‘It’ll be a special day when I can return to watch West Ham as a spectator’

Slaven Bilic reflects on his time as manager in the final season at the Boleyn and our new home

When Croatian international defender Slaven Bilic returned to his hometown club Hajduk Split in 1999, bruised and battered and approaching the end of a playing career that had kept him away from home for six years, he may have thought he was settling down. Little did he know he was just about to embark on a journey that would take him, via Russia and Turkey, back to his second home, in east London, to start a whole new chapter of this love affair with West Ham.

‘Of course I was happy to retire in a Hajduk shirt, but at that time Dinamo Zagreb, our biggest rivals, were starting to dominate in Croatia, and they were richer than us too,’ he said. ‘In 2000, I captained the team to beat Dinamo in the Croatian Cup final, our first trophy in five years, and I retired. Soon the club was in serious financial trouble, so four of us ex-Hajduk players who had played together and had also all played in England basically saved the club at a crucial moment in its history with our own money.’

Those four were Bilic, another ex Hammer, Igor Stimac, Aljosa Asanovic, who like Stimac, had played for Derby, and Alen Boksic, who at the time was still playing for Middlesbrough. The story of how these players were part of the first teams from the independent Croatia to establish the country as a force in world football is told in the 2022 documentary Croatia: Defining a Nation, and it was not long before Bilic had done enough as Hajduk manager to be entrusted with the job of being Croatian U21 coach, where he was to play a key role in the emergence of the greatest ever Croatian footballer, Luka Modric.

‘Coaching the U21s was a very good preparation for what lay ahead, which turned out, after the 2006 World Cup, to be coaching the senior national team,’ he said. ‘It was brave of the federation chairman to appoint me as national team coach when I was only 37, because in this country, after the prime minister, you are the next most important person in the country, but I was confident and I had a great self-belief. I had two years with the U21s, and the only difference is the level of pressure, but I thought I could cope – it was nothing new to me, I had played for this team. I didn’t work in the university or a factory, I’m used to being a public person, so I didn’t have any doubts about my ability to do the job.’

As Bilic later went on to do at West Ham with Julian Dicks, he did not rely on people who were necessarily great coaches, but on friends, people he trusted. And it worked. ‘I surrounded myself with people like Asanovic and Robert Prosinecki, who didn’t have lots of experience, close friends who I knew from childhood and had played with for years – it turned out to be a good coaching staff and loyal friends, with good results, and we enjoyed it.’

When he was in charge of the U21s, Bilic first crossed paths with the 18-year-old Modric, in 2004. Two years later he was playing at the World Cup, and at the age of 38, he remains the lynchpin of the national team, and also a key player for Real Madrid where he has been a fixture for 12 years. ‘When I met Luka he was 18 and by far the youngest in the group, but within two or three games I had made him the captain, because he was absolutely unique,’ said Bilic.

‘It wasn’t just his skill but his character – his determination to win every tackle of every training every day, that’s what makes the difference. His ability with the ball is amazing, he’s an absolute one-off – in the early years, people were always debating what number he is, because he’s ideal for everything. He loves everything about the game – I’ve seen him win aerial challenges with players much bigger purely because he wants it more. 

‘I’ve never seen such passion in any other player. He’s an unbelievable player and an unbelievable man. Of course he’s changed over the years, and he’s very confident, but he’s the same guy when it comes down to it – he’s strong but humble, very down to earth and polite. I can’t stop talking about him in those terms, because he’s so special, you want to share that with everyone.’

Anyone in England who had forgotten about Bilic was jolted back to awareness in November 2007 when in the infamous “Wally with the Brolly” match at Wembley, Steve McClaren’s England went 0-2 down to Bilic’s Croatia in the decisive Euro 2008 qualifying match, before levelling, only to go down and out 3-2, having also gone to 2-0 at the earlier encounter in Zagreb. His team’s stock was rising, and so was Bilic’s own.

‘Even without me having played in England, it’s not like any other match when your country plays England,’ he said. ‘That was the time when England were dominating, the 2008 Champions League final was Chelsea v Manchester United, and there had been an English team in the final the three years before that.

‘They had so many massive star names, and also Rio Ferdinand, who I had known at West Ham, was playing for England, so that added something to it. I don’t know if it was just rumours or anything more serious, but agents certainly called me with expressions of interest from clubs in England and other countries, but I didn’t want to leave Croatia.’

Under Bilic’s guidance, Croatia qualified for Euro 2008 and Euro 2012, and he left his position in 2012 with his reputation enhanced, to return to club coaching, first with Lokomotiv Moscow, then Besiktas in Turkey, and finally, home to West Ham. ‘I was more than ready to come to England,’ he said. ‘I’d been six years with Croatia, appearing in two Euros championships, then in Russia, and then Turkey. Besiktas is not a club, it’s more like a state – the pressure is unbelievable, but we did really well during that time and it was very important in setting up my move to West Ham.

‘We almost beat Arsenal in the Champions League play-off, but went to the Europa League instead, where we beat Spurs in the group, then we knocked out Liverpool, so that helped me, that helped me get an offer and also helped me realise that I was ready for West Ham.’

The sigh of relief that greeted the end of the Sam Allardyce era at Upton Park in summer 2015 was probably audible in Split, and when the club followed it up with the announcement of Bilic’s return, the Upton Park farewell season was well and truly up and running – in fact, before the new manager was ready. ‘It was a very strange pre-season, because we had qualified for Europe based on fair play so we started the season very early, we only had two pre-season games then it was planned Terry Westley would take charge of the first competitive game, against Lusitanos from Andorra.

