Every so often a player arrives at a club, and it just works beautifully.
Successful transfers require patience for a player to adapt, whilst unsuccessful moves are either the result of impatience for success or ill fits.
Very rarely does a player arrive and captivate a club, nor the league, as Dimitri Payet did in 2015/16 for West Ham United. Few players will ever leave such an indelible mark in just eighteen months.
English fans were unsure what to make of Payet’s arrival in West London. A modest fee of just £10 million, the Frenchman was twenty-eight and had played solely in Ligue 1 until that point.
If anything the arrival of Slaven Bilic as manager was the overriding talking point heading into the 2015/16 season. His appointment had been a positive reaction to a twelfth placed finish the previous season under Sam Allardyce. Fans were invigorated at the prospect of their former player bringing passion and fire back to Upton Park.
Then there was the issue of Upton Park. This was to be West Ham’s final dance at their home ground. The home of Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking, Paolo di Canio and Frank Lampard. The homecoming of Bilic, and the heart and passion that brought, would soak up the atmosphere of the famed old ground’s departing number.
Little did people expect it to be Payet however, who would send the bubbles soaring higher than any had in a decade.
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The Payet Party Piece
When people think back to Payet’s first season with West Ham, it is the free kicks that stand out. In particular the free kick that beat Wayne Hennessey in the Crystal Palace goal during the 2-2 draw at Upton Park.
Twenty yards out, and angled notably left of centre, the ball was just closer than optimal to score directly from. This seemed so when Payet stepped up. The ball left his foot and was floating high and wide of the far right post.
This was before it swooped viciously below the bar and over Hennessey’s head. He had not even registered the effort as worthy of stopping. A free kick as good as any scored in the league’s history.
The significance of Payet’s free kick technique extends beyond the scoring of them. His first goal involvement in claret and blue was a wedged set piece for Cheikhou Kouyaté to head home.
Payet’s early season goals against Leicester and Newcastle were from open play. However they demonstrated the same technique of a free kick. Opening his body so that both top corners are available, against the Foxes he bends it top left from central. Against Newcastle he shapes to lay off a gentle Mark Noble pass before punching his sidefoot through it to send it top right.
It was this eye for the spectacular, whilst making it look impossibly easy, that made Payet such a cult hero of the league.
The Record Books
In leaving Upton Park, the season was always going to be an emotional one for Hammers fans. It is a club that puts so much stock in its’ heritage, and being faithful to its history. If The hiring of the passionate Bilic was the first step to hitting this criteria for their Upton Park bow, Payet was the crown that nestled on its head.
Payet’s career has been one of bizarre circumstance. He had floated through Ligue 1 and was a regular for the French national team. Many were aware of his bulging creative talents, yet he had never propelled himself into the elite categories. It is unlikely he would have ended up at West Ham for £10 million if he had.
Ultimately Payet left under a dark cloud, refusing to play and claiming that the club’s ambitions didn’t match his own. He was the perfect talisman to take the club into their new stadium, yet he refused to read the script.
What is incredible about Payet’s time at West Ham, and serves as a reminder of his excellence, is the lasting impact. Payet played only forty-eight league games for the club, and was involved in twenty-seven goals in this time. Brilliant output for a mid-table club. In this time he also created nearly thirty more chances than any other Hammers player.
Not just in the same time frame, but nearly thirty more than anyone has since. Nearly three years after his departure, he still stands head and shoulders above any creator, or indeed player, to wear the claret and blue. An astonishing testament to this mercurial talent.
On a personal note, Payet’s nine goals and twelves assists were a huge triumph. Most of this output had come from the left of midfield, drifting inside to create as well as exceptional use of set pieces.
West Ham finished seventh, their highest finish since 2001/2002. In the years preceding Payet’s arrival, and those that followed his departure, the club had not come close to replicating this formula. The presence of a brilliant attacker had been absent since Paolo di Canio, despite the club holding such a player as the epitome of its ethos.
Payet was nominated for the PFA Player of the Year, and made the PFA Team of the Year. It is easy for fans of a club that have for so long underachieved to grow attached to a player of promise. What this shows is that the country had noticed and embraced Payet’s exploits. A technique so pure that it alone is enough to carry the white elephant of a club towards their highest finish in nearly two decades.
As West Ham walked away from Upton Park, Payet too would walk away from them during the next campaign. He displays the same attitude as many other football mavericks. Of Cantona and even di Canio. This of course led to a messy divorce.
Yet fans will be lying if they say Payet didn’t bring them their greatest, most joyous moments in recent memory. Even fans of other clubs would probably include him in the debate of great individual seasons of the last decade.
And what a season it was.
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