Vast, imposing centre back Slaven Bilić first appeared in English football with West Ham following a £1.3million transfer from Karlsruher SC in January 1996. With a good first touch and astute reading of the game, he immediately impressed for the Hammers, turning out for Croatia at that summer’s European Championships in England. His performances attracted the notice of Joe Royle, who was in the market for a long-term replacement for Dave Watson, and in March 1997 he agreed a £4.5million deal for the defender.
Bilić, who was always idiosyncratic and sought his own path, refused to leave West Ham immediately, saying he owed them a ‘debt of loyalty’, which he chose to express as helping them out of a relegation battle. (It was later alleged that he stayed to collect a £200,000 loyalty bonus.) However, by the time he completed his move that summer, Royle had left Everton and Bilić was left to forge his career amid the chaos that defined Howard Kendall’s third spell as Everton manager.
Not that Bilić did much to alleviate Everton’s plight. Sent off three times, he missed one quarter of the 1997/98 season to suspension and when he did play did little to allay Everton’s descent to the relegation zone. Tellingly he was left out of the season’s crucial game, at home to Coventry City, where a wretched Everton team barely staved off relegation.
Perhaps unbelievably, Bilić appeared just five more times in an Everton shirt after that tumultuous day. Although these last days were purportedly confounded by persistent injuries, he would somehow recover in order to play for his national team and seemed to spend as much time recovering in his homeland as he did at Bellefield.
Without a first-team appearance in more than a year, in February 2000 Everton gave Bilić a £1million payoff, which represented half the balance of his contract, also writing off the transfer fee. Within days he joined Hadjuk Split, where he played out his career.
An erudite, intelligent man and qualified lawyer, Bilić later managed Croatia, masterminding England’s demise in the 2008 European Championship qualifiers.
When fees, wages and his payoff had been taken into account, Bilić cost Everton around £250,000 per match. Yet during this time his only notable contribution to football was an outrageous dive in the World Cup semi-final, which saw the France captain, Laurent Blanc, banned for the final. Blanc, like Everton Football Club, had every right to feel cheated.