Hidden beneath their quasi-defunct protestations and their demands for football to be played in ‘the West Ham way’, the fans at Upton Park really just wanted to be loved.
Sam Allardyce had strutted around, like King Hippo during his time at the club, cupping his ear to the boos and guffawing at the stupid masses, as they writhed in agony witnessing the thud-and-blunder that was his design. There was the feeling, by the time he sloped-off to unemployment, muttering, that he had never really understood what the fans had wanted.
This ‘West Ham Way’ they had been harping on about, was not really to do with football, although during that deathly boring second-half of the 14-15 season, he might have tried at least a little to liven things up. No, they wanted their manager – and then, in turn, their club – to express a certain kind of attitude, one that was not centered around thrashing out foul-tasting mid-table finishes, and then looking sneeringly at those who were not satiated fully by them. Thanks very much for taking us to 13th Sam, but our palates have been numb for a while now.
Of course, ‘the West Ham Way’ has, of late, only involved wild oscillation between stale mediocrity and dire failure. This is not the same style of Hurst, Peters and Moore, not even of Redknapp and Di Canio. West Ham fans are seen by many as fussy children, having their cake (lasting stability in the Premier League), but wanting to eat it too (playing exciting football in the Premier League); the former, regrettably, is very difficult to achieve via the latter. But mid-table stability is not everything, and certainly not, as Big Sam seemed to see it, the only thing. Regardless, it was Allardyce’s failure to identify the lack of respect, of love, of appreciation, that he displayed that really led to those in the stands abandoning him.
Take, for example, Allardyce’s press conference after West Ham drew with Chelsea last January. As much as we all might want to laud a victory over Jose Mourinho, his cack-handed compound word “out-tactic’ed” felt, on the whole, entirely self-congratulatory. This was his victory, to be celebrated by him. As much as the fans might have shared his serrated joy at frustrating a hated London rival, they were not included by Allardyce in the celebrations here. He said “We’ve” but it sounded like “I’ve”. Then, a few months later, when the supporters booed off Allardyce after his team heaved themselves over the line, barely beating 10-man Hull City 2-1, Allardyce seemed baffled, bitter and dismissive of the, admittedly, unusual reaction.
“The trouble was, at half time, the players were talking more about the fans booing them they were about the game. So I had to do a real job on the team at half time, and, you know, fans affect players… good or bad, they affect players and they have to understand that.”
The “they” in that last sentence refers, one assumes, to the fans. Heaven forbid that a set of players might have some concern for those who turn up every week and pay to watch them. Allardyce was implying that he would like these people, for whom – in theory at least – the team is playing for, for whom the glory is to be earned and shared, should shut up and let his players get on with their jobs, without having to worry about annoying requests for their team to try, just try, and take the initiative against an outnumbered Hull City. At that time the Tigers were absolutely dire, an abominable mish-mash of a team. That match was awful, a grind in the true sense of the word, toward a wholly numerical prize, devoid of any sense of pride or beauty. It was not down to the players either; long balls from the back, from James Collins to Andy Carroll, were the main feature of West Ham’s period of numerical dominance, surely a method instated by the manager. When presented with this unique dross, the fans can react in whatever way they like, win or no. In a way, this act was proof of their convictions; we would rather lose than watch a win like this. Allardyce’s cupped hand, and sneering smile, was forever seared into the minds of the supportership. “This man doesn’t care about us”, it said to them, “and he never will.” His press conference confirmed their dank suspicions.
This season, the first under the ‘Age of Bilic’, is resplendent in its dissimilarity. Slaven Bilic has come in and, in no time at all, shown how possible it is to win and play well, even if the pure results are not as consistent as they were under the previous steward. More than that, he has already struck up a heady relationship with the fans, and appears to be someone who understands the passion, who appreciates his patrons, who loves them for their devotion. Take – and compare to Allardyce’s Chelsea moment – how Bilic reacted to West Ham’s historic victory at Anfield. His first instinct is to acknowledge how important this result is for the fans, for the club. He mentions how special Anfield is, the feeling that the supporters must have rushing through them having now won there, finally. “It’s more than three points… it’s great for everyone, especially for the fans”, he says. The press conference is not an exercise in deferentialism to the fans, Bilic goes on to speak frankly and at length about his own merits, and how they contributed to the win. But after earning what might be the best result of his West Ham career, and then to begin your press conference by acknowledging how the result transcends any personal accolade, how it means so much more to the man who came for 52 years to Anfield and never tasted victory, well, that is significant.
It also helps that Bilic is incredibly likable. He has a sort of swagger to him, the hooded-eyed slope of a cooler-than-cool rock star (which, incidentally, he is). When West Ham beat Newcastle, their first home win of the season, Bilic was asked on Monday Night Football what that milestone meant. Again, the fans were given a privileged spot in his answer, an answer that seems to be potently informed by the intimate pleasures of the fan experience, the rituals of matchday. It was refreshing, personal, considerate, rare in post-match interviews that are too often laundry lists of insulated cliches.
And it is not as if the results have been perfect. Yes, the historic victories at the Emirates, Anfield and the Etihad will live long in the memory, and in the annals of club history. But inconsistency has been as much a hallmark of this season as unlikely away form. Losses to Leicester and Bournemouth, and 2-2 draws with Norwich and Sunderland – both snatched after going two goals down – have indicated that Bilic is yet to work out a cogent plan to deal with deep-lying opponents. But there are encouraging signs to be drawn from these less euphoric results as well; an ability to respond, to score goals in the second half, to rally. If individual errors can be cut out, then the results against counter-attacking opponents will improve.
These snippets of personality, a post-match presser here, a club TV spot there, make up the few moments that cast, for the fans, a rare shaft of light onto their manager. As such, it’s vital that a manager uses these moments to send a message, to reassure, to extend a hand out to the loyal folks who matter the most. Allardyce kept his hands firmly shoved in his pockets. Bilic has not, and the fans already adore him for it.