And with today’s result, West Ham are likely safe. A terrifying slide of five consecutive defeats has now come to an end and, tentatively at least, the club can start planning for another season in the Premier League.
That planning is likely to begin with Slaven Bilic’s future. West Ham’s manager has cut an increasingly besieged figure in recent weeks and has often come across as already resigned to his fate. Who could blame him? His employers have been public with their criticism and, last week’s flimsy vote of confidence aside, have succeeded at almost every turn in making him as vulnerable as possible. Is it any wonder, then, that West Ham have played with barely disguised apathy these past months; leads have been fumbled, goals have been needlessly conceded, and the team have exuded an air of disenchantment. The cliche of the modern player might well be that of over-monied detachment, but they retain a nose for dysfunction and, as such, the way a side plays is often a physical manifestation of their club’s overall health.
Bilic might well lose his job – in fact, there are many justifiable arguments for why he should. The context within which this occurred has made it easy to portray him as a victim and as a sort of Atlas figure, weighed down by organisational ego and new stadium blues. But that would be reductive and would ignore the pockmarks on his coaching performance.
But ultimately, it’s incidental whether he stays or goes. West Ham’s future, both in the short and long term, will be determined by more than just their hiring-and-firing policy.
In the days prior to (and hours after) the game with Swansea, the club’s ownership suffered fierce media criticism. Speaking on Radio 5Live, Jermaine Jenas spoke of the unhelpful atmosphere created by David Gold, David Sullivan, and their running commentary on the season. Jenas is a sincere, erudite pundit, not prone to giving constructed opinions for the sake of a reaction, and that he spoke in such strong terms was particularly telling. On Saturday afternoon, Garth Crooks seconded many of those concerns, adding that the atmosphere surrounding the side had added to the pressure upon it. He termed it “negligence” which, on reflection, he might consider to be a little strong, but that doesn’t necessarily make him wrong. And this is the BBC, too, not an independent broadcaster built on cash-for-controversy principles: it really does take something quite untoward to draw such a reaction.
Apportioning responsibility is admittedly impossible. Given how much drama has occurred in Stratford this year, it’s impossible to know where the owners’ culpability ends and Bilic’s begins. What can be said, however, is that West Ham make far more noise than necessary: be it in a national newspaper or on social media, barely a week seems to pass without a club employee or boardmember giving a strong opinion on something or divulging information which doesn’t really belong in the public domain. That habit has recently been curbed and, thankfully, West Ham no longer seem willing to voluntarily leak details of their transfer strategy, but the perception remains that this is a club who enjoy attention just a little bit too much. Maybe it’s derived from a clumsy (but genuine) attempt to inform the fanbase, or maybe it’s pure vanity; whatever the root cause, it helps to create a perpetual state of melodrama which is in nobody’s best interest.
That’s certainly something to consider. Correcting this current negative trend, however, will not be as simple as instituting a “think before you speak” policy and handing Bilic his P45.
Sacking managers has often been an effective way for executives to hide from responsibility. The first-team is always the most visible part of any football club and if it isn’t performing to expectation, dismissing the coach is an efficient way of apportioning blame. Typically though, progressive teams accompany managerial turnover with a dose of self-introspection: they work out why he failed, rather than just pushing him through the door and hoping his replacement does better. They examine the strategies governing talent identification, youth development, and recruitment, they may even make departmental changes relating to performance analysis and data compilation. On the understanding that inefficiencies are rarely the fault of a single employee, those root-and-branch style reviews make a lot of sense and, generally, give a club the best possible chance of achieving visible, long-term progress.
Maybe West Ham’s decision-makers would consider that to be a waste of time. Or, maybe, it’s an approach that they privately believe already. Whatever the truth, though, it would be fanciful to suggest that Slaven Bilic is the sole obstruction in their plumbing, or that – without him – their transfer record, approach to public relations, or even their league position would look particularly different.
Whatever the next step is, it mustn’t be taken in isolation. New managers really only bring the illusion of change: they’re heavy makeup over bad skin, an expensive paint job on a knackered car and, really, the only solution available when the problem remains undiagnosed. Outsiders may be prone to over-analysis and speculation, but it really doesn’t seem if West Ham’s 2016/17 has been the consequence of pure footballing failure. To treat it that way, then, would be a very serious mistake.