When West Ham United Had Dimitri Payet

“We’ve got Payet, Dimitri Payet! I just don’t think you understand.

He’s Super Slav’s man, he’s better than Zidane.

We’ve got Dimitri Payet!”

‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ is undoubtedly the anthem of West Ham United. The song remains one of the most recognisable pre match anthems in world football. However there was a time that saw another song echo along Green Street and shake the walls of The Black Lion.

There is, to my knowledge, no firm or concrete account of how West Ham adopted ‘Bubbles’, originally debuting in American musical ‘The Passing Show’ on Broadway in 1918. A romantic link refers to a young East London schoolboy called William Murray, nicknamed ‘Bubbles’ due to his appearance. The youngster is said to have shared similarities to a boy in a painting entitled ‘Bubbles’ by Millais used to advertise Pears’ soap.

Some claim that ‘Bubbles’ was never regularly sung at Upton Park until World War II, when it became a morale boosting song carolled in air raid shelters, before later transferring to the stadium.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the heritage of West Ham’s association to the song there is no doubting the relationship with The Hammers. The first reported rendition of the new song is said to have emerged on the 17th October 2015, among 3,000 travelling West Ham fans inside Selhurst Park. Dimitri Payet scored the third goal in stoppage time as the visitors won 3-1 against ten-man Crystal Palace. The Frenchman stood with his left hand holding the corner flag and his other placed on his forehead in salute, as the fans celebrated with their new hero.

The song declared that West Ham’s new number 27 was ‘better than Zidane’ and although he can’t be compared to one of the all time greats, for a short period of exceptional form – he was unplayable.

Payet joined The Irons in June 2015, signing a five-year contract with joint chairman David Sullivan later admitting that they knew about his flawed personality. The midfielder arrived from Marseille with the French club facing financial difficulty. The playmaker had no previous intentions of leaving his former club, a club that would come back to heavily impact his career and his relationship with his new admirers in East London.

Payet’s debut in the claret and blue came across London, at the Emirates Stadium, where Slaven Bilic’s side started the season with an emphatic win over Arsene Wenger’s title contenders. Payet enjoyed an exceptional debut; his trademark cross headed in by Cheikhou Kouyate before Mauro Zarate added a second. His bow was overshadowed by a remarkable man-of-the-match performance from prospect Reece Oxford but Payet’s quality was evident throughout. The former Marseille player showcased a low centre of gravity and an abundance of tricks that he would display throughout his first season in England. His strength and spatial awareness allowed him to drift past opponents, while his crossing ability gave his new club attacking options from both set pieces and wide areas.

The French international scored his first Premier League goal less than a week later, netting in a defeat to eventual champions Leicester City at the Boleyn Ground. His performances in September and October, including a brace at home to Newcastle United, had the West Ham supporters lauding their new superstar. It wasn’t just his ability but his attitude (overwhelmingly questioned on arrival) that seemed suited to the demands of the Premier League.

An ankle injury sustained in early November halted his fine form with his side stuttering as a result. Slaven Bilic’s team found the absence of their star midfielder difficult to overcome and struggled for goals in the immediate aftermath of his injury. Payet was out for total of three months, returning in early January of 2016. The Frenchman hit the ground running, scoring a sensational curling free-kick that clipped the underside of the bar to cancel out Harry Arter’s opener at the Vitality Stadium. A late Enner Valencia double failed to steal the limelight as man-of-the-match Dimitri Payet was substituted to a rapturous standing ovation on 78 minutes.

His song, which by now had been altered across the country for other clubs and players, rung out across east London long after the final whistle. Soon after his dominating performance that saw him threaten on every occasion, the West Ham hierarchy rewarded Payet with a new five-and-a-half year contract which also saw his wages rise to a reported £125,000 a week. The new deal committed the midfielder to the club until the summer of 2021.

With such an array of skills and talent he quickly became a fans favourite among the loyal irons, but it was his outstanding free-kick taking prowess that stood out. The right-footed dead ball expert was making a name for himself across the continent for his deadly set pieces. Payet was able to conjure extraordinary amounts of dip and curl, leaving some of the best goalkeepers in world football bamboozled by his technique.

There are two examples that stand out, both scored within weeks of each other as West Ham pushed for European qualification and domestic success. In mid-March, Bilic’s side travelled to Old Trafford for an FA Cup tie, heading into the fixture with a great deal of hope against a faltering Red Devils managed by Louis Van Gaal. With the game goalless and the Hammers in the ascendency, the Frenchman struck to put his side in control of the quarterfinal. Payet’s 35-yard free kick curled away from the fully stretched David De Gea and into the top corner; a strike that despite the difficulty and distance seemed somehow inevitable as he placed the ball on the Old Trafford turf. Anthony Martial’s late equaliser sent the tie to a replay with the Manchester giants eventually winning the competition.

Just weeks later, as halftime approached at the Boleyn Ground, West Ham were level with Crystal Palace. In the moments that followed, the lucky onlookers would witness one of the greatest free-kicks in the history of the Premier League. Palace constructed a seven man wall with the ball placed just a yard or so outside the edge of the penalty area. Most players would struggle to get the ball ‘up and down’ given such restrictions. Wayne Hennessey stood to one side, almost offering Payet the other… if he was good enough. The gifted former Marseille player was certainly good enough, good enough even to beat Hennessey on his own side with a strike that defied belief, stranding the Palace goalkeeper who could only watch as the ball whipped and dipped into the top corner.

