West Ham’s steady decline continued last season with a ninth-place finish – one down on the preceding season and two down on the team’s maiden campaign in the top flight, in which they reached the FA Cup final.
The Hammers are a somewhat unknown entity going into the 2021-22 season, having shipped out 10 players and recruited the same number on permanent deals, as well as the underrated and versatile Arsenal full-back/winger Lisa Evans on loan.
Jack Sullivan, son of the West Ham co-chairman, David Sullivan, stepped down as managing director in May, leaving the general manager, Aidan Boxall, to take more responsibility for running the women’s setup. The manager, Olli Harder, was appointed more than a month after Matt Beard, who had built the team almost from scratch in the summer of 2018, left by mutual consent in November last year.
The New Zealander failed to elicit a new manager bounce but he did tighten at the back. In the team’s first seven games last season under Beard, who joined Liverpool in the summer after a spell as maternity cover for Bristol City’s Tanya Oxtoby, West Ham conceded 20 times. In their 13 games under Harder they let in 16 and only twice conceded more than two goals, to the title challengers Manchester City and Chelsea.
It is a hint of progress, but only a small one. Harder should be given the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent: having joined at the end of December he had the January transfer window to make changes, but not much time.
The midfielder Emily van Egmond was a solid recruit but the lesser-known Icelandic midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir struggled to find her feet. The release on loan of the forward Alisha Lehmann and midfielder Cho So-hyun raised eyebrows but change was needed. Now, with summer recruits in, we should get more of a picture of what a Harder West Ham look like.
The signing of Australia’s Tameka Yallop from Brisbane Roar after the midfielder reached the bronze-medal match at the Tokyo Olympics, which they lost 4-3 to the USA, is a good one, as is the addition of the slick Japan midfielder Yui Hasegawa from Milan.
They are joined by the midfielder Zaneta Wyne from Glasgow City, Birmingham’s forward Claudia Walker, Mel Filis from London Bees, Abbey-Leigh Stringer from Everton, Lucy Parker from UCLA in the US, the New Zealand goalkeeper Anna Leat, and the 18-year-old pair Brooke Cairns and Grace Garrard. Evans is perhaps the cherry on top of the team’s 10 signings.
The team’s opening game against Brighton will not be easy, with the Seagulls a potential dark horse after last season’s impressive sixth-place finish, but it is an opportunity for West Ham to make a statement. That fixture is followed by games against Aston Villa and promoted Leicester and there will be pressure to get points before the big guns test the resilience of the new-look side.
Realistically West Ham are one of the favourites for the drop. Bristol City are not there to cushion the rest and ambitious Leicester are working hard to avoid dropping back down. Villa and Birmingham have had managerial changes and in many respects are as unknown as West Ham. The Hammers have to hope that the head start Harder has, having come in mid-season, gives them an advantage over their likely closest rivals at the bottom end of the table.