Given the talk of progression that surrounded West Ham United at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, the following ten months of football couldn’t have gone much worse for the London club.
A season that rarely got out of first gear and for significant periods felt like it was stuck in neutral rolling back down the hill.
According My Betting Sites the odds of West Ham getting relegated next season stand at around 10-1, clearly not a situation that was being envisaged a little over 12 month ago.
For the club’s management structure a huge amount of work is needed over the summer to ensure the club moves forward in the next campaign.
The promises came thick and fast at the end of the 2015/16 season, perhaps in part to assuage the discontent many fans felt at being transported from their historic – and crumbling – home at Upton Park to the alien landscape of the former Olympic park in Stratford.
Progress, the fans were told, was an economic necessity, and their new, gleaming, tax-payer funded home was the launchpad from which Champions League football was the destination. It couldn’t have gone any more differently.
Finishing eleventh with 45 points, as late as April there was a chance, albeit merely mathematical, that West Ham could be relegated.
‘The Hammers’ won four games less and lost nine more than the previous season, finishing five places and 17 point worse off.
Indeed with the benefit of hindsight, it seems ludicrous that virtually the same team that had looked so inept in the past months has managed to finish above Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool.
Of course, whilst they were virtually the same team, they weren’t the same team due to the departure of their best player – Dimitri Payet – in January.
Very few teams could have absorbed the impact losing a player of the Frenchman’s abilities, least of all, West Ham. But the club’s league record up to his departure on January 12th speaks to greater deficiencies – played 20, won six, lost ten.
Within those results were heavy defeats to Arsenal, Manchester City, Watford and West Brom – no matter if the diminutive Frenchman had left or not, its clear his powerful build would not be able to carry this team’s deficiencies alone.
Many of those deficiencies were born in the hot mirage of the preceding transfer window.
Buoyed by their second ever highest Premier League finish and, apparently, flush with liquid cash primed to be blown on the transfer market, West Ham’s owners were willing to tell anyone who was listening that they meant business.
David Sullivan bullishly announced that the club had over £100 million ready to be spent on top tier European talent.
Names such Alexandre Lacazette and Michy Batshuayi were touted, instead West Ham signed André Ayew for a record £20.5 million.
As the summer wore on the bids became more frantic and scattergun – the owners publicly criticised Carlos Tevez’s wage demands and bemoaned the ‘out of control’ nature the transfer business.
In the end, still without a proven goalscorer, West Ham plumped for Juventus’ Simone Zaza on a ludicrous loan deal that automatically guaranteed the parent club £20 million if the player reached a certain number of appearances, effectively encouraging West Ham not to play him.
By the end of the transfer window the promises of the club buying into the big time had burst. By January the club had lost the mercurial Payet and signed Robert Snodgrass.
The net quality of the team had not merely remained unchanged, it had reduced.
Taken in the context of the club’s transfer record since David Gold and David Sullivan have been in charge perhaps the disappointing transfer dealings were nothing to be surprised about.
Much has been made of the 32 strikers signed since 2010, returning 128 goals in total, or four goals per striker.
Whilst it makes for fun trivia to try and remember some of those strikers – Mido, anyone? Ilan? Modibo Maïga? Wellington Paulista? – it is indicative of a hierarchy that, through the respective tenures of Avram Grant, Sam Allardyce and now Slaven Bilić, has failed to demonstrate any particular strategy when it comes to both scouting and buying players – a depressing mix of failed loan signings and over-priced Premier League ‘names’.
For what its worth, West Ham’s owners have repeated last season’s assertions that they are working hard to bring, in particular David Sullivan:
I believe we are only a couple of players short of having a very, very good side, and I can promise that we will be working extremely hard again in the summer to achieve that objective.
His business partner and fellow owner, David Gold, by contrast, has been engaging West Ham fans, including famous faces, on social media on another bone of contention – youth policy.
The production of young footballing talent has been synonymous with West Ham. This production line – the so-called ‘Academy of Football’ – may be overly mythologised, but with little else in the way of success to hang their collective hats on, its perhaps understandable that supporters have held graduates such as Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand up as totems.
Yet since that generation of players moved on there has been little in the way of local heroes for the supporters to direct their collective devotion.
The barren spell was particularly evident during the managerial spell of Sam Allardyce, whose pragmatism trumped any romanticised notions of what the club should be.
The two leading lights from West Ham’s youth system – Reece Burke and Reece Oxford – were both loaned out during the 2016/17 season, much to the chagrin of supporters.
The only academy player to make a single appearance this season was Declan Rice – recently called up to the Republic of Ireland squad – who made his debut in the 92nd minute of the last game of the season.
Truth be told, the nature of West Ham’s performances and their resultant precarious League position meant that Slaven Bilić was never going to risk introducing youngsters into a team that so often looked shambolic.
However, away from the pitch there needs to be an acceptance that cultivating young players is something fans want the club to be identified with.
Club identity is at the core of many fans’ concerns. The distance between Upton Park and the former Olympic Stadium is little more than a couple of miles; but the difference is worlds away.
The majority of fans were happy at what was sometimes known as The Boleyn Ground, despite its poor transport links and crumbling architecture.
The London Stadium, as it is now known, is modern, bright and easier to get to; but the nagging feeling is that whilst it served very well as an athletics venue, it is not suitable as a venue for football.
It is doubtful whether any Premier League football club has a ‘soul’. They may promote themselves as intrinsically linked with their respective communities, but that is motivated more by marketing than anything else.
But if football clubs do have souls, it is defined by their fans and their respective relationships with the stadium and the team on the pitch.
West Ham fans fed off the worn-down aesthetics of Upton Park and the underdog status of their team. The move to Stratford, motivated by cold-hearted business pragmatism, removed that link.
The pay-off, fans were promised, would be billboard signings and Champions League football. The West Ham United management have a lot to work ahead of them in order to deliver on that promise.