The inspirational and gradual rise of West Ham United and Southampton
Dissecting Southampton's and West Ham's ambitious efforts that have raised the bar for midtable sides
The marvel of Leicester City winning the Premier League is arguably the best sporting story ever to have unfolded in recent years, an ambitious side with average players making the money-pumping super big clubs look like bullies who had lost their way. A story that urged us to dream and hope.
Reminiscent of the efforts of the Foxes, West Ham and Southampton are prime examples of how teams are often held back by the expectations put in place.
West Ham United’s rapid rise
May 24, 2015: West Ham United announced what most of the football people saw coming, the club would be parting ways with Sam Allardyce after four years that lighted the Hammers' upturn from the Championship to a midtable finish in the Premier League.
They had finished a place higher than they did a year before, nothing noteworthy but a statistical improvement nonetheless. Pundits and bookmakers alike had stamped and agreed upon the imaginary line that the East Londoners wouldn't even think of crossing, not in the impending seasons.
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Lines would be crossed and barriers broken, the hierarchy with a golden man in David Gold, who couldn't tell Pedro Obiang from Angelo Ogbonna, decided it was time the club laid its intentions out in the open, plans changed and objectives set, perspectives differing and risks taken.
One of West Ham's own, savage for his age, a man who could look you in the eye and visit the inner darkness that you never knew existed – hopes and expectations were shouldered on Slaven Bilic. Ferocious in attire, demanding in essence, the Croatian was part of the club's rearguard setup in 1996 when they finished 14th under Harry "I-give-interviews-from-my-car" Redknapp.
Boleyn Ground stood there glaring in the sun awaiting the vigorously animated figure walking out of the tunnel revamping what he thought needed and making the perfect start to the Premier League.
And boy didn't he start well. Emerging from the Emirates with all three in the bag and a smile on their faces was a pivotal point that turned West Ham's consistent mediocrity into a team that ripped apart other clubs away from home, going into games with plans of immaculate detail and executing it with ample precision.
Touchlines were lit up by madness and intimidation which was Bilic's way of inspiring the men out on the pitch, reminding them of what they were playing for. The progression was evident from the performances and further substantiated by the team's impressive run of results, with their manager moulding them into an inspired bunch brimming with motivation and hungry for results.
Around all the talk of the manager managing to seal his authority on the side, bringing them to a higher level of newfound quality, there was one man who arrived from Marseille and splashed down with a thud so loud that the rival defenses started to fall apart.
Dimitri Payet glided past tackles, drifting sideways and inside using textbook faints and trickery, sailing through the opposition like a man on a mission, soon becoming the go-to-man and often delivering when they needed him to.
Fans were witnessing a footballer of monumental abilities nurturing his intrinsic talent and pushing them to untrodden heights.
West Ham emanated as contenders for the final Champions League qualifying spot, and at times, coming close to toppling Manchester United from fifth but failed to propel themselves to the finish line as they expected. They finished seventh behind Southampton, racking up a club record 62 points, 4 short of fourth-placed Manchester City, surpassing assumptions and silencing critics.
The decision to let Big Sam walk away had brought upon the club a new dawn of diverse opportunities, a statement of eye-opening nature that in the changing world of money-spitting, monopolistic, sponsor-driven world of football, the paths that lead upward bow before you, if there's that ambitious spark inside waiting to be made into a glowing inferno.
Southampton – Gradual progression
A period of dullness, distractions and desperation, Southampton's 2008-09 season tested the team's very endurance capability, languishing as time progressed, inhabiting the relegation zone for the majority of the season and giving their supporters little to look forward to and nothing to be excited about.
As the clock ticked on in Hampshire, distant clamours arose, faint signals got clearer and a year of agony finally reached its horrid peak, brushing off scenarios and the prospect of a miraculous escape that even the most faithful found hard to believe. Southampton were condemned to relegation to the third tier of English football.
Fast forward seven years and that's a story right there that would make Hollywood. The Saints have blossomed into a different giant, exemplifying how a football club is supposed to be run, giving the master brains behind the mammoth clubs something to think about before reaping profits and dumping the whole load on a world-beater in the hope that trophies and more trophies would follow.
They have become a beacon of hope in a world where the prominent question is who makes more from shirt sales and sorting out issues in a bumper contract for a world record move.
An academy of the highest quality, the antipode of talent scarcity, which has quite a remarkable list of names to its credit, including Gareth Bale (that CV ought to impress), has been the core of their splendid transformation from a crumbling set of players to a model institution set around devised plans and long-term vision implemented to excellence.
By doing so, they have mirrored the definition of 'gradual progression', refining where necessary and improving their league finish season after season, from 14th to 6th in four years, which is nothing short of emphatic.
But the departure of Ronald Koeman might have set a different set of gears in motion, looking to pick up the pace and bridging the gap that most managers leave behind. It is even more unsettling to swallow the new man in town, Claude Puel.
He has the task of engineering his side to cope without the agile Sadio Mane who had a hobby of taking down defenses with his exhilarating pace and Graziano Pelle who joined Shandong Luneng becoming the latest to make a move to China involving lots of money. Lots.
Even then, it's just another gas station for the club. A momentary pause which would resume as soon as the tyres started to roll, fuelled by another one of those spectacular goals scored in front of the St. Mary's faithful by one of their academy products.
The club's transfer structure, making profits out of players they bought for pennies, scouting potential and shedding light on unearthed talent, stabilising the team and looking for balance is another take on their already distinguished objectives.
Unlike West Ham's slingshot from midtable to European places, Southampton have walked knowing and believing in what they have to do and making sure they did. These teams have epitomised the substance ambitions are to be built on, firmly reaching the aspired levels of calibre and consistency, letting it known that ambitions take you places, places less travelled by.