West Ham must reconnect with their glamorous history to make the stadium move successful, and Slaven Bilic must go for it to happen


Since its unveiling near the Boleyn Ground in 2003 The Champions - a bronze statue depicting West Ham United legend Bobby Moore holding aloft the 1966 World Cup while flanked by his fellow England and Hammers team-mates - has embodied the club’s spiritual connection with the more glamorous aspects of English football culture. Moore, Geoff Hurst, and Martin Peters, all born and raised in East London, have made the region synonymous with footballing elegance, and a certain romance has been associated with the club ever since, from the days of Trevor Brooking right through to Paulo Di Canio and beyond. It is a curious and noteworthy phenomenon that Carlos Tevez never looked out of place in Newham.

And yet, since West Ham’s relocation to Stratford, the statue, still sitting proudly on Green Street, has come to symbolise the awkward disconnect between West Ham’s past and its present, between the warmth of the Boleyn Ground and the eeriness of the Olympic Park. Amid legitimate concern for the #Hammers corporate re-brand that has accompanied the move to one of England’s coldest sporting venues, disputes over The Champions’ location is playing out like a cruel satire of the club’s uncomfortable transition. Locals want to keep Moore and company in the heart of Upton Park, but owners David Gold and David Sullivan have plans to drag the sculpture into the concrete wasteland that surrounds the London Stadium. It is a fitting symbol of the clumsiness that has plagued their relocation.

Plonking West Ham into an ill-fitting venue (which, for many Newham residents, is the defining emblem of the failed Olympics legacy in London’s poorest borough) was always going to be a challenge. And while few would doubt that the stadium move will be hugely beneficial to the club over the coming years, how to fuse the glamour of Moore, Brooking, and Di Canio with a shiny new All-Purpose Sports Venue is a difficult question to answer. It might be an awfully long time before the bronze sculpture no longer looks out of place on the tarmac next to Westfield shopping centre.

The only way Sullivan, Gold, and Karren Brady can heal this disconnect is via an upturn in the team’s performances and, more specifically, by returning the club to its roots. Slaven Bilic’s job remit, then, goes far beyond that of most Premier League managers: to help bind the past with the present, to help make Stratford feel like a home, and to consolidate Brady’s jargon-heavy rebranding project. West Ham need to embrace the attacking football that has been associated with the club since Ron Greenwood moved to the east end in 1961.

Bilic might not remain in his post for long.  A sixth-place finish last season fuelled optimism for an exciting future with the Croatian at the helm, but the club’s sticky form in 2016/17 makes it unlikely he will stay beyond the summer; a litany of disastrous signings has suffocated an already-difficult year for Bilic’s team. In ordinary circumstances, he may have been offered sympathy and another year to rebuild, but in the context of the stadium move Bilic no longer fits in. It’s a matter of personality, not results.

Fans were enthralled by the tenacious, battling attitude of Bilic’s side last campaign, but their underdog mentality just doesn’t suit the aesthetic of a big-bowl arena; even a repeat of the 2015/16 results - complete with heroic, scrappy wins against the top six - probably wouldn’t have been enough to save him at this crucial juncture in the club’s history.

Not when Roberto Mancini - a suave Italian with the sort of flowing hair that makes people think vaguely about fancy football and clever tactical stuff - is waiting in the wings. Mancini preaches caution and defensive steadiness even more than Bilic, but his personality, brand, and global reputation fulfils something the Croatian cannot. Marcelo Bielsa, another name regularly floated during sustained periods of unrest regarding Bilic’s methods, more obviously embodies the charisma of a Di Canio or a Tevez. The Argentine would certainly restore attacking tactics to the region, but his idealistic, highly experimental football is as risky as it is beautiful to watch.



 

All football fans crave the aesthetics of glamorous attacking football and all supporters’ groups suffer from a warped sense of their club’s place in history, but few have as much of a genuine right to feel this way as Hammers fans. Their cup wins in the 60s paved the way for four decades in which, on and off, they have been synonymous with a certain elegance – something last indulged during Gianfranco Zola’s seesawing tenure at the club between 2008 and 2010.

Dmitri Payet might be gone, but the swaggering charisma he represented still hangs at the edges of a club that feels eerily displaced of late. To overcome the chasm of the athletics track, West Ham must reconnect with their glamorous roots; building a coherent identity – one which ties the shiny new London Stadium to the World Cup winners immortalised in bronze - depends upon it. It’ll take more than dragging The Champions across Newham to recreate the aura of the Boleyn Ground. Bilic, with his reactive playing style and patchy results, may have to go.