuse me of having claret-and-blue tinted spectacles on at this point, or that I might have been a bit blinded by that Payet-inspired season.
I know you might be thinking that at the point when he departed West Ham, the team was playing some fairly insipid football, and that he didn’t seem like the man to drag us up the table, with the team struggling for form, and crucially points.
I realise all these things, but I disagree with them. Personally, I think had he stayed, he – and we – would have recovered, and I think it would take a particularly mean-hearted fan to assume that our slump in form was solely down to Slav.
I think there’s three characters that you can point to in our boardroom that have to share some of the blame.
A change of stadia didn’t help, with its perhaps unsettling effect on the players. And maybe some of those players, now ex-West Ham, could look at themselves too, and ask whether they were really committed to the cause – I think we all know who we are talking about here.
As managers go, he oozes class. Very respectful and honest, unlike some other managers that we have recruited over recent years.
He wrote a brilliant statement after his West Brom sacking which, if you haven’t seen, you should read.
He’s a good guy, someone who, as a fan, I can get on board with, and I’m sure the players in his squad can too.
He gave us that memorable season and, in a season full of highlights, I’ll never forget the last match, the thrilling 3-2 victory over Manchester United at the Boleyn.
In that same season, we broke all kinds of records for West Ham in the Premier League era. Sixty-five goals scored? Yes please, we’d love that kind of return now.
A positive goal difference of +14? We’re West Ham, we don’t do positive goal differences.
Only five away defeats out of nineteen and only three at home? These are the kinds of records that would have us salivating if this was happening now.
Looking back through his managerial career, it’s easy to forget his highlights.
As Croatia manager, he took the team to the quarter-finals of Euro 2008, and really should have beaten Turkey too, having scored one minute before the end of extra time, only for Turkey to equalise seconds later and then win on penalties.
He left his tenure as national team manager on positive terms, and really, is the only Croatian manager to do so.
To be fair, his tenure at Lokomotiv Moscow was broadly unsuccessful, only managing a 9th place finish in his one season there, but after a two-year stint at Besiktas, came the Hammers job and that amazing season, breaking all kinds of records in the process.
I know that the following season’s results were disappointing, but frankly, I don’t believe that he got a fair crack of the whip at West Ham.
I think circumstances were against him – and I don’t believe he’s had a fair crack of the whip at West Brom either.
It is also fair to say that results improved when Moyes took over for his first stint, but I am still not convinced that would not have happened had Bilic stayed.
Let’s look at what he’s achieved with West Brom. He’s taken a club, on a shoestring budget, back to the Premier League.
He’s built a real rapport with the supporters, as he did with us. His team were 3-0 up against Chelsea at one point.
They’d just taken a point off Manchester City in an incredibly well-organised display (cards on the table, I watched the match).
It’s a jump from the Championship to the Premier League, for goodness sake – isn’t it unrealistic to think that a newly promoted team might struggle a bit?
I’ve been speaking with some West Brom fans, and the general consensus is that Bilic was not backed up by the board for the purchases that team needed.
However, it is also true to say that a lot of money was actually spent by that board, so maybe that argument doesn’t carry a huge amount of weight.
The biggest problem, it would seem, was that there were a number of occasions when West Brom could have taken points from matches and they just didn’t.
This happened towards the end of their promotion season, when the team stuttered and only by virtue of Brentford losing their last two games, did West Brom achieve the point on the final day of the season they needed to be promoted.
Similarly, in the Premier League, the team lost a 3-0 lead against Chelsea; they should have beaten Burnley; they could have got something out of the Manchester United and Newcastle United games.
The team, however, were playing some good football. They were not adrift; they just appeared to lack a ruthless streak, which sounds depressingly familiar to us West Ham fans. They are no Sheffield United, that’s for sure.
The decision to sack Bilic prior to the 1-1 draw against City is not only disrespectful, but is of short-termism, one that reeks of desperation to stay in the Premier League.
Look at Bilic’s replacement: if ever there was a firefighter, someone who’ll most likely squeak a team up to above the waterline into the “we survived” category – it’s Sam Allardyce.
I’m writing this after West Brom have been walloped 5-0 at home by Leeds, with us sitting a full 15 points ahead of them.
As a West Ham fan, I can truly sympathise with the fans, who will be feeling pretty disheartened right now. I’m not too sure how much more Allardyce is going to get out of those players, that Bilic wasn’t able to do.
Slaven Bilic is a good man, and a good manager. It’s bonkers to have got rid of him at this stage.
Allardyce may keep West Brom safe this season – although they’re five points adrift at the moment – but that’s no guarantee, so to the West Brom board, I give a piece of advice that us Hammers fans have heard before – ‘be careful what you wish for’.