“He’s one of our own.” It doesn’t matter by how much, just that he is. Those 18 months Slaven Bilić spent in East London will prove useful for endearing himself to the West Ham faithful.
He was off to a good start in his first interview. Bilić spoke with gusto of taking the “cult club” into Europe on a regular basis and challenging for trophies. It was the usual talk that new managers give when taking over clubs like West Ham – ambition is what the fans and the directors want to hear. The team that he takes charge of in the coming weeks will be hoping to hit the big time under his watch.
West Ham’s move in the summer of 2016 to the 55,000 Olympic Stadium brings with it enormous potential to actually do so; not just expand and grow beyond the confines of Upton Park. Club owners David Gold and David Sullivan would do well to learn from the last two Premier League clubs that moved their premises. The new Arsenal? Not quite. The new Man City? Maybe. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.
The comparison is apt not just because both are moving into larger stadia designed for major sporting events – for the 2012 Olympics, see the 2002 Commonwealth games. For the Abu Dhabi Investment Group, one of the most appealing aspects of buying Manchester City was the local, loyal fanbase that would appeal to outside investors.
Building and spreading the brand of the club is the name of the game these days – crucial for planning an assault on the top six. More sponsorship, TV rights and European nights will all help draw in added revenue to reinvest on the pitch.
The big difference, as is so often the case in football, is the money. City were able to utilise the funds from the Abu Dhabi Investment Group to secure the transfer coup of the summer, spending £32.5 million securing Robinho from Real Madrid in 2008. The move was a bold statement of intent from the owners, who were keen to see the relative underdog rise to the challenge and disrupt the established powers at the top of the table.
The rules of the game have changed though. Where clubs were free to spend as per their whim, Financial Fair Play has (supposedly) put an end to the days of exorbitant fees and accusations of “buying the league.” Clubs are now expected to balance the books or face fines and penalties such as City themselves did this year, forced to compete in the Champions League with a squad capped at 23 players rather than the usual 25.
West Ham won’t have the luxury of uncapped spending as City did, even after the relaxation of FFP rules in the coming seasons. The outrageous contract offers that might have once tempted star players probably won’t be possible this time.
There is talk of the club bidding up to around the £30 million mark should the right player be available and willing, but such a move is a one off in comparison to the squad overhaul that Mark Hughes was able to instigate at City. West Ham could only dream of matching the £120 million spending spree that started in August 2008. Bilic will have to work hard with head of recruitment Tony Henry to secure their targets at an affordable price within the transfer budget.
It might take West Ham longer than City to reach the status of title contender, but the move to the Olympic Stadium is a start that many other clubs envy. Consider that Liverpool have spent a decade agonizing over whether to press ahead with Stanley Park, only to then settle on expanding Anfield at the cost of £114 million.
Spurs too will spend close to £400 million on their new 56,000 stadium. Conversion costs for the Olympic Stadium will only set West Ham back around £15 million, in addition to their annual rent fee.
The move comes with expectation however. Bilić, for West Ham, could come to represent what Mark Hughes became for Manchester City – the man to start the transition, but not the one to lead them to titles and trophies. David Gold and David Sullivan have thrown their support behind the new manager for the long run. Whether their ambitions are matched by reality will be the true test.
If however Bilić can replicate the kind of performances that defined his Croatia side, he may yet enjoy a much longer stint in Stratford compared to his previous clubs. Fans will delight for now in the nostalgia of saying goodbye to Upton Park and the crowd cheering on “one of their own” that Sam Allardyce could only have dreamed of during his tenure.