Slaven Bilic: ‘I was only a player for a short time but my bond with the fans is strong’

The former defender lifts the lid on his time playing for Harry Redknapp’s West Ham at Upton Park

Sometimes in football, hero status is not about how long a player spends at a club, or even what they achieve on the pitch, but the impact that their ability and their personality make on a club.

Croatian centre back Slaven Bilic joined West Ham in 1996 and spent less than two seasons at the club, but left such an impression that 18 years after he left, when the club was facing one of the biggest challenges in its history, he was the man called back for a second stint, this time as manager, to steer the ship through challenging waters for a period that is remembered fondly by all who witnessed it.

Now coaching in Saudi Arabia, Bilic remains as much of a cult figure as ever among West Ham fans, and the love is evidently mutual, as he took time out to talk to Blowing Bubbles about the highs and lows of his two remarkable stints at West Ham, and the characters he encountered. Bilic grew up in Yugoslavia, playing for his hometown team Hajduk Split before the war that ripped the country apart, and then for German side Karlsruher before being spotted by then Irons manager Harry Redknapp at the age of 28, and finally making his dream move to England.

‘Karlsruher aren’t a big club but in those days we were doing really well – we reached the UEFA Cup semi-final in my first season and had people like World Cup winner Thomas Hassler, future European Championship winner Oliver Kahn and Torsten Fink, who went on to win four Bundesliga titles, playing for us,’ he explained. ‘I was made captain in my second season and it was an absolute privilege. I wasn’t fed up there at all, but like so many people of my generation, I had been brought up on the English teams being the best in Europe in the 1970s and 80s, so it had always been instilled in me by my dad that if ever I got the chance to go to England, I should take it.’

Plenty of English clubs had shown interest in Bilic, but it was West Ham who took the plunge, signing him in January 1996 for a then club-record £1.3 million, just six months before Croatia announced themselves on the world stage at Euro 96. But even then, his signing was a slightly chaotic affair.

‘Nowadays the football world is very small, everyone knows everything that is going on, but in the days before the internet it was different,’ he explained. ‘A couple of agents called me, talking about various clubs, some said Liverpool or Spurs, but although they were known for 1966, compared to the big trophy winning clubs, West Ham were not in the same range.

‘The way I ended up joining is something that just couldn’t happen these days. We had the 1995 winter break in Germany, and I got a call saying West Ham were interested, so with the club’s permission, and without having actually spoken to Harry, I came over. I was assured by the agent that it’s a done deal and West Ham really wanted me, then I met Harry for the first time at Chadwell Heath, and he said he’d watched me, liked me and wanted me to train for a week, then play a trial game.

‘I said I didn’t come for a trial – I’m captain of a Bundesliga team, I was voted in the team of the season previous year, and I’m a national team player, so no, no trial. He said he respected that but in the past he’d made some mistakes based on watching people on tapes, and he’d got a lot of stick over that, so he didn’t want to make that mistake again. I wasn’t being bigheaded, but I said I wasn’t going to do it – also, my club in Germany won’t allow it. Even though I still had a contract there, I’d told them I was leaving and not coming back, so this left me in limbo.

‘Next morning I went back to the training ground and said I’ll do one training session to show I’m not injured, but after that you have to say yes or no, I’m not going to hang around or play a game. In that session he put me up against Iain Dowie, one of the most physical players at the club, and doing sprints against Stan Lazaridis, one of the fastest – and after that, I signed.’

Bilic’s new room-mate was club captain Julian Dicks, and the odd couple clicked instantly, over, as Dicks told Blowing Bubbles in a previous interview, a shared love of drinking, smoking and heavy metal.

‘I found a friend quickly,’ said Bilic. ‘Every time I work in England, Julian’s part of my team – he’s old fashioned in a nice way, he’s loyal, a proper man who’s a hard worker, committed and honest. When it comes to smoking and drinking, he’s far in front of me, but I’m more metal than him. I’m so proud that I can count Iron Maiden and (bass player and West Ham fan) Steve Harris as my friends. Julian’s idol is Elvis Presley – everybody loves Elvis, but Julian is obsessed with him.

‘It wasn’t only Jules, we had a great bunch of lads in that squad – Ian Bishop, John Moncur, Iain Dowie, Marc Rieper, Ludek Miklosko, Michael Hughes and when I joined we still had players like Alvin Martin and Keith Rowlands too – brilliant guys and we played good football, too. That’s what was good about Harry, he was always buying players who would help play football that was good to watch – at that time, our central midfield was Bish and Moncs, which even today people would call crazily offensive.’