‘I came to watch the first game, at the start of July, on a really bright summer evening, and it was a full house. I thought “is this normal, for a team like this?” That would never happen in Europe, I remember that moment so clearly.’

Little did West Ham fans know what lay ahead in the 2015-16 season – a seventh place finish with a club Premier League record 62 points, the incredible drama of the final ever game at Upton Park, and a new hero in the form of the previously little-known Dimitri Payet. ‘When I first met the board, after we’d agreed my contract, David Sullivan said he wanted to give me a present with a new player straight away, and told me he had an agent who’d proposed a Marseille’s player who wasn’t so expensive.

‘I asked who, and he said Payet, and that he could get him cheap. I had wanted to sign him for Besiktas but he didn’t want to come, so when Sullivan said that,  I said “don’t get him now, get him yesterday – he’s that good”. He wasn’t a big star but he was more than big enough for West Ham, so it was amazing to get him in so early in the transfer window.’

Sullivan also let him bring in Dicks as his assistant – ‘from my point of view, it was a no brainer. We hadn’t stayed in touch big time but with some people, you don’t need to be in regular contact.’

As well as comings, there were goings, most notably Morgan Amalfitano, who had a great reputation as a player, but was famed for being hard to handle. ‘Big players have big characters, you can’t expect them to be yes men and I don’t mind it, but they can’t affect the team,’ said Bilic. ‘With Amalfitano it was a bit different – I didn’t see him playing an important role and when those kinds of players aren’t important on the pitch, it’s not good for them or the club for them to be around. It wasn’t something big (that led to his exit), but we had a couple of things happen and I decided it would be better for the club to part ways.’

Payet fitted into the team perfectly, and another player Bilic had tried to sign for Besiktas also sneaked in under the radar but soon made an impact. ‘I had tried to sign Manuel Lanzini when he was 19 but his agents took him to Al Jazeera instead, then when I was at West Ham I got a call saying he was available. David Sullivan said “this is the Premier League, we don’t sign players from leagues like that”, but I said I really like him, can we get him on loan with an option, so we did, and he was flying.

‘We were solid at the front, had steel and creativity in midfield, composure with Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyate was an engine, we had Dimi as the playmaker, Michail Antonio on the other side, then Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll up front – wow. Enner Valencia, who had been great the season before, was doing really well until he got badly injured, and for a long time we were close to getting into the Champions League. It was a great season.’

Without doubt the greatest moment of that season was the penultimate game, on May 10 2016. The Boleyn farewell. West Ham 3, Manchester United 2. ‘We met up in Canary Wharf before the game and we knew it was a special match, but the drive from the hotel to the stadium was almost impossible because of the crowds, and that’s when we realised just how big a deal this was to the fans and everyone at the club. I said to everyone – we can’t be the ones who lose this game. It wasn’t just about emotion, there was still loads to play for for both sides, and the delayed kick-off just added to the drama. It was definitely one of my very best footballing memories.’

The 2016-17 season meant a new era in a new home, and the upheaval proved challenging, especially when Payet made it clear he wanted out. ‘When Barcelona lost Lionel Messi, it took ages to recover – Dimi was that important to us, that much of a talisman, that much of a loss,’ he said. ‘He wanted to go home for family reasons, and I can only say positive things about him, because he went back to Marseille a bigger star and a better player than when he had joined us, and he gave everything to us.

‘It’s very difficult to deal with that as a manager, there was definitely something going on, but the club didn’t want to go public with it and when I noticed it was affecting the team and other players because he’d gone from being positive and funny in the dressing room to being quiet, people started asking what was going on. When the team was affected, I had to go public.’

West Ham finished Bilic’s second season in charge in 11th place, but he said he is actually more proud of that than the previous campaign. ‘We changed the training ground, we changed the stadium, we had so many injuries and we lost our best player, so considering everything, it was a great achievement,’ he said.

From the outset, though, the 2017-18 season seemed to be hamstrung. Kouyate and Lanzini picked up pre-season injuries, the World Athletics Championship meant West Ham had to wait a month for a home game, and a constant drip-drip of bad luck contributing to poor results ended with a 4-1 rout at home by Liverpool, and on November 6 2017, Bilic was sacked. ‘I wasn’t shocked or angry when I was sacked, but as I said at that time, we had new players who needed time. I was disappointed but not shocked – I am sure we would have stayed up and finished mid-table.’

Under caretaker David Moyes, West Ham went on to finish 13th. Since then, in England Bilic has worked at West Brom and Watford, both times with Julian Dicks as his assistant. ‘I don’t like Julian, I love him – I love working with him, spending time with him. He’s a one-off, you know where you stand with him, he’s straight, tells you his opinion and he’s extremely loyal. No matter that now I’m in Saudi and he’s in England, I’m sure we will work together again.’

Bilic’s detailed recall of individual games and incidents from such a busy career seems impressive, but he seems to regard it as natural. ‘It’s not just a job, it’s a calling, it’s a pleasure, it’s everything,’ he said. Hajduk Split will always be Bilic’s first love, but West Ham is clearly a club that also means a huge amount to him. ‘It’s not the biggest club in England, but it’s a cult club. I grew up listening to Iron Maiden and wondered why they had ‘Up the Irons’ on their albums, so when I found the connection, I knew it was a special club,’ he said.

‘Fans respond to passion. I wasn’t the most quality centre back West Ham have ever had but fans see and feel passion, so if you are the kind of person who talks with fans, they treat you as one of them. Because of work I don’t think I’ve ever watched West Ham as a spectator – but the day that I do will be a special day.’

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