Thursday, 6 August 2015

What can West Ham supporters expect from the new season?

West Ham United supporters must really be wondering what to expect come the new season.

The club over the summer replaced manager Sam Allardyce with former West Ham centre half and Croatian team manager Slaven Bilic. A series of signings have arrived, with others - most notably one of last seasons success stories - Stewart Downing heading in the opposite direction.

The club qualified for the Europa League courtesy of heading the fair play league last term. As a result the fans have had an early sight of what might be expected in the coming season. Thus far, few will have been impressed, with West Ham creeping through the first couple of rounds against very low level European opponents.

First, there were the Andorrans Lusitans who were defeated 3-0 before a full house at Upton Park in early July. The Hammers then won the away leg 1-0.

Then came the Maltese side Birkirkara who proved a rather tougher nut to crack. West Ham won by a 90th minute goal at home, then managed to lose the away game by the same score. In the end, the Hammers won 5-3 on penalties.

Manager Bilic revealed little of his hand in either of these games. In the first, the fans got a chance to see the likes of 16 year old Reece Oxford and other development squad players, whilst in the second the side resembled more the side of last season. Many fans will have been surprised (if not dismayed) to see Kevin Nolan starting both games against Birkirkara.

However, the new signings made by the club over the summer have been notable by their absence from the European games – this may suggest that Bilic has totally different ideas as to how he is going to approach the Premier League.

Over the summer, West Ham have bought quality in Angelo Ogbonna for £10 million from Juventus, midfielder Pedro Obiang for £4 million from  Sampdoria, Dimitri Payet for £10 million from Marseille and Argentinian Manuel Lanzini on loan for the season from Arab Emirates team Al Jazira. Arsenal full back Carl Jenkinson has also returned for another season long loan.

All the players though will know things will be different under a new manager. Players who previously were in, could now be out and via versa. The past fortunes of centre back Winston Reid provide a good example as to how things can change. Bought by then manager Avram Grant in 2010, Reid was quickly frozen out and saw little playing time. Then Grant leaves, being replaced by Allardyce in the summer of 2011. Allardyce likes Reid, who becomes a stalwart of the team over the next four seasons. There will no doubt be similar twists and turns for other players under Bilic. What now for Reid with the signing of Obanna?

The European question though is one that must be causing some head scratching at Upton Park. If the club progresses to the group stages, then there will be the need for a much bigger squad. If it does not the opposite applies. On the basis of the Birkirkara performance, maybe that big squad will not be required.

On the playing side, the indications so far also suggest the team will be reverting to more traditional West Ham style of play or put another way not the aerial bombardments favoured by Allardyce sides.

The owners have left Bilic in no doubt about what is expected from him. A top eight finish has been set as the target, with relegation resulting in dismissal without compensation. It must be the latter horror scenario that keeps some in the boardroom awake at nights. Moving into the Olympic Stadium as a championship side is not what the owners or any other West Ham fan expects.

The new manager though starts with an immense amount of goodwill behind him. He was a much loved player at the club, despite only playing for a couple of seasons in the mid-1990s. He is already far more popular with the fans than poor old Allardyce was even when things were going well during his time in charge.

Fans though are fickle creatures and can quickly turn. Expectations are high but on present showing West Ham will do well to make the top eight, with possibly a similar placing to last year being more realistic. A cup run, whether European or domestic could raise spirits dulled by over expectation in the league.

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