Name: Slaven Bilic
Date of birth: 11 September 1968, Split, Yugoslavia
Position:
Centre-back
Debut: Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 West Ham United, 12 February 1996
Final game: Premier League, Manchester United 2-0 West Ham United, 11 May 1997
Appearances: 54
Goals:
3

"I always say that the 18 months I spent at West Ham were by far the most enjoyable of my career."

For a man who played for his boyhood club, played 44 times for and now manages his country, Slaven Bilic's words should not be taken lightly.

Now 42, the multi-talented former Hammer won the Yugoslav and newly-formed Croatian League with his beloved Hajduk Split, playing alongside the likes of Alen Boksic and Robert Jarni.

That trio would be central figures in the success of the Croatian national team, helping a country which only became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991 to reach the quarter-finals of the 1996 UEFA European Championship.

Six months before EURO 96, Bilic's performances for Karlsruher SC in the German Bundesliga and UEFA Cup, tempted Harry Redknapp to spend £1.3m to bring him to the Boleyn Ground.

For the next year-and-a-half, the earring-wearing defender shone for club and country.

"It's hard to tell you my best moment for West Ham because the whole period was so unbelievable for me football-wise.

"OK, we didn't win the league, but I always say to my friends in Croatia that West Ham is a special kind of club. It is like a family and I really enjoyed being part of it."

Redknapp had assembled an exciting squad mixing home-grown grit with exciting and extravagant foreigners - where else would could you see the likes of Julian Dicks and Iain Dowie line up alongside Hugo Porfirio and Paulo Futre?

"We had a great team, a really good team. We had Dicksy, Bish [Ian Bishop], John Moncur, Danny Williamson, Iain Dowie, Steve Potts, Tony Cottee and Timmy Breacker - real legends of West Ham. Then we had people like me and Marc Reiper, too.

"At the time, we were a little bit unlucky with injuries to our strikers. I felt then that we lacked the one or two players to be a really top side, but the club as a whole was the best time of my career."

Bilic was the standard bearer for the dozens of Croatians who have previously or currently ply their trade in English football.

Of Croatia's EURO 96 squad Bilic, Igor Stimac and Davor Suker all turned out for West Ham, while Boksic, Robert Prosinecki, Mario Stanic and Aljosa Asanovic also graced the Premier League.

"It was a special time for me and for my country. It was not like now when there are more foreigners than British players in each club.

"In football at that time, England was a closed country and clubs didn't really have many foreign players.

"I was the first Croatian to play in the Premier League and I was really pleased that, after EURO 96, others came too."

The experience of playing in England clearly benefitted the Croatians as, following their success in England, coach Miroslav Blazevic led his nation to third place at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.

Fast-forward nearly 15 years and Bilic's fellow countrymen continue to impress in the Barclays Premier League.

Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Niko Kranjcar and Stipe Pletikosa are all with Tottenham Hotspur, while Ivan Klasnic is at Bolton Wanderers and Nikola Kalinic is with Blackburn Rovers.

All six were in Bilic's squad for the 2008 UEFA European Championship finals, where Croatia topped a group including Germany, Poland and Austria before being defeated on penalties by Turkey in the quarter-finals.

After missing out at a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the former Hammer has steered unbeaten Croatia to the top of EURO 2012 qualifying Group F.

"It makes my job easier seeing the players doing so well in the best leagues - Modric, especially, is playing superbly for Tottenham."

While Bilic is naturally delighted to see his Croatia side doing so well, he has been left unhappy by the plight of his favourite former club.

"It is frustrating for me to see West Ham where they are because it is my club.

"Apart from the Carling Cup, they are not in a good position. In fact, they are in a very bad position and it will be hard to get out of that position.

"I think they have a good team and I hope that they will be able to stay up, not only for West Ham fans but for fans of English football.

"The Premier League would not be the same without West Ham, so it would be good for the club, the league and English football for them to stay up."