With West Ham two goals down away at one of the Premier League’s most in form sides, the game appeared to be up for manager Slaven Bilic.
The Croatian could have been forgiven for thinking his time in East London had finally come to an end as his out of sorts team trailed rivals Tottenham at Wembley on Wednesday night.
After last week’s humiliating 3-0 hammering at home to newly-promoted Brighton, Bilic was given two games to save his job by co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold and this one was going nearly as badly as he could have hoped and a crucial encounter at fellow stragglers Crystal Palace awaited in the league on Saturday.
Yet despite all the issues plaguing West Ham and all the momentum in Spurs’ favour only those who have not made close scrutiny to Bilic’s career thus far could have comfortably written him off.
In his first game in charge of his native Croatia, who had just endured a disappointing 2006 World Cup, the former Hammers centre-back led his country to a 2-0 away win over the recently-crowned World Champions Italy.
He followed that up by guiding Croatia into Euro 2008 at the expense of a much-fancied England side, who he memorably got the better of in a dramatic qualifier at Wembley in the final fixture of qualifying.
A now reinvigorated team that boasted of players coveted by Europe’s top clubs entered World Cup qualifying as top seeds widely expected to reach the 2010 tournament in South Africa. They failed, performed below expectations and Bilic found himself under pressure. During the campaign Croatia’s Vecernji List newspaper screamed “Bilic’s Debacle” while website Index.hr accused his side of being “broken down and humiliated”.
Since reclaiming the heart of every Iron in Upton Park during an impressive first season as their manager in 2015/16, his side finishing seventh and only four points from a spot in the Champions League, things have gone steadily downhill for Bilic at West Ham.
Defeat to Brighton was not the first seemingly rock bottom moments endured since the club’s divisive move to the London Stadium, yet Bilic has always managed to find a way out and steered the Hammers back to form.
If Wednesday’s Wembley win is to trigger an extension in Bilic’s time in the dugout beyond the two games afforded to him — and the result of this weekend’s crucial league match will surely weigh more heavily on the minds of Sullivan and Gold than the League Cup encounter — it will not be the first time he’s engineered a great escape from the sack.
Last season’s eventual 11th place finish in the league was respectable if underwhelming, yet before West Ham eventually pulled away from trouble there were moments when Bilic found himself on the brink.
In early April his side were only six points clear of the relegation zone, had suffered a damaging defeat to Hull and were without a league win for two months. Results barely improved throughout the month and by May West Ham had reportedly set their sights on Huddersfield’s David Wagner or Marco Silva, then at Watford.
Yet a memorable victory over Tottenham — who else? — at the London Stadium to end their rivals’ title charge was enough to keep him in the job.
There were similar mutterings about Bilic’s position this time last year when West Ham had lost five of their opening seven games, had failed to beat newly-promoted Middlesbrough.
With the pressure mounting, his side dug in for a 1-0 victory and pulled themselves out of the relegation zone against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Don’t bet against the escape artist performing his favourite trick once more.