No sign of the bubble bursting for West Ham
Published 04/03/2016 | 02:30
Amid all the messages of congratulations and pats on the back, there was even a big kiss on the cheek for Slaven Bilic as he answered questions from West Ham TV after the club's 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night.
That the interviewer was Russell Brand offers part of the explanation but, with his repeated words of gratitude for 'Super Slav', he did also perfectly encapsulate the euphoria currently felt by West Ham United supporters. Not only are they preparing for their final five games at the Boleyn Ground and then the summer move to the 54,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, but they are also now just a point off the Champions League places and looking forward to an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United. The contrast with all the angst just a few miles across London at Arsenal could hardly be greater.
Results clearly frame the mood - and the inspired summer signing of Dimitri Payet from Marseille is the main explanation for the on-field improvement - but the impact of Bilic, and particularly his wider feel for the psyche of the club, should also not be underestimated.
His 49 games there as a player obviously helped but, for all the good work that Sam Allardyce did, he simply never got West Ham as Bilic so intuitively does. There is a parallel here with how he also galvanised a raucous fan base during six successful years as national manager of Croatia.
Indeed, in Bilic's first interview after getting the West Ham job, his instinctive understanding for that potential advantage was obvious.
"I love these kind of special clubs," he said. "It's not about the size. There is something special about them. They are a cult club. It is not only business; it is personal, it is emotional."
Bilic also underlined this empathy in how he spoke with such passion about this year's FA Cup and why there could be no compromise in his team selection. Although West Ham's rise is about much more than just emotion, the power of that connection to the supporters can be positively sensed at every match.
Recruitment has clearly also been critical. The internal analysis and scouting team has been improved and the manager has been backed, with co-chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold probably surprising even Bilic with their willingness to spend relatively big money at almost £11m on Payet. He turns 29 later this month and, while his sell-on value will be negligible, his worth in the here and now has been vast.
The statistics are staggering and suggest that his influence has almost single-handedly dragged West Ham from a mid-table team into a side that have already beaten Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham.
The club's Premier League win ratio this season is transformed from 14 per cent without Payet (one victory in seven) to 52pc (11 out of 21) with him.
West Ham generally also more than double their goal tally with Payet in the team. He has made 76 chances this season (more than double any team-mate) and is the club's highest goalscorer.
Other signings have also contributed - notably Michail Antonio, Angelo Ogbonna, Manuel Lanzini, Pedro Obiang, Emmanuel Emenike and Sam Byram - while Bilic's training ground influence is reflected in the ongoing form of James Collins, Aaron Cresswell and captain Mark Noble. Andy Carroll particularly highlighted Bilic's tactical input and revealed how, through expert analysis, West Ham's unfamiliar 3-5-2 system had so negated Tottenham's full-backs on Wednesday night. It was no accident.
"From the get-go we went out and attacked them, probably did to them what they have done to a lot of teams this season," explained Carroll.
"Attacked everyone. We worked on it all week. We knew exactly how they'd play and how to break them down. We just had to stop them attacking. We knew all about their counter-attack. From a corner, say, you know that there is going to be seven or eight of them sprinting up and getting into our box. Basically we needed to turn it around and do it to them and that's exactly what we did.
"This win showed the hard work we put in, watching what they can do and how we can hurt them. It's the best West Ham squad since I've been here. The depth that we've got is fantastic in every position. When you see everyone fit and on the training pitch together you think: 'Wow, we've got some team. A great team'."
It is a squad that should theoretically also get better. Bilic waited his chance when several others - including Jurgen Klopp and Rafael Benitez - turned down the job last summer. His patience underlined a wider appreciation of the opportunity that was perhaps overlooked by some of the other candidates.
Having paid only £15m towards the Olympic Stadium and negotiated a 99-year lease deal that also mitigates many of the running costs, West Ham revenues are poised to soar.
They have already sold out all corporate hospitality and executive boxes and, with more than 30,000 season tickets already sold, are confident of being at full capacity for every home game next season. The opportunity for growth - especially in the two-year period when Spurs are constructing (and then largely paying for) their own £400m new stadium - is obvious.
"I hope we can aim for the Champions League in the future," said Bilic.
"Long-term I don't have a problem saying it should be part of the plan, what with moving to the new stadium, with all the revenue, the fans and the size of the club. This season it's not realistic but there's nothing wrong with dreaming about it or trying to achieve it."
Sullivan once noted that West Ham fans "want a dream, they don't want reality" but, rather more quickly than anyone expected, their dream is almost within reach.