This article was written by Ian Barnard (@onebarian1)
My wife has a favourite saying which she frequently throws in my direction, well actually she has a number of sayings that get aimed in my direction but the one in question is….’your glass is half empty again’. Like clockwork she is guaranteed to utter those words during August when we’ve invariably suffered a defeat and the concern of whether we’ll survive another season starts to fry my brain. My response to her is always the same, ‘no its not half empty but I am a realist’. This realism trait has been nurtured after many years of supporting my beloved hammers and I am absolutely convinced that the natural deep seated behaviour and psyche in our genes can be affected and changed by the allegiance to claret and blue.
To further underline this I consider myself fairly well educated, hold a responsible job and I have had a good upbringing, yet bizarrely tattooed on my right arm just under my crossed hammers are the words “I woz wrong 06/07”. This was obviously the Tevez season and we were seriously in the doo doos. A colleague was a fellow West Ham nut who was a ‘glass full to the point of overflowing’ type of person and as a result we had a little bet, West Ham to go down, he gets the ‘I woz wrong’ tattoo, West Ham stay up and I get it. The rest as they say is history.
So what fuelled this long-term bout of realism? Well I guess with the exception of a few rogue seasons when we actually achieved something to crow about, it’s been the roller coaster which quite simply is WHUFC! From Harry signing Hartson and Kitson to save us when all looked lost, the total abortion that was Glen Rodent, a verminous man who I believe single handedly did more damage to our football club than anyone in our history, and that includes Avram Grant! Then there was the inane hoof-ball under Allardyce. Although in fairness to the man, he did start to build the foundations of stability. You name it, we as loyal supporters have lived through it, and perhaps we should be renamed ‘sufforters?’
For too many premiership years I’ve started the season with the thought of settling for 4th from bottom as a result, and every place up from there being an absolute bonus. The realism being the big boys who splash the cash will undoubtedly secure the top spots, the middle league being fought out by those with really savvy managers, and then there’s the dog fight at the bottom. At the start of last season it was no different, my immediate ‘half full’ thought was could Slav cut it? I for one, will confess to being a little more than a little dubious. The pre-season social media ‘love in’ upon his appointment, which seemed to be based on him being a one season hero, didn’t overly convince me, for me only the style of play and moreover results would be the factors to make my half empty glass start to fill.
I’m also sure that if the truth be known, Messrs Gold and Sullivan would have taken 4th from bottom in May as relegation prior to this season was simply unthinkable. As it has transpired, we have hired a manager who is different gravy to anything we’ve seen since the Greenwood-Lyall era and in fairness to those great men, given the rigours of the modern game, our Slav may even move onto a higher level if he continues in the same vein. However, the immediate question is, how is he going to fare this term and will the ‘second season syndrome’ rear up and bite him somewhere very unpleasant?
My ‘realistic’ head would say a definitive ‘he’ll be fine this term’, however the season will present new challenges which will need to be met. The squad is without doubt much stronger, a good Europa League journey will help to appease those not starting regularly in the Premier League and the overriding sense of togetherness which was built last season seems to have been maintained. However, this season will further test his skills as the anticipation levels have now clearly been cranked up a notch.
Anyone watching ITV’s early Euro coverage will have witnessed the two key traits which make Slaven such a good manager. Tactically he is uber-astute, and from a personality perspective he is a leader who has a calm likeability which simply resonates.
The Gaffer is a team builder, not just of the playing squad but his entire back room staff as well. His calm persona and intelligence is plain to see but he has an aura that demands respect. He clearly knows how to motivate, and without having access to the dressing room I’m certain this isn’t achieved by Churchillian speeches prior to kick off. He clearly highlights the task in hand but his work is done on the training pitches during the week. As we saw with Amalfitano he clearly doesn’t suffer fools and anyone not buying into his vision and footballing philosophy and those stupid enough to swim against the tide or question his judgement suffer accordingly. Should Sakho not get his move before the end of the month I wouldn’t be surprised to see him training with the development squad until Xmas when we will attempt to offload him again.
The harmony and togetherness in the camp which is clear to see is something which I don’t think I’ve ever seen to this degree. We now have a squad which is a match for most of the league with quality cover in just about every position, but this is an area which I feel is really going to test Slaven’s man management. Should we fail to get through to the group stages of the Europa league how does he appease everyone? Are league and domestic cup games going to suffice for the amount of talented players in our squad? Yes he’ll undoubtedly make technical changes for specific premier league games but I’d expect him to stick with a core team in the league. Randolph knows the score with regard to game time as will Masuaku, but there are some big hitters who are potentially going to get limited playing time this season and that will be a test for the boss. What I would say from a supporter’s perspective is what a brilliant situation to be in. We have a bench stronger than I can recall and we have the depth of cover we are used to seeing the likes of the big five having. Yes there are, and sadly will be injuries, and one man’s loss will be another man’s gain but the point is that these are all professionals who all want to be playing in every game. One of Slav’s major challenges is therefore going to be stopping those with limited game time from getting itchy feet, Obiang and Oxford to name but two.
The other challenge this season will be from a tactical and technical perspective, the opposition will be aware exactly how Slav set his team up last season so to some degree that surprise element won’t be there. Every team visiting the OS will raise their game and those who play a possession and passing game will relish the extra yardage of our new and bigger playing surface. However, the boss has, if nothing else, a phenomenally astute football brain. Those little insights we got when he was doing his punditry just scratched the surface of his technical competence, and we should now have a squad capable of delivering his weekly game plans to not only secure a top half finish but provide a real chance of landing a European qualifying place at the end of the forthcoming campaign. Add this to the fact we have made some astute signings and in three to four weeks, when they’re all thoroughly bedded in, and hopefully with Lanzini and Tore available, we are going to be a match for anyone with the personnel to play a variety of formations. The only square peg in a round hole is the well discussed Antonio at RB but that aside we really are well set.
So this season, for the first time in more years than I care to remember, my good lady wife won’t be hearing those immortal words “that’s it, we’re doomed” any time soon, instead I have this unique feeling of optimism and positivity and the realist in me who can finally hold a glass that’s definitely more than half full.