We still can’t believe how good Dimitri Payet was in his first West Ham season

Nostalgia

Sometimes you need to look back at Dimitri Payet’s first season at West Ham United, just to make sure you didn’t dream it.

Players outside the top four aren’t supposed to be good enough to put elite opponents to the sword, and they’re certainly not supposed to be able to keep it going for an entire season.

There’s always a feeling that, if a player is that good, someone higher profile shouldn’t have allowed him to slip under their radar. Payet, however, proved that it can happen.

In March 2016, I was at Old Trafford to watch West Ham in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Thanks to Payet’s influence, West Ham were a couple of points above their opponents in the league, and those of us who travelled up were cautiously optimistic of beating them in the cup.

Just over 20 minutes from time, Payet placed the ball 30 yards from David de Gea’s goal, in a central position. And by this point it wasn’t a case of thinking he had a chance at this point; we knew he would score.

Don’t ask why – sometimes football doesn’t need to follow logical paths. Sometimes emotion really is that powerful and you don’t need to delve any deeper. After all, if you did keep digging and found things like ‘regression to the mean’ and ‘unsustainability’ then it just wouldn’t be as fun.

 

There’s a moment at which I sensed Payet would be a real gem for West Ham. It wasn’t at Old Trafford, and it wasn’t even when he scored his first goal for the club back in August.

It was earlier than that, in a pre-season meeting with Charlton Athletic, when the Frenchman was booked for diving.

You might feel like there’s a disconnect here: why this moment, so inconsequential and in such an unimportant game, when he did so much more on those occasions when a great deal was at stake?

It is purely for that reason. This was a man who made it clear, more or less from day one, that he would never be overawed or underawed by a situation. He would approach every game in the same way, namely by finding the easiest way to leave the opponent seething. Sometimes that’s by scoring impossibly good goals, and sometimes it’s by doing something unnecessary to the point of ridicule.

The dive was proof of Payet’s determination to be the chief protagonist of every game in which he played, and he has the quality to complement his self-belief by delivering in a big way. It’s the kind of footballing arrogance everyone should be able to get behind.

“He is a brilliant player and he is not just a player who decides a game with his goals,” West Ham’s then-manager Slaven Bilic said after Payet scored twice in a victory over Newcastle United a couple of months after that Charlton game.

Payet averaged four key passes per game in his debut season, leading to 10 assists. To put that into context, no other West Ham player has even averaged two in a Premier League campaign since, though Payet himself somehow upped his average to 4.1 in a much less productive Hammers side in the first half of the 2016-17 season.

He played like a man who knew he was going to run every single game, regardless of who he was up against and regardless of whether they had any plans to let him.

Take the opener against Newcastle as an example. Here he was, waiting patiently, biding his time until the ball arrived at his feet, and inviting the net to await its receipt with the exact same patience. Once he gets the nod from the goal that it has braced itself for impact, it’s go time.

 

At that summer’s European Championships, with Payet still miraculously on West Ham’s books, there was a sensation no supporter of the club had ever been used to: the hyperbole around the club’s best player actually being accurate.

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Without his brilliance on home soil for France, those who watched him light up their club’s final season at Upton Park might have begun doubting their own senses, treating his majesty as a kind of Mandela effect. No one could be that good, surely, and certainly not for West Ham. We must have imagined it.

Doing it on a bigger stage, though? That was all the proof we needed that maybe, just maybe, people would be prepared to listen the next time someone from a ‘lesser’ club started doing bits.

Suddenly moments like the free-kick against Crystal Palace, a goal so baffling you’d have thought the footage had been doctored if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes, became opportunities to say “See! What did I tell you?”

 

Throughout that first season, watching Dimitri Payet felt like a constant battle with our own expectation; a constant question of “wait, are we allowed to do this? Are we allowed someone this good?”

As it turns out, we were.

By Tom Victor


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