Could optimism actually be breaking out at West Ham United? It has been a good news week for normally unhappy Hammers, with the announcement of all 52,000 season tickets selling out followed on Tuesday by the unveiling of the club’s new manager and a pair of star signings.
By reaching for the chequebook and appointing a manager of proven achievement in Manuel Pellegrini, the club’s co-owners, Davids Sullivan and Gold, and vice-chairman Baroness Brady, have gone some distance to taking the sting out of the venom aimed at them over recent years. It appears they have taken heed of fan protests last season that included March’s home game with Burnley seeing multiple pitch invasions and the trio targeted in their seats.
The doubts about their stewardship may never be far from the surface among supporters, but actually looking like a club with ambitions of self-improvement makes a welcome change. A cabal accused of having deep pockets but short arms has spent £85m on new talent.
The last time new manager Manuel Pellegrini was seen at the London Stadium was back in May when he followed up his appointment as David Moyes’ successor by taking in the hip sounds of Liam Gallagher and the Rolling Stones from the comfort of the directors’ box. On Tuesday in the stadium’s Great Briton suite as he met the local beat reporters with Felipe Anderson and Jack Wilshere for company, he went some way to suggesting that Hammers fans might at last get some satisfaction from watching their team.
The club’s first two seasons at the London Stadium lurched from near-disaster to disappointment to only partial relief. Slaven Bilic lost his sheen and effectiveness as manager almost as soon as the club vacated Upton Park, while Moyes arrived in November, banked a bonus for avoiding relegation and left as he arrived: a stranger uncomfortable and unsuited to life in East London.
Pellegrini, though 64 and with his bouffant hairstyle whitening, is far more of a progressive than Moyes the old-fashioned British football man. The Chilean’s public persona is almost heroically dull, with those journalists who attended his weekly press calls at Manchester City still wincing at the memory, but he does encourage enterprising football from his sides.
“Normally in my teams I want to bring in players that make the technical difference, like Jack, Felipe or [Andriy] Yarmolenko,” he said. “We want people that want to play attractive football.”
Though his City team never quite matched the pyrotechnics that Pep Guardiola brings to the Premier League, Pellegrini won admirers among Mancunian Blues with that preferred passing, attacking style. City did not win as much as they might have done, considering the cash lavished on his squad, but as a bridge to the Guardiola revolution, he served their club well enough.
“I am not thinking about what position we are going to finish,” he said on Tuesday. “We must take it game by game, try to improve on last season.”
Typical stuff from the Pellegrini playbook of rank tedium, but improving teams with a small-to-medium-sized scope is where his reputation was made. Villarreal, the small-town Spanish club he took to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2006 and Malaga, where he did well considering that the Andalusian club’s Qatari finance was pulled halfway through his tenure, are where he performed the type of job that his new club’s owners want.
Unlike a number of their Premier League peers, with Newcastle particularly coming to mind, his appointment and the signings brought in, with the suggestion of more to come, indicates ambition, even if spending £85m is now not enough to guarantee true quality.
Of seven players signed so far, Anderson and Yarmolenko are performers of verve on their day, but lack the consistency for the top clubs to have taken a chance on them; Yarmolenko was something of a disappointment at Borussia Dortmund. And Wilshere is looking for the revival of a troubled career that promised so much in his teenage years at Arsenal.
Now at the club he recently disclosed he supported as a boy and who he said on Tuesday it was an “easy decision to join”, Wilshere has a redemptive chance, as might the club’s owners.
They have remained largely in the background, with lessons undoubtedly learned from last summer where a club statement celebrated “a great transfer window”, as signings like Joe Hart, Javier Hernandez and Pablo Zabaleta came in before creaking with age. This time, there has been nowhere near as much fanfare for the addition of players whose best days might not be behind them.
Attacking football, talented, enigmatic players: it might almost be the “West Ham Way” that fans hark back to. Can the gloom at the London Stadium at last be lifted?