Cast your mind back to July 2016, and Dimitri Payet is coming off a sensational debut season in the Premier League for West Ham. The mercurial Frenchman had helped inspire us to one of our best ever finishes and been the star turn in Upton Park’s curtain call.
His sparkling performances – littered with outrageous skills, assists and goals – had earned him a place on the Ballon D’Or shortlist. And now here he was, lighting up the stage at Euro 2016. He had already bagged himself Man of the Match awards in France’s opening two games, scored in both – one a 20-yard screamer – and created a plethora of chances for his teammates.
Our then manager Slaven Bilic clambered on the table in the ITV studios to exclaim his excellence. And then he went on to score and assist in the quarter finals of the competition to send his nation through to the semi finals.
If we are being honest with ourselves, at this point, many of us felt we would be lucky to keep hold of him through that summer’s transfer window. Yes we had the move to the London Stadium and the “promise” that it would help springboard us into a stratosphere deserving of stars such as Payet.
‘One of the hottest properties in football’
But our talisman was demonstrating on the global stage that he was one of the hottest properties in the world of football – and we’d been here before, so often losing the crown jewels to clubs with deeper pockets and loftier dreams. We anticipated a bidding war from football’s super powers and that the man from Reunion would be bidding us au revoir. And yet, he stayed. ‘We’ve got Payet’ rang out as we made our bow at the bowl and all seemed good.
The Frenchman started in similarly sparkling form – providing an exquisite rabona assist for Antonio against Watford and scoring a sensational solo goal against Middlesborogh in which he seemingly left their whole defence on their backsides.
And then, in January, Slaven Bilic announced: ‘We have a situation with a player. It is Dimitri Payet’. Our maverick had gone rogue and was refusing to train or play for the club and the fans that adored him. The party line was simply that he was homesick, wanted to be nearer his family and be part of previous club Marseille’s new project under their new owners.
‘We were being hand tied’
His desire to sign for them, at the time, seemed to us like we were being hand tied, unable to really cash in on his undoubted talent and the elevated profile we had provided him with. It felt like a double betrayal. We’d gone from the new love of his life to a fling he’d had whilst he sorted things out with his ex.
The mural at the London Stadium that adorned his image and our song for him, was guarded to prevent vandalism. He was branded a snake. Our love had been spurned. His legacy tarnished.
Payet has recently spoken of his departure and revealed he had offers from a host of clubs; ‘There were other clubs, big clubs…Manchester United and others. It was a personal and family choice. I think it was the best for me and my family.’
This isn’t a particularly surprising revelation, but it does reaffirm what he has always said; that his departure was motivated not by ambition, money or because he didn’t love us, but that he simply loved his family more and chose to put them first.
How are we meant to feel now?
So where does that leave us? How are we meant to feel about him now? Should we accept that some things – like the love of family – have to take precedence over football? Should we still resent him for leaving us? Does the departure still outweigh all the highs he gave us?
Personally, I just miss him. I imagine him on the left wing of this current side and the trophies that would undoubtedly start coming our way. I watch clips of him scoring outrageous goals for Marseille and sigh. It’s akin to seeing an ex really happy with a new partner. You know you should be pleased for them but I can’t help but think what if?
Overall Payet played 60 games in claret and blue and scored 15 goals in all competitions. He registered 18 assists and created 193 chances in his 18 months at the club. Despite the brevity of his stay, objectively speaking, he is unquestionably one of the best players we have had at West Ham, especially in the Premier League era. His ability to get us out of our seats with a drag back, a feint of shoulder, a pass no one else saw, a free kick that defies physics surely means he can now be forgiven the “crime” of wanting to go home.
We should just remember the good times, the way he sprinkled the farewell to the Boleyn season with moments of magic, and let him rightly take his place in the pantheon of Hammers greats.