Finishing 3rd in the Championship last season was seen as a disappointing end to the league for West Ham United, but a victory at Wembley against Blackpool in the Play-Off final fulfilled the primary target for the year; returning to the Premier League.
David Gold and David Sullivan drafted in Sam Allardyce for the 2011/2012 season, after two disappointing managerial stints from Gianfranco Zola and Avram Grant which left West Ham bottom of the league and with a squad full of overpaid and underperforming players.
A thorough clear-out and re-shuffle last summer saw new faces for West Ham in the form of old faces for Big Sam with new captain Kevin Nolan, Matty Taylor, Abdoulaye Faye, and Joey O’Brien all playing under Allardyce once again, plus other players, including promising bad boy Ravel Morrison. The introduction of another ex-Bolton player Ricardo Vaz Te in January rounded up a promotion worthy squad for the season.
Big changes in West Ham’s style of play over the last season adapted to the new manager’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation preference. Setting up with a large target man and adopting the “hoof-ball” tactic left many fans and critics unhappy with the disregard of ‘traditional’ football seen in East London in previous years. Although not always pretty to watch, no Championship team acquired more points away from home than West Ham; with 13 away wins in the league, this was the highest of any West Ham team in history. With trips to some of the best teams in Europe ahead, these resilient performances will be expected from the team this year, looking to find all important points wherever they can get them.
Another transfer window, another squad change needed from the manager, as West Ham prepare for life back at the top. Whilst most out of contract and fringe players left the club mutually, Rob Green opted to let his contract run out and found pastures new at QPR. With the club releasing all other senior goalkeepers at the club, 24-year-old Stephen Henderson earned himself a permanent contract after his loan spell from freefalling Portsmouth. Allardyce delved into his old address book and recruited Finnish Jussi Jaaskelainen from Championship-bound Bolton Wanderers, for whom he played over 500 competitive games. Finishing the goalkeeper contingent, promising Under-20 Switzerland international Raphael Spiegel signed from Grasshoppers. Jaaskelainen will assumingly wear the number 1 jersey for the year, after being a solid first choice shot-stopper for Bolton for the last 15 years, only losing his place to Bogdan midway through the last season [a decision that ultimately resulted in relegation]. The 37-year-old may be near the end of his career but is still able to fill Green’s boots, and will prove to be a great role model and teacher to the upcoming Henderson and Spiegel, although the fans will need to find an alternative [but not necessarily more imaginative] chant to ‘Greeno’.
Reliable full back George McCartney rejoined West Ham on a permanent contract after a year-loan spell last season which even saw the Northern Irish defender score a rare goal. Only 2 recognised centre backs in James Tomkins and Winston Reid are currently on the books. Academy product turned Team GB Tomkins had an excellent season last year, and was even voted as runner-up Hammer of the Season. His partnership with New Zealander Reid was a solid force at the back, and even produced 7 goals between the pair but the Premier League will be a much more difficult task, and the key to survival could be the consistency of the back line. Reid had a terrible time two seasons ago, but has come on so far that he could be pushing for a regular starting spot depending on pending transfers. Guy Demel and Joey O’Brien filled the right back position throughout the year, but injuries and some average performances have left fans with little faith. Missing out on Nathanial Clyne leaves West Ham with little pace at full back which is very likely to be exposed this year. Jordan Spence and Dan Potts provide youth back-up but to realistically compete at this level, the transfer kitty needs to be spent. Rumours of ex-Iron James Collins, Mallorca centre back Ivan Ramis and unattached Sebastian Boenisch moving to Upton Park would be a great coup would greatly strengthen the squad.
After the release of Papa Bouba Diop, West Ham found a new defensive midfielder in Senegal international Mohammed Diame from Wigan Athletic. Able to hold the ball and support the defence, Diame should fit in with Big Sam’s favoured formations, especially away from home in a more conservative setup. Further forward in the midfield, Kevin Nolan needs a BIG season. After disappointing for the majority of his West Ham career, skipper Nolan finally found some form grabbing a total of 13 goals and leading the team out at Wembley. His Premier League experience will be crucial now, and his input [or lack of] can dictate where West ham finish in May. Partner in crime and fan favourite Mark Noble put in a player of the season performance and guaranteed that he will be a central point this year.
Young potential usually develops through the famous academy at Upton Park, but Ravel Morrison arrived last year after being seemingly let go by Manchester United for his reckless behaviour. The player who was once dubbed ‘most talented player seen since Scholes’ by Fergie has a second chance at West Ham and is expected to feature more than an 8-minute cameo like last year. Injury prone Gary O’Neill and Jack Collison featured heavily towards the end of the campaign and the play-offs with the latter contributing some much needed important goals. Ricardo Vaz Te proved to be priceless with 12 goals in 16 matches since he signed in January, including that all important goal in the dying minutes at Wembley. The Championship’s second highest scorer’s flair and drive is unique in the squad, and will surely provide a handful of goals and assists this year.
Just 3 strikers remained on the books after cuts this summer, until Allardyce signed Mali international Modibo Maiga from French side Sochaux. The big African is a natural goal-scorer and [although not much has been seen as of yet] will be challenging Carlton Cole for that lone starting striker position. Cole has been at West Ham for 6 years and when in form is a force to be reckoned with. Keeping him in form is the problem, and he must [as the fans and Spandau Ballet tell him] always believe in his soul. Nicky Maynard will want to be involved more than he was since his arrival from Bristol City, and just like Sam Baldock, need to utilise his pace as much as possible. Both have sparked interest from several Championship clubs but will not be let go unless a definite and suitable replacement is signed.
The current squad lacks depth and killer instinct that is required to compete in the Premier League. More transfers will and must be made before the start of the season for West Ham to be sure of definitely staying out of the relegation zone. As is stands, it is possible that the Hammers can claim that 17th spot as there are possibly 3 teams that look worse on paper, but anything is possible and the unexpected can always happen. Rumours of Andy Carroll, Kaka and Carlos Tevez have given fans something to dream about but realisation sank in when ex-Sheffield United striker Colin Kazim-Richard and ex-Southend United defender Bilel Moshni were taken on trial. A couple of defenders and a creative winger would round out the squad and be enough to finish mid-table.
It won’t be pretty next year but expect West Ham to play the long ball and sit back defensively without having much possession of the ball, and [unlike last time] we will win matches away from home There will be a lot of 0-0 and 1-0 scorelines, and the team are sure to be criticised repeatedly. Unattractive? Maybe, but as long as long as it’s successful, then Big Sam won’t care.