Filed: Thursday, 31st December 2015
By: Paul Walker
The remarkable recovery against Southampton may well have been the watershed moment, when Slaven Bilic felt that he had proved he could hack it in the Premier League.
Make no mistake, the fastest, most competitive league in the world (not necessarily the best) can make fools of even the very top names. Just look at Louis Van Gaal for that, or even on occasions Jurgen Klopp. Even the special one, Jose Mourinho spent the first half of this season making himself look pretty foolish.
West Ham were 1-0 down. It could easily have been four or five at half time against the Saints, so utterly outplayed had we been. Bilic knew he had to do something to change a disaster into a triumph. Lose and it would have been nine games without a win and nine points off the relegation zone. Lose and it would have been six points from 27.
That would have opened the social media doors of hell, the abuse would have rained down, every twitter twerp would have had a view.
The Premier League is a tough place to work for even the supposed best in the world. You have to be quick-witted, smart and lucky.
I have been reticent to get involved in the seemingly weekly love-ins from bloggers and fansí websites about our new manager, he had been labelled a genius by some, a world -beater by others. Too much too soon there. It is the sort of gibberish that he would not have wished on himself, because he has known all along how hard it is to succeed in the English league.
He was a great choice as manager, he had the right image, background and potential. And he knew what we were about, he ígetsí West Ham. The next bit, though, was more difficult.
Take Van Gaal--please do, my Manchester United pals say. I have listened to observers who insists he is trying everything he knows, his very best, behind the scenes and on the pitch, to turn around Unitedís season. And itís not really working. So far he has avoided the axe, and I hope it stays that way.
For one reason only, before you all start! Isnít it fun to listen to Man United fansí on phone-ins ranting on about their ďentitlementĒ because they are so big and powerful?
The Dutchman is rated one of the best in the world, one of the elite group of managers who donít get out of bed unless someone gives them £250m to spend. But even with that, he has found his job hard beyond belief.
Now we have Klopp here on Saturday with Liverpool. He has won a reputation as one of the cleverest free-thinkers in the game, he seems genuinely fun to have around. But even he has walked into a few brick walls (pray thereís another one on Saturday) since taking over from Brendan Rodgers. He is slowly changing things, but he still has Rodgersí players, and thatís the problem.
Bilic arrived at the Boleyn with only three seasons of serious club management behind him, and as David Sullivan so kindly pointed out--again--on that Sky interview this week, Klopp and Rafa Benitez were ahead of Bilic, and plenty more it seems. He may even have been tenth choice.
Sullivan, who was allowed to plug another Kray movie in the interview--have Sky got no shame?--dragged up old stories and found them all over the papers again on the day of a match. He really should know better than that and handle his interviews with more thought.
Bilic would have brushed all that aside, though. A clever man, academically as well as football-wise (there is a difference) and having sent out a team with Carl Jenkinson at left-back, Alex Song in goggles and Mauro Zarate as playmaker---all mistakes--he changed things.
The full-backs were switched, James Tomkins ending up at left-back and showing just how mature and adaptable he has become. The defender seems to have grown up before our very eyes these past months, boy to man, almost from the day of his final court appearance following that rather unfortunate night club incident.
Zarate, who was sloppy, clueless and constantly making wrong decisions to concede the ball, was hooked. Along with Song.
Manuel Lanzini made a huge impact, a clever player who does not waste possession and can carry the ball despite much physical attention. It would be nice if referees protected him a little more..some hopes there! And on came Andy Carroll, still much maligned in these parts, but not it seems with Saints boss Ronald Koeman, who reckoned his side just couldnít cope with the big Geordie. You hear this so often from rival managers, they should know, and itís about time his repetitive detractors at the Boleyn realised the same.
And no, I donít care how he has his hair done. It could be with pink and blue bows in pigtails as long as he keeps scoring. But maybe the bows will give his Essex fiancee ideas!
Bilic also gave a serious, pointed team talk about giving your opponents a genuine game, at the least. It clearly appealed to the professional pride of a few and the changes worked like a dream.
Was Bilic lucky, brave or astute? A bit of everything really. But we came from behind to win a game for the first time in two years, so it was some achievement.
Most of all it showed that Bilic can change a game at the very highest club level. You look at some managers (my old mate Rodgers for example) and you can see by just watching them on the line that the do not have a clue how to make significant, impact changes. Bilic, we now know, can.
And he knows, and the team know. I called him lucky recently when he went off on a rant about our training ground, because fortuitously, there was a nearly ready-made alternative to turn to at Rush Green. Other West Ham managers who have bitched about Chadwell Heath have not been so lucky with alternatives.
Bilicís changes and positive thinking means we are now 11 points off the 40 point safety mark. Yes, I know I am always banging on about that, but someone has to, thereís more than enough rattling on about Champions League football from our club hierarchy for our own good at times.
Bilic has always known he has to show he can work in this league. His previous club management, if you ignore the years at Hadjuk Split where he was a novice owner-manager in a small league, shows he has been learning on the hoof.
A year at Locomotive Moscow didnít work. They finished ninth, their worse since 1992. Mind you, I wonít blame anyone for failing in the Russian league. It is allegedly the most corrupt in Europe, referees, players, management, officials have all been fingered at some point. And itís cold there too!
Besiktas are the third biggest club in Istanbul, and the third in Turkey. They are a sort of cult city club like ourselves. Smashing atmosphere, fanatically loyal fans and a quirky old ground (sadly itís gone now and been rebuilt on the same site by the Bosphorus).
But all Bilic had to do there was to finish third and deliver Champions League football; Galatasaray and Fenerbahce are far bigger. And Slav delivered third place, two seasons on the trot.
Now he has to show he can work here. The start was wonderful, great results against big clubs where his confidence, newness and spirit were transmitted the players.
Then in the recent tough spell with so many injuries, his luck has held. Five successive draws have been a defensive operation of which the players are rightly proudÖthe infantry holding the line until the fancy-dan lancers arrive.
That could easily have gone badly wrong. Those draws drew plenty of stick, much unfairly. Then along comes a result like Mondayís when we re-established ourselves as a top ten club, not a mid-table one looking over our shoulders. And Bilicís performance will not be lost on the rest of the leagueís managers and coaches, they will know now that the Croatian is learning very, very quickly. He can cut it.
What he is showing is the attributes of an astute coach of a small national side, which is what he was at his best with Croatia for six years. At that level with lesser nations, you are presented with the best 20 players your country can muster, and told to get on with turning them into a decent side.
Croatia were just that. They won 42 of 65 under Bilic. It paid to have Luka Modric, sure, but Bilic instilled team spirit, effort and a collective cause. Thatís what you can see coming through now with West Ham. The performances of Tomkins, James Collins, Carroll and the big, strong, quick but very unpredictable Michail Antonio underline that.
Bilic has more than just got away with it these past couple of months, he is now undefeated in six--strange how statistics can be spun to prove almost anything. But they have shown we have dug-in and scrambled some vital points. Many managers would not have achieved that, certainly ones very new to this league.
It shows also that you make your own luck. Antonio shows that. He has come into the game via the non-league route and then Nottingham Forest, where power and pace in the Championship was good enough.
But he knows he needs more than that now, a little more poise, calmness and thought in possession. But from what we have seen these past few games, he too is learning fast. He is a handful, confident and hungry, just like Bilic probably feels.
Itís Liverpool next, and with Dimitri Payet back and Lanzini that bit fitter, anything can happen. Then the next couple of months see only Manchester City--at the Boleyn on January 23--to really fear. Bournemouth, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Southampton, Norwich and Sunderland take us to the end of February.
Surely there are points there for us; we might even be safe by then!
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
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