It has been a busy old time at Upton Park since the final ball of last season was kicked against Newcastle on May 24. Sam Allardyce was quickly shown the exit door, with a statement coming within minutes of that defeat at St James’ Park, and former player Slaven Bilic was appointed manager in June.
With West Ham having to go through the laborious process of qualifying for the Europa League, a dubious honour they were awarded for finishing top of the 2014/15 Barclays Premier League Fair Play Table, it means an early start and a fresh new challenge for the club.
It means the Hammers season started on July 2, a mere 40 days after the end of their last Premier League campaign. The arduous journey towards to the group stage started with a two-legged clash with Andorran side Lusitanos.
In the first leg they included senior players such as Diafra Sakho, Morgan Amalfitano and Matt Jarvis, while also blooding youngsters such as Reece Oxford – who became the youngest player to represent the Hammers – and Lewis Page. It was a more youthful side for the second leg in Andorra that earned a comfortable win despite playing with 10 men for more than 75 minutes.
New Hammers boss Bilic faces a big juggling task with his squad for the rest of the Europa League qualifying campaign. Next up for them is the second qualifying round double-header against the Maltese side Birkirkara on 16 and 23 July. Their opponents got into qualifying thanks to victory in the Maltese equivalent of the FA Cup and can boast 36-year-old Italian veteran Fabrizio Miccoli among their ranks.
If they overcome Birkirkara then they face another two qualifying round to make it into the Europa League group stages. Their calendar is going to be rammed full in the opening weeks of the Premier League season as the second leg of the third qualifying round comes just days before West Ham open their domestic campaign with a trip to Arsenal, and then the two legs of the play-off round also need to be played before the end of August.
West Ham face a tricky dilemma, do they go for the Europa League seriously and risk jeopardising their Premier League campaign in the final year before they move to the Olympic Stadium? Or do they not go for a proper assault on the Europa League and jeopardise a rare chance to play in Europe, not knowing when the next opportunity will come. This is West Ham’s first European adventure since the UEFA Cup first round in 2006 and it could be another nine years until they get another chance.
The likes of Stoke, Everton and Wigan have struggled to compete both in the Europa League and domestically over recent years, while even the likes of Liverpool and Spurs have had problems with the number of games and getting used to the Thursday and Sunday routine of matches. Add to that starting right at the first qualifying round and facing a long season that will last almost 11 months in total.
West Ham’s players saw their summer holiday cut short as they returned to training on June 22 and, to win the Europa League, they would potentially have to play a total of 23 matches. It is going to be a huge challenge for Bilic and his side to negotiate, one that requires a full utilisation of his squad and a lot of guts over the coming months.
Given the lack of a summer break, coupled with the fact West Ham don’t have a huge squad like the bigger Premier League teams, it potentially means that players are going to suffer burnout before the end of the season. The Premier League is a potent beast to compete in and you need players at their peak fitness, so the prospect of tired players for large periods of the campaign means West Ham could be struggling down the wrong end of the table.
With West Ham preparing for their final season at the Boleyn Ground, ahead of a move to the Olympic Stadium next year, they want this coming campaign to be one to remember. A season of success in the Premier League can galvanize old fans and bring new supporters in, something which will be required to fill their new 54,000-capacity home next year. Will a West Ham floundering down the bottom and struggling due to a long and hard campaign in the Europa League do the same job of convincing fans to follow them to Stratford?
It will take a monumental effort for Bilic to get his team succeeding on both fronts. Football fans saw Everton last season struggle to follow up a fruitful prior campaign and flounder as they tried to juggle the Premier League and Europa League commitments. West Ham are going to face the same problems and even the staunchest Hammers fan will acknowledge things are going to be really tough. The board have released funds to strengthen the squad and the club need some luck on the injury front, as they need everyone fighting fit ready to dig deep between now and May 2016.
West Ham finished 12th under Allardyce last season and the boardroom wants the club to move onwards and upwards. However, the Europa League often proves more a curse than a blessing to teams and it will be a hard ask for them to make a big improvement on that finish this time around.