West Ham United, with ambition Sam Allardyce dismissed, proved it can pay to aim high
“What exactly do the board and the fans think they can achieve? Uefa Champions League football? A top-six finish? It will take a long time.”
Perhaps six months qualifies as a long time in football, a sport where short-termism increasingly prevails. Sam Allardyce’s autobiography was only published in October. It was a book in which he railed at his former club for harbouring expectations he deemed utterly unrealistic.
Parting company with the increasingly unpopular Allardyce, as West Ham United did with indecent haste at the end of last season, seemed to invite a warning: be careful what you wish for.
Instead, it has provided an opportunity. It is one West Ham have taken with alacrity.
A transitional year may yet be a glorious one. The next 10 days will illustrate if it goes on to prove arguably their greatest in their history. It could culminate in twin triumphs and an audacious move for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Allardyce was a damage-limitation specialist but his predictions West Ham would be harmed have been unfounded.
“It must be a big anxiety for the owners, who need to fill the 54,000-seater Olympic Stadium with entertaining and successful football next year,” he wrote. “Slaven Bilic is the new man in the hot seat and good luck to him. He will need it.”
Perhaps the Croatian requires fortune to favour West Ham, but not in the way Allardyce envisaged. West Ham host Arsenal Saturday and visit Leicester City next Sunday in the Premier League. Those tests sandwich an FA Cup quarter-final replay with Manchester United.
It is a daunting run but Bilic’s men have a fine run in big games this season. Extend it and they may themselves be favourites to win a first major trophy in 36 years and on course for an inaugural Uefa Champions League campaign.
Even if their two-pronged challenge subsides, this has still been an encouraging year. Allardyce scoffed at “the West Ham way”, a nebulous concept he believed was never properly defined, let alone realised.
“I felt the West Ham way was about wearing your heart on your sleeve and showing passion for the club and winning,” he said.
“But the fans were being brainwashed into thinking that, historically, the club had a particular style of play which was akin to Barcelona, which was potty.”
Now West Ham do not play tiki-taka, but they do attack.
Bilic has brought flair, encouraged adventure and showed crowd-pleasing forms part of it. Dimitri Payet is shaping up to be the most beloved player since Paolo di Canio, a fount of creativity and the sort of footballer who makes rival supporters envious. In Manuel Lanzini, Bilic has paired him with a second inventive talent. Michail Antonio has surged from the Championship to the upper reaches of the Premier League with a series of solo runs, characterised by infectious enthusiasm.
West Ham have been resourceful as well as entertaining, successful as well as progressive.
Injuries have meant Bilic has required a revolving cast of centre-forwards, all outscored by Payet, Lanzini and Antonio. The adaptable Antonio has been pressed into service at right-back. Cheikhou Kouyate has been an emergency centre-back.
The Senegalese, a man-mountain in midfield, is available again after his red card against Crystal Palace was overturned on appeal. Kouyate is also evidence that Allardyce laid the groundwork for much of Bilic’s success.
The current Sunderland manager believes the summer 2014 transfer window was his best in management. It also produced Diafra Sakho, the best of Bilic’s strikers, and Aaron Cresswell, consistently among the finest left-backs in England. He had already signed the excellent goalkeeper Adrian and the consistently defiant defender James Collins. Captain Mark Noble and centre-back Winston Reid improved during his tenure.
Perhaps, in proving Allardyce wrong, West Ham have also illustrated that he did much right.
But he underestimated their ambition, both in terms of results and brand of play. Bilic has understood it and encouraged it. Sometimes it pays to aim high.
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Published: April 7, 2016 04:00 AM