When West Ham United moved into the London Stadium last summer and began to dream about reaching the next level, presumably this is not what they had in mind. A season that was supposed to take pride of place in their application form to join the Premier League’s elite has turned into a scrap to stay in the division.
Whether Slaven Bilic’s side are capable of staying up will depend largely on the outcome of Saturday’s home game against Swansea City and next weekend’s trip to Sunderland but it is difficult to know how they will handle the pressure given expectations were so much higher in August.
Even after a slow start a mid-table finish was in sight by the middle of February. Instead West Ham have been thrust back into the scrimmage after a run of five consecutive defeats, looking slightly panicked and bewildered as they search for a safe place to hang their beach towels and leave their flip-flops. Nine points above the bottom three before visiting Hull City last Saturday, the gap could be down to two if they lose to Swansea.
There is no shortage of blame to go round and a team lacking resilience are an obvious target. “We have to put everything we have on the line,” Bilic said. “We have to forget about egos, about who is taking corners, forget about who is going to start the game, forget about who is going to score the goals. We have to leave our egos in our beds and be as one. I am not saying we weren’t before – but now more than ever.”
Yet passion alone will not save West Ham and the manager’s future is increasingly uncertain. He presides over a team whose defensive flaws were clear when they finished seventh last season. With 57 goals conceded in 31 matches, they have the third-worst defensive record in the league.
The dilemma for West Ham is that they are floundering in a stadium that holds 54,000. The question of how long people will continue to turn up if they are watching Robert Snodgrass instead of Dimitri Payet, who rejoined Marseille in January, should worry the club’s co-owners, David Gold and David Sullivan.
It is true West Ham need time. Perhaps they lost sight of the need to lay the foundations for success. “I didn’t like talking pre-season about the Champions League,” Bilic said. “It’s the Premier League, we are West Ham, we want to go there but first we have to put solid cornerstones and build on it.”
The adjustment has not been straightforward. “The move always had a lot of positives but it also had negative things, especially short-term,” Bilic said. “One of those negative things is the time – you need time to adjust. That goes with a new stadium.
“In the long term it is the best thing that the club has ever done. Make no mistake about it. Like the Emirates is for Arsenal. Like Southampton’s new stadium, like Bayern’s new stadium, like Schalke’s new stadium, like Juventus’s new stadium.
“Short-term, you might struggle. First you have to dip a little bit, to go down like Southampton did at their new stadium. Like Arsenal struggled in the first year. But the London Stadium for West Ham is unbelievable. It’s great.”
Yet as Bilic opened up on those raised expectations it was striking to hear him talk of “possible new signings”. After targeting a top striker last summer West Ham ended up with Jonathan Calleri, Ashley Fletcher and Simone Zaza. Payet was replaced by the disappointing Snodgrass in January, a month in which West Ham also failed to sign the new right-back they are crying out for. Instead they have José Fonte on a two-and-a-half-year contract after signing the 33-year-old centre-back for £8m from Southampton, who laughed all the way to the bank.
West Ham’s first task is to avoid the Championship but lessons must be learned. “The new stadium changed the criteria and I spoke about that as a good thing, as a motivation of course, to look forward,” Bilic said. “Also it is a burden if it’s not going good, if the expectations are suddenly big time.
“But what’s the point of talking about that? Now we have a situation where we need points to secure our status as soon as possible. Whether it is going to be written in the history books as a great season, it ain’t.”
Bilic was asked how he would celebrate if West Ham win this battle. “We’re going to stay up,” he said. “We will stay up.”
At least he sounded convinced.