Flights were booked, hotel was confirmed, and my tickets for Sevilla were printed off and ready. But illness struck, and I was unable to make what has been widely regarded as the best away game in the history of West Ham away days.
Devastated is an understatement, so whilst I was pleased so many people were having such a good time, the reports and pictures I was receiving were getting me increasingly resentful and more despondent. Sure, the result didn’t go our way, but there was no chance that the return leg would be anywhere near as good as that, or match that atmosphere. Right?
Well, I should have known better. The writing was on the wall when my 64-year-old father, who hasn’t shown any interest in going to the London Stadium since he went to the first ever game against NK Domzale in the qualifying rounds of the same competition, was desperate to come along.
You don’t hear shouts of ‘Irons’ echoing around the shopping centre at 4pm for a usual game. Nor was it usual to see so many fans congregating around the ground so early. By 6:30pm, you were shoulder-to-shoulder with throngs of other fans walking past the aquatics centre. Queues to get a programme were five deep – there were even lines of people waiting to have a selfie with the claret and blue clad bulldog that accompanies the Ex Hammers magazine seller.
And if the approach to the stadium was buzzing, the outer concourse was a comparative hive of activity. Never before have I witnessed so many fans crowded together outside the Heineken Bar, the DJ taking to the mic to get the chants going – and the crowd responded. So crowded was it in fact, that it took around 10 minutes of slowly squeezing through the throngs, trickling trepidatiously towards turnstile J.
In any other circumstance, being so densely packed in the midst of a mob may have caused concern or even panic – but there was never any risk of this boiling over, despite the beer flying everywhere. The vibes here were pure party – and it was still over an hour from kick off!
Even the inner bars were emptying at 7:30 with so many wanting to be in their seats to take in the light show – and help build the pre-match atmosphere. As the flames thrust upwards, and the lights danced, we made our way up towards the back of block 252, passing Everest Base Camp as we went.
Handily placed rails were useful, but what we really needed were oxygen bottles under the seats. ‘Don’t worry though,’ I said to my dad as we stood to welcome the players as Bubbles blared out. ‘The upper tiers always sit down for the game.’ Famous last words, as the entire crowd remained on their feet during the entire 120 minutes of football.
Within minutes of the start, the chants of being massive began, intersected every few mins with Bubbles. The crowd was matched every step of the way by the players on the pitch. Quick out of the blocks, the players were feeding on the atmosphere and playing above themselves.
Chances came and went, but there was no frustration in the stands. Gasps were audible though when Sevilla made their first real foray into West Ham territory and had a shot that was outstandingly turned away by a wrong-footed Areola.
What might have happened to the atmosphere had that gone in? Thankfully, we needn’t worry about what if’s, as after a couple more spurned chances, Antonio floated a ball to the back post, and Soucek looped a header into the far corner.
The roar that greeted it was deafening, and my dad and I grasped each other in a way we hadn’t since I was a child, as we bounced up and down with joy. One-nil on the night, and all square in the tie. From then on in, it was only ever a matter of time, though as the final whistle went, extra time began, and Sevilla made their sixth substitution to our one, a few nerves were starting to creep in amongst those standing around us.
The next round
Will tiredness catch up with the players? How will we cope with the prospect of penalties? Surely Yarmolenko’s script had been written against Villa and couldn’t do it again – could he? Well, as you know, he could.
Even more joy, relief and nerves all came flooding out. At one point I had one arm round my dad, another round the poor lady next to me, the guy behind me on my back, and the man in front hands on my cheeks as we screamed into each other’s faces.
Suddenly, from enjoying the moment, full time couldn’t come quick enough. As Twist and Shout, followed by Sweet Caroline, blared out of the PA, the crowd stood rooted. Each wanting to applaud the players on their deserved lap of honour, whilst they duly reciprocated the honour.
This game, this atmosphere, it simply has to be up there with the very best. The final game at Upton Park will always be unrivalled for me, but there cannot be any doubt that this was a very special night.
A once in a lifetime occasion? Well, I hope not. See you at the Lyon game.