Saturday, 21 May 2016

Good final season for West Ham at the Boleyn but also one of what might have beens

It has been a momentous final season for West Ham United, who will now leave their home of 112 years at the Boleyn ground to start life anew at the Olympic Stadium in August. A new era beckons.
Many though instead of viewing this as a great final season at the old ground might just think it was one that promised much but in the end delivered far less.
At one time, it looked like both a top four finish and FA Cup glory looked on the cards. In the event, having outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford - losing out in the dying minutes to a dubious equalising goal – the Hammers put up a lack lustre performance in the replay and crashed out to the young hungrier United side.
There was much made of bad refereeing decisions with the howler in the United Cup clash being followed by dubious decisions at Chelsea and Leicester, then at home to Crystal Palace and Arsenal. Yet in the final analysis had West Ham beaten Swansea at home and Stoke away in the final week of the season, they would have finished in the top four Champions League places. Instead, the two defeats saw Southampton leap frog over West Ham, leaving them in a relatively poor seventh. So the 2015/16 season ended up being a season of what might of beens.
On the up side, lets not forget this was a great final season at Upton Park. What is more any feeling of deflation was probably as a result of heightened expectations as a result of how brilliantly the team performed for much of the season.
Remember at the start of the season the doom merchants were predicting that West Ham could struggle, get relegated and enter the Olympic Stadium as a Championship side (but enough of those Tottenham supporters). The board took a bold decision in appointing Slaven Bilic to replace Sam Allardyce.
The appointment proved a brilliant one. Bilic was more popular than Allardyce had ever been, even before a ball was kicked. The brand of football played and the managers passion and wholehearted commitment to the club endeared him to the fans.
The club also recruited excellently last summer. The real coup was signing French international Dimitri Payet, who rapidly became a fans favourite in the mould of Paulo di Canio and Carlos Tevez. Argentinian Manuel Lanzini proved another hit, drawing fewer headlines than Payet but contributing almost as much with some stunning goals and willingness to track back and work (not always a feature of the Frenchman’s repertoire).
Others took longer to make their mark with Angelo Ogbanna eventually securing one of the central defensive births. He though will always be remembered for that last minute injury time winner in the FA Cup replay against Liverpool.
Michail Antonio did not figure until November but when he did get the chance, proved a revelation. Marauding up the right wing with energy to burn, Antonio quickly became a regular on the score sheet. He then transferred to become a makeshift right back, continuing to make the runs and score goals. If England manager Roy Hodgson did not have such a blind spot when it comes to West Ham players, Antonio would surely be in the squad for the European Championships.
Two others who can feel aggrieved at missing out on the European Championships are captain Mark Noble and left back Aaron Creswell – both have been outstanding all season.
Bilic’s astute management also saw him get the best out of Andy Carroll, who netted nine goals in 30 appearances for the club. Notably more than half those appearances were coming off the bench, a role that the manager’s seems to favour for the big man much of the time. Whether Carroll stays and how much of a part he plays next season will depend on a willingness to accept this new quasi role under Bilic.
The season itself began well with wins at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City. Things then got a bit sticky around November into the turn of the year, with the squad hit by injuries. However, the team continued to pick up points, staying in touch with the top four.
Post Christmas, unlike many past West Ham teams this one did not come down with the decorations but came on stronger than before. Injured players returned and with everyone chipping in with goals, some epic encounters ensued. Home wins over Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United and away at Everton and West Brom among the highlights.
In the end, the team ran out of steam a bit in that final week, much emotion no doubt sapped in the final home game against Manchester United. A fantastic night, West Ham coming back from 2-1 down to win 3-2, then the celebrations stretching into the night, involving most of the surviving players who have played for the club over the years.
Now, West Ham prepare for the Olympic Stadium, the playing pack will no doubt be shuffled over the summer - with some new faces coming in and a few going out. Notably, Bilic recently declared that seven or eight of the successful under 21 side will be featuring with the first team or be put out on loan next season. The advance of Reece Oxford, who made his full Premiership debut against Arsenal at the tender age of 16, was another of the highlights of the season. Others look sure to follow Oxford into the first team.
So as the gates of the Boleyn ground close for the final time, it is a good time to be a Hammers fan. The Olympic stadium beckons, with a team destined to be regular top four contenders, if the progress started this season continues going forward.

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