When Aristotle said that one swallow does not make a summer, we can probably assume that he did not have in mind West Ham’s enigmatic new manager Slaven Bilić.
Nevertheless, confronted with the buoyant hordes of Hammers after their opening weekend victory over Arsenal, the words of the Greek thinker seem oddly prescient: overwhelmingly, past form suggests that the Croat will fail to succeed at Upton Park.
This is not to say that Bilić will flop. As an experienced manager with a strong squad, most would be surprised to see West Ham anywhere near the drop zone come season’s end. Rather, the Hammers will finish exactly where they deserve to, around the upper end of mid-table, in exactly the place that this irascible and unlikely prophet has been tasked with leading them from.
Infatuated with the great myth of the ‘West Ham Way’, fans will judge Bilić by standards he cannot hope to meet.
In fairness to the Hammers’ board, Bilić was not their first choice. Marcelo Bielsa, David Moyes and Unai Emery were all approached. Further, before being (understandably) snatched from the net by Real Madrid, perhaps the biggest fish of all in the shape of Rafael Benitez had agreed to succeed Sam Allardyce.
With the possible exception of Moyes, all fit the bill of being progressive, cosmopolitan coaches schooled in the nuances of modern football, with the pedigree and calibre to take West Ham forwards.
June, however, heralded the return of the prodigal son. In entered Slaven Bilić, treading the desolate path from Istanbul to London, the Promethean bringer of fire to a club he had once battled for on the pitch. He does not bring with him Europe League trophies, like Emery, nor the Champion’s League, like Benitez, but he brings fire, and brawn, and passion.
All of which, as Kenny Dalglish’s second tenure at Liverpool showed, are increasingly obsolete in the modern game. All of which may appease fans but do little to achieve points. All of which fail to distinguish Bilić, in terms of quality, from his predecessor Allardyce.
Ultimately, Slaven Bilić has been hired more as an exercise in public relations than as an attempt to improve West Ham. For all his flaws, Allardyce guided West Ham from the Championship to their most exciting season in recent memory last year, with a dream of Europe very real at Christmas. He did not deserve to be shown the door. Ultimately, Big Sam was a sacrifice on the altar of a truly beguiling myth: the ‘West Ham Way’.
The ‘West Ham Way’ is as illusory as the bubbles Hammers claim to blow. There is no culture of successful, attacking, beautiful football at Upton Park. If there ever was, it was certainly in the murky depths of time before the Premier League.
West Ham are a durable team, with an impressive fanbase, who earn their crust but whose quality deserves little more. I know this. You know this. Sir Alex Ferguson knew this.
Reality, however, ends at the turnstiles of the Boleyn Ground and the Hammers’ faithful could never countenance the idea of a bluff, abrasive man from the Midlands being their new messiah. Far better, presumably thought David Sullivan, a man who if not an improvement at least seems it, who if not a philosopher is at least a fighter, who if not able to implement the ‘West Ham Way’ can at least embody it as an ex-player.
So if he fails, who can fault the logic?
Yet Bilić is no better a manager than Allardyce. The hype about the new manager relies mostly on ignorance of his previous record, based on his managerial sojourn taking him through the footballing peripheries of Croatia, Russia and Turkey. Belief in Bilić is grounded on a number of weak myths.
Recently, Read West Ham published ‘An Insight into Slaven Bilić’ evincing many of these fallacies. The idea that Beşiktaş were saved by Bilić as a dry run for success at West Ham is pure nonsense.
For all the Eagles’ financial troubles, Bilić led a team of stars, as with Demba Ba serving alongside Turkish talent like Tolga Zengin, rivalled by few in the Süper Lig.
For all that he resurrected the ‘stalled’ career of Gökhan Töre, he was working with a still young player who had been brought through at Chelsea. For all that he prevented the ship from sinking and made Beşiktaş a contender in the title race again, the Eagles have always been the third side in Turkey.
Rather, Bilić’s Eagles flopped almost every big game. This is a league where raucous fans make home advantage so all important that reigning champions Galatasaray have not won at crosstown neighbours Fenerbahçe since 1999.
Under Bilić, Beşiktaş lost every derby to Galatasaray and managed just two draws against Fenerbahçe. Whilst even Süper Lig minnows Eskişehirspor could make it to the Cup final in 2014, contrastingly Bilić won nothing at Beşiktaş.
In Europe, Beşiktaş might have knocked Liverpool out of the Europa League on penalties, but their tactical naivety saw them fail to withstand the attacks of mighty Club Brugge over two legs.
Both domestically and internationally, this is hardly a catastrophe for a Beşiktaş side whose aspirations towards silverware are optimistic. But therein lies the crux of the matter: as a manager, Bilić is utterly indifferent, perfectly neutral and aggressively average.
He will not get West Ham to excel and so he will not lead them to finish anywhere above mid table. He has rarely over performed: whilst admirably leading a strong Croatian side until 2012, Bilić took Lokomotiv Moscow to their worst ever league finish in 2013.
Whilst he left the Croatian national team on good terms, he was sacked in Moscow and announced his imminent departure from Beşiktaş long before West Ham called. Never has his performance warranted a bigger club to snatch him from another.
This is not to discredit a man who clearly has talents. His personality sees him come off far better in front of media and fans alike than Allardyce could ever have hoped to, his bravery sees him throw youngsters like Reece Oxford into the fray as we saw at Arsenal and his man-management sees him get the best out of players like Gökhan Töre.
Nevertheless, in an arena where both board and fans mythologise the ridiculous idea of a ‘West Ham Way’ as sanction for indulging in delusions of grandeur, Bilić cannot hope to meet the standard expected of him. Bilić can at best lead this West Ham team to where they deserve to be: in the upper middle of the table.
With Enner Valencia out for up to three months, West Ham lack a striker in addition to having little star quality in their team. There is nothing to suggest that West Ham have improved on last season or offer more than any of the incumbent top eight. And if they are pretending to have improved their manager they are fooling no one but themselves.
Premature exit in the Europa League to Astra Giurgiu may not be an anomaly. Slaven Bilić can only fail to succeed at West Ham. If it is doubtful that there is any manager at all that can meet the club’s expectations, it is certain that it is not him.