West Ham United: 7th
FA Cup: Quarter-finals
Capital One Cup: Round Three
Europa League: Third Qualifying Round
It was always certain to be an emotional season for West Ham as they said goodbye to their home of over a century, Upton Park, before their long-awaited move to the Olympic Stadium for 2016-17. The rather cautious aim was to make sure that they were still a Premier League club when they relocated, but the team then proceeded to make a mockery of that to the extent that for a time they looked in with a chance of finishing in the top four.
The summer saw former crowd favourite Slaven Bilic installed as the club’s new manager, replacing the man who constantly divided local opinion, Sam Allardyce. Already possessing a squad with strong foundations in each area of the pitch, the Croat added to it with some exciting signings, including defender Angelo Ogbonna, midfielder Pedro Obiang and the diminutive though talented playmaker Manuel Lanzini on a season-long loan.
None of that trio would put a significant foot wrong in their first season in English football – indeed Lanzini impressed to the degree that his loan move was made permanent – but the two arrivals that really stood out were that of Nottingham Forest star Michail Antonio and the irrepressible Dimitri Payet, the player who would go on to personify the new-look style of football that Bilic introduced.
It seems remarkable to say this now, but expectations when the campaign kicked off were not particularly high, and they were not helped by having already gone out of the Europa League after struggling in qualifying both in terms of results and on-field discipline. The opening match of the Premier League season was at title candidates Arsenal, and very few people gave the Hammers the slightest chance of coming away with something.
But then Payet was unleashed. Impudent and full of tricky craftsmanship, the Frenchman was instrumental in what turned out to be a convincing win, giving a glimpse of his aptitude for set-pieces by providing the perfect delivery for Cheikhou Kouyate to head the opener. Youngster Reece Oxford also received considerable attention for his mature display in the midfield, so it was a perfect start and a sign of things to come.
Not immediately, however, as the first two home games of this ceremonial season were both lost. Goalkeeper Adrian was sent off in a defeat to Leicester City before a catalogue of defensive mishaps saw promoted Bournemouth fill their boots, so there were still areas for Bilic to work on. Such effort behind the scenes led to a total rejuvenation at Liverpool, where they triumphed famously by three goals to nil, and it got even better following the international break.
Payet scored both in a victory over Newcastle United before he was again at the centre of things when an amazing away treble was completed at Manchester City, who had come into the encounter with a perfect record with no goals conceded in their opening five outings. This run of results gave them added status on the road, where they were also successful at Crystal Palace, before another notable victory was secured against faltering champions Chelsea.
This left West Ham in the heady heights of third place, but then came a run of eight games without a win, coinciding with an injury lay-off for Payet. Many of these were draws so they remained tough to beat, although there was a spark noticeably missing from their play until a second half turnaround saw them pull off an unlikely victory over Southampton. The aerial threat of Andy Carroll was in evidence again following his latest absence, while it was also the time that Antonio really began to make his mark.
Having hardly figured for the first-team since his summer arrival, Antonio became a critical member of the side almost overnight despite being deployed in the unfamiliar position of right-back. The turn of the year brought about some free-flowing football and a never-say-die attitude that was characterised by some impressive comebacks, as they continued to compete with the Premier League’s leading clubs, with four points taken from the return matches with Liverpool and Man City.
If anything it was against the teams in the bottom half where they struggled, losing at Newcastle and having to claw back a two-goal deficit to draw at Norwich City, but whatever the situation they were a side that one could not take their eyes off thanks to the depth of attacking quality within the squad. That was very much in evidence during a terrific sequence of results beginning in late February as wins were secured against Sunderland, title-chasing rivals Tottenham and, most memorably, at Everton from a position of two goals down with just 15 minutes left.
From Antonio on the right to the outstanding midfield duo of Kouyate and captain Mark Noble, everyone was making a stellar contribution, but Payet still grabbed most of the headlines. His free-kicks suddenly became extraordinary, hitting the back of the net with increasing levels of audacity. Beating Manchester United’s David De Gea from 35 yards in the FA Cup was sensational enough, but the one against Crystal Palace at the beginning of April had collective jaws hitting the floor in unison.
They were now fifth in the table and just one point off the Champions League places, so the prospect of qualifying for Europe’s premier competition was becoming a very realistic one. However, a run of four consecutive draws in games where at one point they had the lead left them with a mountain to climb that was impossible to surmount with just a handful of fixtures remaining, so the target now was to hold on to a place in the top six, towards which Southampton were making big strides.
That aforementioned FA Cup quarter-final tie with Man Utd went to a replay, ensuring that Upton Park would host a game in that famous competition one more time. It ended in defeat, but West Ham would have it their way when the Red Devils returned to contest the final ever match at the old stadium. And it was a memorable occasion as a dominant performance looked set to be in vain, only for a quick double-salvo to see them edge it 3-2 before they gave way to the fireworks.
It meant that victory at Stoke City on the final day would clinch a place in the top six, but despite a strong start which saw them grab the lead, they allowed it to slip away and Southampton took full advantage. But Man Utd did do them one final favour – by winning the FA Cup they guaranteed West Ham a place in the qualifying rounds of next season’s Europa League, so all was not lost following a tremendous campaign.
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