After a lengthy, painstaking and, for many Baggies fans, frustrating search, the West Bromwich Albion board have opted to appoint former West Ham United and Croatia manager, Slaven Bilić, as their new Head Coach.
I opted not to comment on these pages on the numerous names that have been linked to the Hawthorns top job since the gut-wrenching defeat on penalties a month ago. I didn’t expect a quick appointment and felt that it was right for the board to look at all options before making their decision, but the media’s thirst for stories meant that there would inevitably be a number of names linked, some real some not, along with opinions on what was happening. Social media has been full of anxious posts lambasting the club for one thing or another and, while there has been and continues to be much to be criticise about the way the club is run, I feel that this appointment is a sensible one and, it seems for the most part, a popular one.
There is a big job to do at the Hawthorns and it was important that the new man was in place this month, but I wasn’t too concerned that it didn’t happen immediately. With most players on holiday during the first half of June, there’s little that can be accomplished and he has ten days before the players return to training to get himself settled into his new role.
Who will assist Bilić remains to be seen. James Shan has been promised some sort of role at the Hawthorns but the Croat will bring his own man. Who that will be is unclear – his assistant at West Ham and Croatia, Nikola Jurčević, is currently head coach of the Azerbaijan national team so is unlikely to swap Baku for the Black Country to take up a No. 2 role. Perhaps more likely is Aljoša Asanović – he assisted Bilić at Croatia and Lokomotiv Moscow and, after taking up the job of manager at Melbourne Knights in Otober 2017, he left a year later to assist Bilić once again in Saudi Arabia.
There will undoubtedly be a number of outgoings and incomings with the squad in need of a major overhaul and, of all the names that were in consideration for this role, Bilić is perhaps the one with the personality and reputation that could help to attract players to the Hawthorns. He may even be able to persuade a few of those who might otherwise be looking for a move away to stay at Albion and be part of what could be an exciting season.
The Croat was incredibly popular with West Ham fans in his last spell in England, and they, along with fans of Beşiktaş who he managed immediately before his return to the East End, have taken to social media to wish “Super Slav” all the best at the Hawthorns. It would seem as if we will have a few Cockneys and Turks following our results this season and hoping for a return to the top flight – the more the merrier!
His football has been generally progressive and attractive to watch and, based on his time with West Ham, he favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation but was not afraid to mix it up with a 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or even three at the back. He is known as being more of a motivator than a tactician, but I’m not sure that is fair and he certainly bettered Steve McLaren on two occasions when Croatia qualified for Euro 2008 ahead of England as I remember only too well from that wet Wednesday night at Wembley in November 2007.
I think it will be a project that Bilić will relish – a chance to build a squad almost from scratch that he can stamp his own style and authority on. The one cautionary note is, of course, how much backing he will get from the money men at the Hawthorns. There will be no additional investment given the restrictions imposed on the owner by the Chinese government, and the new man will have to work within strict financial controls. Nonetheless, Albion still have a big advantage over most of their Championship rivals in the form of a £34m parachute payment and Bilić will presumably have taken the role on in full knowledge of the financial restrictions he will face.
The Croat will have a point to prove having been sacked from his last job in England and failed in his Saudi adventure. His comments about the Championship being on his bucket list suggest that he is just as excited to be at the Hawthorns than many Albion fans are to see him there. It could be a great fit.
With the head coach in place, Luke Dowling’s attention will now be firmly on the transfer market in what is his first big test as the Technical Director at the Hawthorns. The futures of Salomón Rondón, Jay Rodriguez, Craig Dawson and Ahmed Hegazi are uncertain with Rondón and Rodriguez able to leave if a release clause is met. The forward line will, therefore, need an overhaul and, with the release of Gareth Barry and James Morrison, unless Bilić wants to keep them, the midfield too is looking light on numbers.
Over to you, gents.
Who is Slaven Bilić?
