“I believe he is joining us in the perfect moment. He is 28, the prime age for football,” said West Ham Director of Football Mario Husillos as he unveiled Andriy Yarmolenko, a winger with an excellent record of 35 goals in 76 games for Ukraine. As it stands, he is the oldest of the Hammers’ four outfield signings at that prime age of 28.
This time last year, West Ham were still almost two weeks away from signing Stoke forward Marko Arnatovic, also signed at the prime age of 28. The difference? Arnautovic was the baby of the bunch; he followed Pablo Zabaleta (32) and would later be joined by Javier Hernandez (29). The loan signing of the 30-year-old Joe Hart only added to the prevailing mood that this was the shortest of short-term thinking. The club did not even attempt to disguise the strategy.
“We had a policy up to now to buy players for tomorrow, not today,” said co-chairman David Sullivan. “We made a decision with the manager to buy players proven in the Premier League, who’ve been here before and who are of an age where they’re not being bought for tomorrow – but today. Long term it’s not a great strategy but short term it is.”
It really wasn’t. By early November, West Ham had sacked their manager and David Moyes has taken over an ill-balanced squad. It turns out that West Ham had skipped a generation, buying players for yesterday rather than today or tomorrow. In the final game of the season, Hart and Hernandez were on the bench alongside Patrice Evra (37) and James Collins (34), who were both released at the end of a season which finally convinced West Ham’s decision-makers that maybe they should not make all the decisions.
“When it comes to player recruitment it is not an exact science and some of our signings over the past couple of years have not paid off as we had hoped,” said a chastened David Gold, paving the way for a Director of Football. That eased Moyes – very much an old-school British manager who did not want to be judged on another man’s signings – out of the running and opened the door for Manuel Pellegrini and his old friend Husillos.
So far, the signings have been incredibly promising and astonishingly professional. And most importantly, the signings have struck the right balance between promise and experience. Considerable but not ridiculous money has been spent on Yarmolenko and Issa Diop, with Diop the very talented and very tall France Under-21 international centre-half whose value is only likely to increase. That he was made captain of Toulouse at the age of 20 is testament to a maturity beyond his years.
Then comes the no-risk transfer of Lucasz Fabianski and the low-risk transfer of Jack Wilshere. For all his injury problems, Wilshere still has over 200 games of experience at the highest level and there is half a chance that the Hammers could yet see the best of an English midfielder who is probably the most naturally gifted of his generation. Failing that, even a 70% Wilshere who is mostly fit and largely motivated is a solid signing with no fee involved. Add Ryan Fredericks (25 and free) to that list and it looks like West Ham might have a tangible plan. How very odd.
Next to head through the door will be Felipe Anderson to smash their transfer record. But ask West Ham fans whether they would rather spend £37m on a Brazilian international long linked with Manchester United or £10m on Preston striker Jordan Hugill and you will get a resounding answer. They may yet be overpaying, but at least there is a question mark where too often there has been none. Oh and Anderson is also 25 and approaching his prime.
Last season, a list of the average age of Premier League starting XIs saw West Ham only propped up by West Brom, which is not a healthy place for any club to find itself. Next season will be different and for that alone, the Hammers deserve credit for their transfer business. And when was the last time anybody offered that?