A sensational first season in the Premier League led to the attacking midfielder being shortlisted for the PFA Players’ Player of the year Award and also led to Payet’s inclusion in France’s squad for Euro 2016. Born on the French island of Réunion, the fans favourite headed to the home tournament as one of the poster boys of the competition. He was voted man-of-the-match once again in the opening game of the tournament before his performances helped steer France towards the final – eventually losing to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in extra time.

Eventual disappointment in the final had not impacted the midfielder’s reputation as Payet’s stock continued to rise across Europe. There was a long list of clubs reportedly interested in the West Ham star with Real Madrid regularly named among the English press.

The east London side managed to retain the services of one of Europe’s hottest properties as the club entered a vital period in the history of the famous club. West Ham United had agreed an extraordinary tenancy agreement to lease the London Stadium for 99 years, starting with the 60,000 capacity venue hosting the claret and blue from 2016 onwards. The stadium had been built for the Olympic games in 2012 but would now serve a different purpose. Despite the reinvention at extraordinary cost, athletics would remain a key part of the venue with apparent detriment to the atmosphere.

Payet was required to help lead the club towards their new future, the shining light in uncertain times as fans were forced to bid farewell to the Boleyn Ground and many memories of the past.

The French international had a mixed start to the new season, scoring just two goals before the end of the year. The set piece expert failed to capture the form of the previous campaign as the whole club struggled to adapt to life at their new home.

There was a great deal of unrest among the loyal fan base and that unrest started to creep into the squad. Former employers Marseille had a new owner in American businessman Frank McCourt, introducing the ‘OM Champions’ project to the club. Patrice Evra was one of the first to join the Ligue 1 side but the new project needed a big name and Payet was top of the list.

The January transfer window provided the perfect opportunity for business but the east London club was unwilling to sell their midfielder. The Frenchman, now seeking a return to his former club, forced their hand.

Bilić announced during the month that the player no longer wished to play for the club and an extremely messy situation ensued. With the player on strike, the team rallied but the disharmony in the squad was evident. The owners and manager urged Payet to apologise to the fans and remain in the English capital, but his mind was made up. With no positive outcome in sight, West Ham eventually accepted Marseille’s bid of £25m, over double the fee paid just a year or so earlier, but a number much lower than it could have been – had the circumstances been different.

The player got his wish and a return to his beloved Marseille, a move engineered with no respect or thought for his previously adoring fans in England. Those loving fans had lost their hero and traded him for a villain. The behaviour of Payet was greeted with understandable fury and anger; social media awash with snake emojis.

Payet was once honoured with his very own mural at the London Stadium before the artwork was removed amid the transfer speculation and the player’s refusal to represent the club. There were fears that the anger felt among the fans would lead to the destruction of the mural and Payet’s image was replaced by one of Andy Carroll’s spectacular overhead kick.

Bilić claimed that the impact that the situation was having on the changing room left the club with no option. Payet’s eventual explanation was a little different. The Frenchman cited boredom as his reason for demanding his exit and described having to endure a negative brand of football at the London Stadium.

The winger told L’Equipe: “You could say I was bored. I’d had contact with Marseille and most notably with (Marseille coach) Rudi Garcia, who had a philosophy that I knew well. The choice was quick. If I waited six months I would lose six months.”

Once revered, the player is now a figure of great disdain among his previously adoring fans. The lack of respect shown by Payet in forcing a move back to France is something that will tarnish his reputation forever. His popularity among the supporters would have shouldered any poor form that may have come his way.

If the midfielder had mirrored the loyalty shown in him, he would have cemented himself among the greats of West Ham United. Instead, the treachery and deceit quickly destroyed the devotion that once surrounded him. For a period of time it would have been easy to imagine Payet hoisted high into the east London air, like the bubbles before kick off, resting on the faithful shoulders of supporters as they celebrated European qualification. The sad reality of the situation is that his presence is no longer welcome at the club, a club that is now closer to relegation than Europe.

The plethora of issues that now engulf West Ham United have recently seen Payet labeled as a visionary for foreseeing the demise and struggles of the club. The problems that lie within glossing pleasantly over what can only be described as selfishness and betrayal.

Coincidently, Payet’s Marseille are enjoying a good run of form. The French side sit third in the table, but it is the performances of Florian Thauvin that are receiving the plaudits and Payet once again struggling to find the form that saw him compared to Zidane.

As West Ham moved to the London stadium, it felt as though the great club was at a crossroads; a moment that could define the future of the east London side. With the current situation containing pitch invasions, fan protests, insecurity and a relegation battle it is hard to remember that the now hated figure of Dimitri Payet once united east London in a treasured stadium that encapsulated West Ham United. It was a time when expectations were high yet realistic; a time when the atmosphere and devotion was never questioned. A time when the Hammers had Dimitri Payet: a player and a club to believe in.

By Harry Collins with artwork by Tom Griffiths

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