Bilić was born in Split in what was then Yugoslavia in September 1968. He started out in the youth setup with his home town club, Hajduk Split, signing as a senior professional in 1988. He had spells on loan with two other Croatian clubs, Primorac and Šibenik, but made more than a hundred appearances for Hajduk before moving to Karlsruher in Germany in 1993. After three years in the Bundesliga, he made the switch to England initially signing for Harry Redknapp’s West Ham in January 1996. He spent a season and a half at Upton Park before switching to Everton in the summer of 1997. After two seasons at Goodison, he returned to his home town to finish his playing career where he started, at Hajduk Split.
That was also where he got his first taste of management in temporary charge in the 2000/01 season but his first permanent coaching position was as the Croatian U21 coach. He earned 44 caps for Croatia as a player, including playing at the 1998 World Cup, and spent eight years with the national association as a coach from 2004. After two years with the U21s, he was appointed as the first team coach in 2006.
In his first campaign, he led Croatia to the Euro 2008 finals thanks to home and away victories over Steve McLaren’s England. Croatia won all three of their group games in the tournament, including a 2-1 victory over Germany, but came unstuck in the quarter finals going down 4-2 to Turkey.
In the qualifiers for the World Cup in 2010, Bilić came up against England once again but Fabio Capello’s team proved a much tougher test as Croatia lost 4-1 at home thanks to Theo Walcott’s only international hat-trick, and also lost 5-1 at Wembley. They were Croatia’s only two defeats in that campaign but two draws with Ukraine coupled with England’s 1-0 defeat in Dnipropetrovsk meant that Bilić’s team missed out on a play-off spot by one point.
At the end of their next qualifying campaign, Croatia revenged their defeat to Turkey four years earlier when they beat them over two legs in the play-offs for Euro 2012 and, while they exited the finals competition at the group stage, Bilić received plaudits for the team’s performance and he left the Croatian FA on good terms after the tournament with an impressive win ratio of 64%.
Before the tournament, Bilić had agreed to join Lokomotiv Moscow once Croatia’s interest in the competition came to an end. His spell in the Russian capital was not successful, however, as they finished in ninth place, their worst ever finish in the Russian championship and he was sacked in June 2013.
That did not deter those in charge at Turkish club, Beşiktaş, however and Bilić was back in work before the end of the same month. He spent two seasons in Istanbul guiding the club to successive third place finishes in the SuperLig. In a league when the title is almost exclusively won by either Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş, it may not be considered that successful, especially given that Beşiktaş went on to win successive titles after Bilić left, but the Croat remains fondly thought of in Istanbul.
Once again, he was not out of work for long and returned to Upton Park in July 2015 and quickly became a fans’ favourite as he guided the Hammers to victory at the Emirates Stadium in his first Premier League game. In that first season, Bilić’s side remained inside the top half of the table throughout and they finished in 7th place with a record Premier League points total for the Irons of 62, and got to the quarter finals of the FA Cup, in what was their final season at Upton Park.
The following season at the London Stadium proved to be challenging and West Ham found themselves in the relegation zone in early October after an embarrassing defeat to Romanian side, Astra Giurgiu, in the Europa League qualifiers. Despite a difficult home atmosphere, and a difficult dressing room disrupted by want-away star, Dimitri Payet, they recovered to a comfortable 11th-place finish. The following season saw the Hammers start poorly again and, having won just two of their first eleven league games of the season, Bilić was sacked after a 4-1 home defeat by Liverpool. For the historians amongst you, Tony Pulis was sacked by Albion a week later!
Super Slav remains popular amongst the West Ham faithful, however, with the general feeling that he was a victim of circumstance rather than a bad coach.
It would be almost a year before he returned to management, with a short spell in Saudi Arabia with Al-Ittihad. He won just three of his fifteen games in charge and was sacked in February 2019.
Away from football, Bilić holds a law degree and is fluent in English, German and Italian. He is also a fan of rock music and plays rhythm guitar in a band called Rawbau.