A fellow columnist on Back Page Football put together an interesting article when the damaged figure of Slaven Bilic first lurched on the West Ham horizon. Anyone with an ounce of respect for the club or its history immediately questioned the need to drag the Hammers under.
I’ll be clear here as I have two dogs in the fight. Firstly, I have followed West Ham for almost 40 years, first getting a liking for the club when given a packet of sweet cigarettes with a footballer card inside – it turned out to be Billy Bonds.
That same evening, in my grandparents house in Finglas, my Uncle and Dad sat watching a black and white match from England, Bonds played like a hero and coincidental lifelong affliction was born.
Secondly, I’ve known Slaven for over ten years since we worked with Hajduk through to his torrid time in Moscow with Lokomotiv.
Where to begin? Slaven was one of four ex-Hajduk stars who invested in the club to stave off the ignominy of bankruptcy. A generous gesture though with strings attached. The four controlled most matters at the club and reaped the financial rewards before cashing out to leave the club at the mercy of real sharks.
Slaven began as head of the youth section, passing along the best players to the first team and flogging them off via his agent before the club could begin to blossom. The pillaging of Hajduk’s youth system from this period in the early to mid-2000s has left them a perennial second best in one of Europe’s most uncompetitive and chaotic leagues.
Without a championship in more than ten years the club he profited from fell to the ultimate disgrace of forfeiting a match last November when the players refused to take the field.
Because around 50 known hooligans were banned from entering the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb for the match with Dinamo, all the sheep followed suit and in order to prevent their cars, homes and person being smashed up, the players “sat in solidarity”. As one Croatian pundit put it, losing 3-0 was far better than being humiliated on the field and having to face angry fans.
Given the best crop of under-21s in recent memory Slaven and fellow Hajduk “investor” failed to make the Euro Under-21s in 2006, losing a play-off to Serbia-Montenegro. When Niko Kranjcar’s dad was dumped from the Croatian top job there was more than a little surprise when Slaven was handed the reins to get to Euro ’08.
Immediately moving up his own (represented) players from the under-21s – Da Silva, Corluka and Modric, the Croatians went as far as the quarter-finals of the tournament held in Austria and Switzerland where they were found out by a hard working and solid Turkish team.
A threat to quit in shame (in order to take up a lucrative post in Turkey) was shouted down and he limped to a third place finish in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, behind England and Ukraine. This time there were no offers for his services so instead the pledge was to get the team to the Euro’s in 2012.
In the lead up to the tournament in Poland and Ukraine it was leaked that Slaven had already agreed a contract with Lokomotiv Moscow, so in his farewell he managed third place in the group ahead of Ireland and behind Spain and Italy. At the Euros he was subject of one of Eamonn “Pirlo’s never won the Champions League” Dunphy’s usual misguided and attention grabbing soundbites.
Having been caught lying about Del Bosque’s “€50,000” salary, the ex-Shamrock Rovers coach then claimed he’d mixed the Spaniard up with the Croatian. Oddly nobody dug about on this and Slaven’s generous €700,000 tax-free salary and his side benefits (e.g. kickbacks from agents-clubs for capping players in order to increase their value) remained outside the drive to remove Trapattoni.
Sacked after a chaotic season in Russia where, surprise surprise, one of his own players arrived and only for the battle with the club president’s son-in-law aka agent in chief, Slaven might well have held on to make more money.
Moving onto Besiktas in Turkey and with a top three budget he duly finished top three, again making sure his agent was ensconced in the Vodafone Arena. However with bigger fish swimming into view and his agent trawling, they did a deal to get out of the last year of his contract and be in the running for West Ham. And it was a success.
After Unai Emery turned down the chance to join a mid-table club in England, Slaven ran with arms and pockets open. And here we wait for the supposed new dawn.
Of course, no journalists will do any digging as it would open a can of worms on how football business is conducted in Britain and the trembling high ground for an English FA tarnished by their bribes in the 2018 World Cup bid process, would fall away in an instant.
Instead a club which had held the distinction of being the most stable employer of managers and supplier of talented youngsters, will move even further from the West Ham I began supporting in 1976.
Slaven is a decent, if not entirely stable person who was a good footballer, good coach of good players and much beloved of hipsters. It would be wonderful to believe that he has finally found his home in East London, though when he benefited from the destruction of his own hometown club and has less than sociable habits and associates, a return to London might finish his coaching career for good.