Even by the usual West Ham rollercoaster standards, the 1999-2000 season was one of the more colourful campaigns.
From the sublime of Paolo di Canio’s wondergoal against Wimbledon to the ridiculousness of the Manny Omoyinmi League Cup debacle, via the madness of beating Bradford 5-4, it was one that put players and fans alike through the emotional wringer like few others.
But when you have already been through seeing your national team and country ripped apart, to then start anew, and get within touching distance of reaching the World Cup final, you are used to taking things in your stride.
Because that is the backstory of West Ham’s Croatian international defender Igor Stimac, who joined the Irons in summer 1999 from Derby, just in time to take a seat on the wildest of rides.
‘I was good friends with Slaven Bilic, who had been at West Ham and told me how great the academy players coming through were, and what a fantastic dressing room atmosphere it was, and what a man manager Harry Redknapp was,’ said Stimac, who is now aged 54 and coach of the Indian national football team.
‘Harry’s way is very English, like Jim Smith at Derby had been – keep it simple, let players express themselves, without too much analysis and tactics. That’s why they do well – they were old-fashioned romantic football guys.’
Defining a Nation
Stimac and Bilic are central figures in the recently released documentary Croatia: Defining a Nation, directed by Louis Myles, and available to watch through the FIFA website.
It tells the story of how a core of young Croatian talent, much of it developed at Hajduk Split, was central to Yugoslavia winning the 1987 World Youth Championships, and how the team was on the verge of senior greatness when the Balkan War broke out in the early 90s, ripping the country apart.
Out of the ashes — literally and figuratively — the national team of an independent Croatia emerged, coached by Ciro Blazevic, a larger-than-life, silk scarf-wearing figure, cut from the same cloth as Redknapp and Brian Clough, who inspired the new team to success at Euro 96 in England, and the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup in France.
In 1995 Stimac joined Derby, where he played a major role in turning the team around, before leaving in 1999 at the age of 31, to move to West Ham.
‘When I came, the main reason I joined was because I had heard from inside about how Harry had created such a strong bond between players and staff, and after such a good season and qualifying for Europe, it was an easy decision for me to make,’ he said.
‘I could never see myself leaving Derby, I felt at home and had made an impact on the journey the team had made, but after a few years of progress, something changed.
‘For a while we’d been very clever in the transfer market, not spending much but spending wisely, which got us results — we played the market well, like West Ham did.
‘But after the 1998 World Cup, the club decided to invest around £15m, which was enormous at that time — all the money we had – in three young players from the Championship. I said to Jim Smith that they might be good for the future but we need them to be good now.
‘I didn’t see how the club was going to go forward, and I didn’t want to stay and be part of something I didn’t believe in, so I decided it was time to move on.’
The switch from the East Midlands to the East End was effortless, and Stimac found himself at home straight away.
‘When you look at who was there — Marc-Vivien Foe, Trevor Sinclair, Freddie Kanoute, Paolo di Canio of course, and the youngsters – what a team, it was unbelievable, and we had so much fun too, the spirit was fantastic,’ he said.
‘I jumped in immediately. Harry made it very simple for me, he said he wanted my experience and to stay fit however I wanted to, to be able to play.’
Youth team experience
Given the importance of his youth team experience with Hajduk, West Ham’s golden crop of youngsters caught Stimac’s eye straight away, as did the difference made by having local talent.
‘It was only Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand’s second senior season when I arrived, with Michael Carrick coming on from the bench, and Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe coming through as well — what they could do was amazing.
‘What made West Ham different at the time, and what made them so good, was the local influence in the dressing room. It’s very important for the connection between fans and clubs to see home grown players, and it’s very important for the future. That’s why it was so sad to see Mark Noble go, players like him mean a lot.’
And then, apart from the rest, stood Di Canio.
‘I got on with Paolo very well,’ Stimac said. ‘I knew about him in advance from my friend Zvonimir Boban, who knew him at Milan, so I knew what to expect.
‘He used to drive people mad…’
‘He’s such a great individual and such a passionate professional, he had the best standards, and was always putting pressure on everyone to live up to them and be as serious about things as he was.
‘He used to drive people mad with how he carried on, but I could understand what he was trying to do, and everyone accepted him because he was so good.’
Perhaps no game or incident summed up the theatrical genius of Di Canio, or the madness of that season, quite as much as the 5-4 triumph over Bradford, where the Italian almost came to blows with team-mate Lampard over taking a penalty.
‘I’ve never played in anything like that game,’ said Stimac. ‘It was a great game, and so typical West Ham — that’s why people loved coming to the Boleyn Ground, we just went for it. There were no special tactical plans to stick to because of who we were playing against, the point was to go out and perform the best you can, and attack — and we did.’
That famous victory over Bradford was a much-needed high after the pre-Christmas low of the League Cup exit at the hands of Aston Villa, in a replayed game after the ineligible Omoyinmi came on during a shoot-out win, when then had to be replayed, leading to the Irons’ exit. But even in that farce, Stimac saw positives.
