As a man renowned for knowing and speaking his mind, it is rare you’ll find Slaven Bilic with anything remotely resembling divided loyalties.
Yet when Everton host West Ham on Saturday, the outspoken 42-year-old – remembered as a quality defender and now the respected coach of the Croatian national team – may just feel a rare pang of confliction.
If pushed he will tell you he is a West Ham supporter. Bilic enjoyed arguably the best years of his career with the Hammers before Joe Royle paid £4.5m to lure him to Goodison Park in 1997.
Subsequently he was unable to transfer the form that made him one of the most coveted centre-halves in the Premier League, but a lingering affection for the Blues has stayed with him and he is glad to see the Club enjoying better times under David Moyes.
In stark contrast, his spell at Goodison saw the Blues embroiled in the type of relegation battle the Hammers currently find themselves in.
And with the beleaguered Londoners hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons and poor displays on the pitch compounded by damaging and sustained speculation regarding the future of manager Avram Grant, Bilic believes the ailing Hammers have it all to do when they visit the North West.
“West Ham are having a bad season,” he told evertonfc.com. “And now they have a really difficult game because Everton is one of the toughest away trips for anyone in English football. I was speaking to Luka Modric and he said Everton had been Spurs’ toughest away game of the season.
“Everton has a great ground, amazing supporters who get behind the team and make it very difficult for the away team. So it is not a good game for West Ham given their situation.”
At the time of Bilic’s move to Everton, he was one of the finest central defenders in the league, but injury meant Blues fans never saw the best of him.
And Bilic, an self-confessed aficionado of English football, says Everton’s performances in that era were not befitting of a club of its stature.
As far as the current Blues side is concerned, he feels they are in safe hands with Moyes and are probably only a regular goalscorer away from challenging for top honours.
“Everton have had a strange season,” he said. “In the summer I was at the World Cup and I had dinner with David Moyes, who I rate as one of the best managers in England – he has done unbelievably with Everton. He told me at that dinner that this season Everton can do it big time and get right up the league.
“But they have had a strange season, dropping points when you think they should be winning. They have a great squad, a great manager and great fans but the one reason for me is that they don’t have an out and out goalscorer. If you do not have a guy who can score 20 goals then you don’t have the chance to be really consistent.
“Even without Pienaar, who is a top player, they have still got a great midfield – very aggressive but also very sharp, clever and creative. At the back they are solid and they are solid as a team which is a big credit to the manager.
He added: “Everton are a great club and it was only when I went there and after my career I realised how huge the club is. It is a massive club with an amazing history. I want to see them do well.
“They should probably be right at the top given their history and the size of the club, but they are doing as well as they can and they have a great manager in David Moyes.
"The one regret I have about the whole thing is that because of injury I couldn’t give Everton my very best. I am sad about that – I wanted to give them more but the injury stopped me."
As for the Hammers, Bilic says the fuss off the pitch needs to be quelled if they are to have any chance of surviving this season. He also backed Grant as the best man to try and salvage their top flight status.
“They are having a bad season and I am upset about it,” he added. “The situation with the manager definitely does not help. It is not good for the manager, it is not good during the games, for the players and for the club.
“He (Avram Grant) is a good manager, I know him well. He was successful in Israel and he has done good work in England, first with Chelsea and then with Portsmouth – particularly in the FA Cup. He is the best choice and should stay at least until the end of the season – he deserves the chance.”
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