For a while, West Ham appeared to have entered a new era of calm. After a turbulent 2016, pockmarked with lofty projections and publicity lunges, all had fallen quiet in Stratford.
It was welcome. The running commentary on social media ran dry, the club stopped publishing its transfer targets on its own website and, perhaps for the first time under the current ownership, West Ham appeared to be functioning like a normal Premier League team.
While the current league table now begs to differ, the summer recruitment appeared positive. The scattergun approach of previous years was abandoned for something more thoughtful and the club moved swiftly through the market to secure apparently solid targets in key areas. At the time of writing, all of those signings – with the exception of Javier Hernandez – look to have been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Pablo Zabaleta were all bought with a purpose in mind. A small improvement, but a significant departure from the deals-for-the-sake-of-it mentality which seemed to rule the past.
Unfortunately, other old tendencies are beginning to reappear.
Slaven Bilic ended last season as a manager under pressure. Destabilised by the Dimitri Payet sale, the move to a new stadium and his own lack of tactical coherence, West Ham briefly flirted with relegation before climbing the table to safety. Having been supported by a significant transfer outlay, it was always likely that a bad start would put Bilic in danger and that’s exactly what’s happened. Three consecutive losses has him on the brink.
Worse, those three consecutive losses have amplified the background noise. In a similar situation, most clubs would retreat within themselves. Faced by an inquisitive media, they would close ranks around a manager, perhaps conduct an internal review, and then announce either their continuing support or, as is more likely in the modern game, a termination.
Instead, the board have let it be known that Bilic’s position is under review. Nothing wrong with that – in fact it would be far stranger if it wasn’t – but the false sense of necessity in making that information public was baffling. To churn the uncertainty days before the end of the transfer window was equally bizarre, particularly as difference-making players are rarely attracted to nebulous situations. For all intents and purposes, the board’s desire to be seen as men of action achieved little beyond the casting of a further red flag from their stadium’s rooftop.
Clumsy PR is nothing new in football, it certainly isn’t at West Ham. However, the events which followed the closing of the transfer window arguably represented a new low.
The William Carvalho saga is difficult to judge. Because contemporary transfers lean on the involvement of intermediaries, it’s perfectly plausible that the row between David Sullivan and Nuno Saraiva, Sporting Lisbon’s director of communications, is based on a misinformation or – perhaps – a third-party representative acting beyond his brief. Consequently, there’s no basis yet for saying that Sullivan intentionally misled anyone about the prospective transfer. At the time of writing, West Ham are currently suing for libel, so that’s certainly encouragement not to take Saraiva entirely at his word.
There are bigger issues, though, neatly characterised by the following:
“Grzegorz Krychowiak and Renato Sanches were both offered to the manager before their switches elsewhere, but he told us that he is happy with the squad he has. As a Board we are behind Slaven, and he believes he has the tools to turn around our form and rectify our disappointing start to the season.”
The effect, to anyone familiar with how football typically apportions blame for failure, is obvious. Should either Sanches or Krychowiak do well at Swansea or West Brom respectively, it will reflect poorly on Bilic – more so if West Ham’s current form continues. The team’s supporters are currently raging with discontent, about performance and about transfer activity, and so it’s tempting to view those quotations as a means of re-routing the ire towards a beleaguered manager.
The obvious question: how did that benefit either the team or Bilic himself? What was the value of that remark compared with the easier, more benign option of offering no comment? Peer in and you can see the machinations of office politics: these are the figurative email chains being constructed for the purposes of plausible deniability. Common though that may be, it’s generally a trait of underperforming organisations and, in this case, doesn’t suggest a healthy working environment at West Ham.
Supporters may have an appetite for transfer gossip and for knowing their club’s inner workings, but rarely – if ever – would a rival team be caught divulging that information. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine Daniel Levy, John Henry, or Ed Woodward being similarly open. All three have sacked managers in the past, but none of them have ever tried to create separating reference points during the build-up to that decision – at least not with remarks which can be attributed directly to them.
But West Ham just can’t seem to get this right and temptation of the soundbyte is always too great; they can’t get out of their own way for long enough to make any substantial progress. They have the stadium for advancement and they possess the funds, too, but those positives remain checked by this inherent need to provide a commentary and the unwitting consequences of that habit.