‘Going through an experience like that helped those young players to mature,’ he said. ‘That’s why they didn’t have many disappointments later in their careers, because they learned how to handle those kinds of situations at West Ham.’
West Ham finished 9th that season, a position Stimac says could have been better had the team even come close to repeating their home form on the road, but overall the outlook was positive, much of it down to Redknapp, who Stimac likens to his Croatia boss, Blazevic.
‘Blazevic’s man management was great. He was direct when he needed to be, but he was also the world champion at saying the right thing at the right time — a lot of the time, when he said something, we knew it wasn’t true, but he made us laugh, and made a great atmosphere.’
After the champagne of his first season at West Ham, however, the second fell decidedly flat, and at its end, for a variety of reasons, in summer 2001 Stimac decided to leave, in a repeat of the Derby situation.
‘I asked for permission to leave because again I didn’t want to be part of something that wasn’t as good as it could be,’ he said.
‘Harry didn’t have enough support, what was needed was a few players to take the squad forward, but by selling players like Rio, it was obvious that the board lacked ambition and they weren’t going to do that for him. Even with the money we got, I felt the team was breaking up,’ he said.
It was not just this that made up Stimac’s mind, however. His young daughter’s severe asthma responded much better to the climate in Croatia, and at that time, with some of its former youth team players scaling the heights of the global game, Hajduk Split were in the depths of financial trouble.
‘I made a decision with Slaven, Aljosa Asanovic and Alen Boksic to give our own money to the club – this was the club that gave us our first steps, so we wanted to help save it from bankruptcy,’ he said.
‘At that point of time, they were busy elsewhere, Asanovic was going round the world playing, Boksic was still at Middlesbrough and Slaven was on tour playing guitar with his band, so when we made the decision about giving money to the people running the club, without knowing them all that well, as I was going back to Split we decided I would be our presence, to make sure the money we were giving was going to the right people,’ he said.
‘I was trying to make sure the money went to the players, and I also decided to keep playing as long as I could. I was there on a daily basis, on behalf of us all, representing our interest on the board of directors.’
That return to his roots in Split was the start of the third act of Stimac’s career, as a coach, which saw him win trophies with his beloved Hajduk, and have a stint as Croatian national team manager, before his current role in what he calls the biggest challenge in world football — managing the Indian national team.
‘There is no greater challenge, anywhere in the world,’ he said.
‘When I took over, there were 10 clubs, playing a three month season, with one and a half months of preseason, meaning that for seven and a half months, there was no contact between players and their clubs and coaches,’ he said.
‘Each of those 10 clubs had six foreign players, meaning that out of a total of 110 players, only 50 were available to play for India, and out of them, there were 10 goalkeepers and 20 full backs — out of a population of 1.4 billion people! Anyone who says they face a bigger challenge than that — I don’t believe them.’
During the course of his career, Stimac has seen football from every conceivable angle, as a player, youth team coach, league president and more, and he is now turning things around in India – slowly.
‘There is now a 3+1 rule, meaning three foreign players plus one other Asian player, which means more Indian players are playing in more positions, and from an average age of 29 and a half years old when I took over, we’ve now got one of the youngest national teams in the world,’ he said.
‘The league is now an eight-month season followed by three cup competitions, so that’s more than double the number of games being played too. Things are changing, and that’s why I’m here.’
Money is not an issue — if anything, quite the opposite. ‘The Indian Super League is keeping players in India with great salaries, ones that probably aren’t realistic globally, so what I’m trying to do is awaken ambition in youngsters to go abroad and challenge themselves — but they’ll need to take a pay cut,’ he said.
In such a lively and colourful career, Stimac has experienced a lot, and encountered some memorable characters.
‘I’ve learnt from all my coaches — even the bad ones can still teach you something,’ he said.
Blazevic helped spring a golden generation of Croatian talent on the world, with some of its finest exponents ending up at West Ham — and then, by chance, returning en masse to Croatia.
‘When I became national team coach, I took over from Slaven, and my boss as head of the Federation was Davor Suker, another of my old team-mates who also had a spell with Harry at West Ham,’ he said. All three feature in the FIFA documentary.
‘Harry loved Croatian players,’ added Stimac. ‘He had us at West Ham, then when was at Spurs he had Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka, and at Portsmouth he signed Nico Kranjcar and Robert Prosinecki. He knew he was bringing quality and also dressing room characters and most importantly, positive leaders.’
National team duties and the pandemic have prevented Stimac returning to West Ham recently, but he still keeps a close eye on all that is going at the club and hopes that Croatia can once again play a role in West Ham’s future.
‘I’m very happy to see Nikola Vlasic come to the club,’ he said. ‘It was sad to see him not perform as expected, so I’d love to see him stay and make fans excited because he can do great things.
‘Now it’s time to see, are West Ham going to step forward or go backwards? It would be a shame to see the club not keep being ambitious and going forward. Being smart in the market, it’s very important.’