Slaven Bilic once said he prefers to live life “on the front line”. He is not a man who believes sitting back and relaxing, having a pleasant time, is the way to get the most of the world. Given the season that West Ham are enduring, that might be just as well.
Saturday’s game against Swansea City was a sliding-doors moment for West Ham and their manager. Lose and not only would they be in serious peril of relegation but the board would have been left with a ticklish decision to make over Bilic’s future. Win and they would realistically be safe from the drop and the prospect of playing Championship games in the echoey surroundings of the London Stadium.
The 1-0 victory ensured the latter: with six games remaining they are eight points clear of the bottom three and, while Bilic maintains: “We’re nowhere near to doing the job,” only a remarkable turnaround would see them drop from here.
The instinct is to think this has been a lost season. In their new home, a year after finishing seventh and flirting with Champions League qualification, to be in any danger of relegation appears a huge step backwards. But Bilic seems to be in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” camp; he believes their struggles might be beneficial in the long run.
“This season could be one of the most valuable for the club and the team,” he said. “We have to do the job [ensure survival] first but this experience makes you really motivated not to be in it again, and it makes you stronger. That’s why these kind of situations are much more valuable – afterwards – than a steady season, which is just OK’. But it’s not easy. It’s not enjoyable to be there.”
It certainly did not look enjoyable on Saturday. A game devoid of quality from two very jittery teams was tough to watch from a neutral perspective but the added tension must have made it unbearable for those involved. Bilic, bad hip and all, hobbled around the technical area, looking like a man waiting in a hospital for bad news. In the end the worst was not delivered but for 90 minutes he seemed in existential agony. At the end he did not so much celebrate as half sink to his knees in the most blessed relief.
No wonder. Mark Noble, making his 400th appearance for the club, called it “our biggest win for a few years” and Cheikhou Kouyaté, the man who fired home the winner from outside the area, said it was his most important goal for the club. “We haven’t been good enough for a couple of months,” said Noble, “but this should release the pressure.”
Could the release of that pressure mean that more than simple survival is realistic? So tight is the lower-mid part of the Premier League that Saturday’s victory took West Ham from relegation possibles to within touching distance of 10th place. “We can still finish in the top half,” said Bilic, when asked what success would look like this season. “This is possible but let’s do the minimum job first.”
For Swansea life looks bleak: they are only two points shy of the last safe spot but Paul Clement admitted his team looked far too anxious for such a big game. That anxiety will only get worse as time ticks by, so he will have to fix what has gone wrong in the last five games pretty quickly. “You can’t fret about what the result might be or what’s happening at other stadiums or what might happen if we don’t win,” he said. “You just have to focus on playing a game of football. That’s it.”
While Swansea are left to worry about the remainder of their season, Bilic was free to kick back and think about other things. “I have four kids, I have two dogs, I have a young wife, my brother is here, my friends are here, so probably we will stay in,” he said when asked how he would celebrate. “But we ain’t going to watch football.”