As a quick scan of the media will have enlightened even the most ill-informed among us, 2015 is an election year, and one of the most divisive and decisive issues will be Europe, and Britain’s future relationship with it. In, out, shake it all about? You decide. Whilst it is no surprise that supporters of UKIP face having their verdict on the year being decided by that question, it is slightly less expected that supporters of WHUFC also find Europe top of their agenda.
Even wearers of the most impenetrably claret and blue tinted glasses would not expect to have found Sam Allardyce’s side within sniffing distance of the Champions League spots at the start of 2015, but, remarkably, that is how things are. So with European football next term a very realistic possibility, the question is, coming as it would in such a seismic season as the final campaign at Upton Park – would it be a good thing?
There are two very different European options which could happen, with wildly differing long-term consequences; the promised land of the Champions League or the slightly less desirable consolation prize of the Europa League. Entry to the first class lounge, usually reserved for the likes of Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs of this world, would be an eye-popping experience for West Ham and even in the worst case scenario, a rewarding one.
Champions League membership gives a club a whole new status in the summer transfer market, which could, hypothetically, attract players who would otherwise be out of their reach, giving an injection of quality to the squad just in time for the move to the Olympic Stadium. This could make the whole bedding-in process a very different experience, with potentially significant long-term benefits for the club and with Sam Allardyce’s managerial future unclear, West Ham may also be more attractive to potential new bosses.
The other side of the coin is the Europa League or the Easyjet League Cup, as it might as well be known. For every Milan or Madrid in the Champions League, there is a Qarabag of Azerbaijan or Rio Ave of Portugal in the Europa League – fixtures which would do nothing to inspire players or fans and everything to tire and distract them.
The Thursday night slot may supposedly be to give the Europa League a distinct identity, but the fact Thursday has always been a football-free night explains why it feels wrong to fans, and possibly why so many English clubs suffer frequent Europa League hangovers the following Sunday. The Champions League may be a potential cash cow, but the Europa League is a very different beast.
Extra games against less than thrilling teams, confusing the natural rhythm of the season, pulling unremarkable crowds and hardly attracting a better class of signing, for who knows what financial reward – is it worth the effort? Recently, involvement in the Europa League has proved little short of a long-term curse for several English clubs. In 2006 Middlesbrough reached the then Uefa Cup final, lost and after all that overstretching, in 2009 they were relegated from the Premier League.
Similarly, Fulham bust a gut reaching the 2010 final and in 2014 they too fell through the trap door. Portsmouth went into a nosedive after their 2008-09 European jaunt (admittedly financial meltdown did not help), and this season, the group stage meant Hull’s season started in July, and having bailed out early, they currently lie in the bottom half of the table. West Ham’s immediate future after leaving Upton Park can be summed up in one word; upheaval.
So is gambling on Europe worth it? A failed campaign could see the Irons arrive at their new home under a cloud, leaving the new era hamstrung from the start, but play your cards right and it could be a spectacular springboard into the future with the bonus of extra Upton Park farewell games against some of Europe’s most glamorous visitors. Looking at the fates of previous participants, is it worth stretching for the highest prize, risking toppling over and landing on who knows what? In my mind, yes, absolutely.
For years, West Ham fans have lived on a diet of nearlies (1986 League finish), what ifs (2006 FA Cup final) and if onlies (Lampard, Ferdinand, Carrick, Cole). What could be more symbolic of the West Ham mentality than the fade and die lyrics of Bubbles?
But now, for once, the wind seems to be blowing our way. We need to shrug off the humility enforced by years of what could have been, seize the opportunity and go for it. Do not be daunted by the past failures of others. It is time for West Ham to take the road less travelled – into Europe – and see where it takes us.