Bilic’s first-team debut was held up briefly by work permit issues, and in January 1996 the team lost three out of four games, before things picked up and Bilic finally got his chance to join a winning team, with his debut in a 1-0 win at Spurs on February 12 1996, the goal coming when fellow debutant Dani followed up Bilic’s blocked shot. This was followed by wins over Chelsea and Kevin Keegan’s legendary Newcastle entertainers, who were long-time league leaders, and all of a sudden, the new boy was very much at home. ‘I had the luck to come into a team who started winning, which helped with settling on and off the pitch,’ he said.

Despite being a newcomer, as an experienced international having played in a top European league, Bilic was soon a senior figure in the West Ham team, something he felt quite comfortable with. ‘I wanted to take responsibility, I wanted to be a protagonist, I wanted to be a locomotive not a wagon,’ he explained. ‘This goes with the centre back role. Leaders of the team are often centre backs, like Tony Adams, Terry Butcher, Gary Pallister, Alvin Martin, and Dave Watson at Everton – not necessarily the best players but reliable ones. At every club, I wasn’t the best player but I was always one of the most important players, sometimes captain, and always one the manager would consult and ask. I felt that responsibility a lot, and it helped.’

Bilic’s time at Upton Park as a player only lasted one and a half seasons, but his ability and his character made such a big impression that years later, he was the man the club and fans wanted back, to lift spirits after the functional but joyless Sam Allardyce era, and to guide the club through leaving Upton Park, its home of more than 100 years.

‘I wish I’d come to West Ham earlier but I don’t regret my time in Germany,’ he said. ‘In that time, players weren’t moving so young, in Yugoslavia you could only move after you were 28, so that was the system we grew up in but then we were allowed to go earlier than that because of the war. Even then, the rules meant you were only allowed a limited number of foreign players at a club, so it wasn’t that easy to move too early.’

The 1996-97 season saw English football with a spring in its step after the success of hosting Euro 96, and also with an influx of overseas signings, but after a 10th place finish the previous season, West Ham could only reach that high once in the next campaign, with signings like Paulo Futre and Florin Raduciou failing to impress as the team floundered in the lower half of the table.

Things got even worse mid-season when, after a famously snowbound 1-1 FA Cup third round draw at Wrexham, the Irons were humiliated in the replay at Upton Park, and it was Bilic who stepped up to speak to the outraged home fans. ‘It was awful, there were police on horseback keeping back the fans who were furious and demanding to speak to the board – that didn’t happen, of course, but it was me and Julian who went out and spoke to them. It was about taking responsibility.’

A thrilling rain-lashed 4-3 win over Tottenham, with goals from newboys John Hartson and Paul Kitson, snapped West Ham out of their torpor and revitalised their Premier League campaign, but already, there were signs that whatever came next, Bilic would not be part of it, because in the days before the transfer window, Everton had made it very clear that they wanted to sign him.

‘Everton wanted me before the March deadline,’ he said. ‘I was 29 and had a clause in my contract that I could go for a world record fee for defender, so I said to Harry let me go there for one day – make no mistake I’m not going to sign, I promise one million percent, maybe we can make the deal for the summer, but definitely no more than that, but he said no – they have injuries and want you now.

‘I said I’m coming back tomorrow and playing on Saturday, but he didn’t believe me. They wanted me straight away. I had a talk with them, Joe Royle was the manager, Peter Johnson was chairman, and he said “I want to win the league in five years, I will invest, I want to buy a spine like you, (Lazio striker Pierluigi) Casiraghi, (Parma midfielder) Dino Baggio”. I said “ok but I can’t come now”, he said “we need you now”, I said no way, I won’t leave West Ham now, and they didn’t like that, but in the end I think they did like that kind of commitment, so I came back to Harry and said “I told you I’d stay until the end of the season”.’

Come the end of the season, after just a season and a half in claret and blue, 54 appearances and three goals, West Ham sold Bilic to Everton for more than three times what they had paid for him. ‘My problem, which turned out to be good for West Ham but bad for Everton and me, was that having signed a five year deal at Goodison Park, one year later I broke my hip and had to retire from top level football,’ said Bilic.

‘I tried to play lower level back at home, but it only lasted a few months. You can’t play with an injury like that, so I had to retire. Of course I was happy to retire in a Hajduk shirt, but what had looked quite promising at Everton turned into a disaster movie. That first season we were struggling, the second season I had to quit. That’s why it’s so strange for me that I have such a strong, enduring bond with West Ham fans. I was only there a short time and I wasn’t forced out, I left, and the fans hated me for that, so I was surprised in a nice way that we maintained a relationship after I left.’

The maintaining and glorious restoration of that relationship with West Ham is another story altogether.

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