By David de Winter – Sports Editor
@TLE_Sport [email protected]
6th in the table, only 5 points off the Champions League places, 2015/16 has exceeded all Hammers’ fans expectations so far. Under new manager Slaven Bilic they have moved on from the limited but effective gameplan of ‘up and under’ of previous boss Sam Allardyce and found a new level, complete with the dynamic football the Boleyn Ground faithful crave. Nevertheless with six league fixtures remaining, can the Irons finish the season off strongly and secure European football in time for their move to the Olympic Stadium?
Now I must admit that I have never particularly warmed to West Ham United. The fans are a fickle and demanding bunch, creating an (often negative) atmosphere in which players struggle to thrive. Allardyce had a notoriously tempestuous relationship with Hammers supporters who were infuriated by his substance over style approach. Lest we forget, the current Sunderland boss had the Irons flying as high as fourth place in November 2014 before parting ways less than amicably at the end of the 2014/15 campaign.
Off the pitch as well as on, things are looking up for West Ham. They have secured the Olympic Stadium from next season in a wonderful deal for the club financially (and a dreadful one for the government). Furthermore, owners, Davids Gold and Sullivan, have adopted a more prudent and targeted approach towards player recruitment. Dimitri Payet has been the standout buy, but they have also raided the lower leagues for the likes of midfielder Michail Antonio (who has scored 9 goals this season) and full-back Sam Byram, with one eye on the future.
However, I have been most impressed with the positivity of manager Bilic. It was his Croatia team that beat England at Wembley in 2008 to deny them a place at the Euros and signal the end for Steve McClaren (Wally with Brolly etc.), in the process playing an almost fearless attacking brand of football. This bold approach was immediately highlighted in the first match of Bilic’s reign when he gave 16 year-old Reece Oxford his debut in midfield against Arsenal and was rewarded with a 2-0 victory.
The likes of Mark Noble and Payet have flourished under Bilic’s tutelage, who seems to have given his players licence to express themselves, free from the fear of recrimination. Yet despite their lofty position in the Premier League table, not one player has scored more than 10 league goals. Payet, Antonio, Manuel Lanzini (another nifty purchase), Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia have all chipped in but, unusually for a team in such a high position, no one player has hit double figures.
So, can they keep up the good work? Well, looking at the fixture list, four out of the remaining six are eminently winnable. Leicester on Sunday will be a tough match, as will the visit of United for the penultimate game of the season, especially after the midweek FA Cup defeat. In fact, the Hammers haven’t tasted victory for more than a month (3-2 win away to Everton in early March) so the sooner they get back to winning ways, the better. If the winless run continues at the King Power Stadium then it looks a tall order to grab a Europa League spot, especially with United occupying 5th spot a point ahead and Southampton and Liverpool breathing down their necks. But get something at the weekend and the Irons will be full of confidence for the rest of the season. Whatever happens, the Hammers can wave goodbye to the Boleyn Ground with a renewed hope and optimism for the future under Bilic.