by Rob Shepherd.
Slaven Bilic has been West Ham’s manager in waiting not for the past few weeks but for nine years.
Not long after they had bought the club in 2006 the east London club’s previous Icelandic owners opted to sack Alan Pardew just a few months after the club had lost to Liverpool on penalties.
Bilic was in the frame but at the time he had just graduated from managing Croatia’s under-21 team to taking charge of the senior side and with a deep sense of loyalty to his country could not even be tempted to talk.
So Alan Curbishley took the reins. After his unfortunate departure Bilic was again mentioned in dispatches but the former Hammers hierarchy were seduced by the idea Gianfranco Zola could sprinkle stardust.
After David Gold and David Sullivan rescued the club from going to the wall and concluded that Zola the manager was never going to be Zola the player, Bilic was in the frame again but they opted for what they thought were the safe hands of Avram Grant.
When it came to replacing Grant after relegation, Bilic was still entrenched with the Croatia national team and also felt he needed more miles on the clock in club football before taking a big job in the Premier League or Bundesliga.
Those miles have been stacked up with a rough time at Lokomotiv Moscow and successful stint with Besiktas in Turkey.
So when he quit Besiktas last month it seemed he a was shoo-in to take over from Sam Allardyce.
Indeed there is little doubt Bilic would have been sounded-out by third parties some months ago when it was clear the Allardyce era would be over this summer.
But in football always beware the phrase ‘done deal’ and the machinations of myriads of agents trying to hustle a move or a new deal for their client.
Suddenly managers with better CV’s than Bilic’s were either available or being touted around.
Jurgen Klopp, Rafa Benitez, Frank de Boer, Marcelo Bielsa, Unai Emery… all seemed better than Bilic when it came to ‘going foreign’.
Then there were the cases for the young bright English managers such as Eddie Howe and Gary Monk. Or David Moyes. The idea of bringing Harry Redknapp back was even discussed.
The over riding factor was: Which manager would make sure the team stays in the Premier League for their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2017..?
For the past month or so David Sullivan has agonized with all the options and attempted to get full approval of co-owner David Gold and vice-chairman Karren Brady.
It has not been easy to task.
Benitez was the one they thought ticked most of the boxes but when Real Madrid came calling then a decision between the Bernebau and the Bolyen was an obvious one for the Spaniard.
Moyes made it clear he would carry on rebuilding his career at Real Socidead and didn’t fancy stepping into the shoes of his pal Big Sam.
Then as the process spun out there became a nagging feeling that maybe some of those on the ‘long list’, or at least their advisors, were using West Ham’s situation as a way of filling their boots with new contracts at their existing clubs.
All the while Bilic remained an option despite reservations that he had not managed a club in one of the ‘big leagues’.
Bilic could easily have taken umbridge that the club was on a recruitment carousel and jumped off.
Instead he sealed himself off holidaying with his family back near his home in Split. He refused to comment publicly or even take calls. He just viewed the situation phlegmatically.
Why wouldn’t a club making such a big decision go through their options..?
And as they did the realization set in that no one could possibly tick all the boxes and that Bilic ticked most. He also wanted the job, not just the money.
He knows the English scene, he is tactically astute if not innovative, and most of all he is a strong commanding character that gets players playing for him and the cause.
And Bilic is big on causes – as I first found out not long after Redknapp signed him from German club Karlsruhe in 1996.
I had arranged to do an interview with Bilic at West Ham’s Chadwell Heath training ground. But Bilic didn’t want to do it there. He wanted more relaxed surrounds and wanted to find out what an old fashioned ‘normal’ British pub was like.
So I took him a few miles down the road to the Moby Dick just off the A12.
I walked in and asked him what he wanted: “A pint of milk,” he replied.
“Oh I don’t drink. I just wanted to see what a pub looks like.”
He didn’t drink but boy did he smoke back then. In the hour or so we chatted he puffed his way through half a pack of Marlboro Red!
As he did so his passion for a cause became clear as he discussed his fierce patriotism for Croatia at a time when the bitter turmoil of civil war as a consequence of the break-up of Yugoslavia was still a recent painful memory.
Bilic took his passion on to the pitch for the Hammers and a year later when Everton agreed to sign him in March (the days before the transfer window) he insisted he stay on and play for West Ham until they pulled themselves away from relegation battle.
When he moved into management with his home town club of Hadjuk Split after his career was cut short by injury there always seemed a sense of destiny that Bilic would one day return to West Ham as manager.
It has been a long time coming, and the process in recent weeks was starting to become exhausting, but in the end the Hammers have a new manager who will not only promote more expansive football but will demand the players perform with pride and passion or in other words restore the “West Ham” way.