LONDON (Reuters) - West Bromwich Albion manager Slaven Bilic describes his side’s FA Cup fourth round tie at West Ham United on Saturday as ‘just a normal game’ but the Croatian would not be human if he does not approach it with a little more relish.
Bilic steered West Ham to seventh place in 2015-16, their highest Premier League finish and highest points total (62) as the club waved farewell to their old Upton Park stadium.
He was sacked in November 2017, however, as West Ham’s move to the London Stadium turned sour, a club statement at the time saying the club needed to “move forward positively and in line with their ambition”.
David Moyes took his place and helped the club stay up, only to be shown the door and replaced by Manuel Pellegrini who himself was sacked in December with the Hammers again mired in yet another relegation battle.
Moyes is back in charge at West Ham while Bilic has taken West Brom to the top of the Championship and will get a warm welcome when he returns to the London Stadium.
“My first thought when the draw was made was ‘wow’,” Bilic said on Friday.
“I can’t deny that it will be a special game for me and for (assistant coach) Julian Dicks because we played and coached there. Then again, it’s just a normal game for us.
“It’s a big game, of course. Big stadium, big opponent and a big test for us.”
Victory over his old club would fuel the feeling of disenchantment amongst West Ham fans for whom the move away from their spiritual home of Upton Park, and the lack of progress on the field, has sparked protests.
Bilic, who as player and now manager wears his heart on his sleeve, has plenty of sympathy for their plight. He said the former Olympic Stadium the club now rents lacks the atmosphere generated a few miles down the road at Upton Park.
“It’s not an excuse but if you ask me was it better to play at Upton Park or not then there’s no discussion,” Bilic told the Daily Telegraph this week.
“It was more home, it was more hostile. Not one opposition player enjoyed it when they had to go to Upton Park! That’s a fact. The Olympic Stadium is very different for an away team.
“You enjoy it more. It’s not that you were afraid for your life at Upton Park, but everything was there!”
While Bilic would love to add to Moyes’ problems with a Cup win, he said getting West Brom promoted to the Premier League remains the priority.
“It’s great to go through in the FA Cup, but we have to think about our game against Cardiff City on Tuesday which is the priority,” he said.
“We’re going to rest some players and we are going to try some players. For West Ham, I presume the league is also the priority but they are also craving a positive result.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar