In July 2019, this very author penned a piece titled “Marko Arnautovic: A Toxic Talent Who Deserves the Footballing Oblivion Awaiting Him in China” .
As you might expect, it wasn’t a particularly complementary piece about the Austrian forward – who had just rocked up in China to sign a contract with Shanghai SIPG worth about £434m* (*not entirely accurate) in order to secure a move away from West Ham.
Then, in March 2020, Arnautovic took up some more 90min column inches, in the equally positive sequel “The Curious Case of Marko Arnautovic – Already Forgotten Footballer & Multi-Millionaire”.
That, as the title would suggest, was a portrayal of Arnautovic’s standing in the game eight months after moving to China, and was also the musings of a writer who had no earthly idea just how severe the coronavirus pandemic would be.
And if that wasn’t enough, there was in fact a third instalment of said love affair (possibly obsession, who knows) with Arnautovic in January, in the form of “West Ham looking to re-sign Marko Arnautovic? Nah, you’re alright thanks”.
Pretty self-explanatory stuff.
So you might be thinking, is a fourth article about Arnautovic really necessary? In truth, probably not.
But seeing as the 32-year-old was pictured talking jovially to West Ham duo Declan Rice and Jesse Lingard ahead of Austria’s pre-Euro 2020 friendly with England on Wednesday night, there appears to be a window of opportunity.
To provide context, a conversation between professional footballers – and former teammates – may seem completely innocent and a pretty normal thing to do. However, if you’re of a West Ham persuasion, you’ll be fully aware of the rumours that have been bubbling away in the press and on social media.
Arnautovic is supposedly keen on a return to the London Stadium, and manager David Moyes is thought to want him back.
That, for many neutrals, won’t mean a great deal. Manager wants to work again with former player who previously did well for him, what’s the problem?
Well, for one – as quoted in January’s Arnautovic love-in – ‘he is a man, after all, who made my blood pressure – and many other West Ham supporters’ – rise exponentially because he could either be bloody brilliant or shockingly sh*t, directly causing my hair to fall out at an even greater rate than genetics had originally intended.’
There’s also the follow-up caveat that, ‘he’s also a man who played well for a little while, got a bit big for his boots, fancied a move elsewhere, allowed his brother to do a bit of mouthing off in the press, changed his tune so he could sign a new and improved contract at West Ham, before performing yet another U-turn to force himself out of the club for an even bigger payday and an ‘adventure’ in China.’
Sitting here and reading that now, it begs the question was any of that untrue? On the surface, no.
Arnautovic’s exit was wholly unsavoury, there was a partizan objection to his effort levels during the final few months of his West Ham tenure, and it did look like he’d performed rather unprofessional and allowed others in his camp to do the same, in order to pursue something a little more glamorous.
But for all of the ill-feeling generated at the time, the majority of that is pure conjecture. We’ll never really know what happened behind the scenes, and a number of things could have contributed to Arnautovic – or his representatives – seemingly acting out. It’s widely accepted that he was pretty difficult to control at times, but was his departure really all down to him? Unlikely.
One thing we do know now is how highly Arnautovic was, and is, thought of by those who played with him at West Ham. Rice soon posted on his Instagram story after the conversation involving Lingard that it was good to catch up with ‘top, top guy’ Arnautovic, while captain Mark Noble told That Peter Crouch Podcast in May that he was ‘really sad to see him go’ in 2019.
“Everyone was worried about him when he came. What a funny, funny man though. What a player when he turned it on, some days in training, you couldn’t get close to the fella. I was really sad to see him go.”
– Mark Noble on Arnautovic
Then there’s David Moyes perception of a player he admitted in May was difficult to manage, but also exciting at the same time.
“Marko was great for me. I loved having him at the club because I liked the challenge of trying to manage him. He’s someone who maybe wasn’t easy at times but I actually quite enjoyed it,” the Scot said.
“I would never rule Marko out – but I’m trying to move forward. I’m trying to build towards a new team, a new West Ham. I’m trying not to go back, if I can help it. It’s not to say that I would never go there. I would do, of course. We might get a chance to see how Marko plays in the Euros. I hope I do because I really like him.”
One thing that may go in Arnautovic’s favour is that West Ham are looking to strengthen a number of positions ahead of a surprise appearance in the Europa League next season, and the fact he’s available for free is a huge bonus. He will, however, need to take a dramatic cut from the obscene £300,000-per-week wages he was pocketing in China to even be considered.
It’s also unusual for a manager to speak so openly and positively about working with a player unless there’s genuine interest in a reunion. Moyes isn’t the kind of boss to speak out of turn, so his praise and admittance that he’d not rule out a move holds some significance.
The obvious downside is that while the players and manager may be happy with Arnautovic returning, there’s a large portion of the club’s fans who still wouldn’t want to see him anywhere near the London Stadium. His departure was acrimonious and there’s an awful lot of supporters who adopt an unforgiving mentality when it comes to betrayal of their football club.
As for this particular writer’s opinion, going back in time has never seemed like a particularly good idea. West Ham have evolved and moved to a new level since Arnautovic left, and there’s enough quality talent out there to look towards a younger, brighter future.
Adam Hlozek, anyone?