I write this as I sip my cup of tea the morning after the night before. The tea tastes of disappointment, and when I blink I see Frankfurt fans, Frankfurt fans everywhere.
Far from wanting to dwell on the end of what has been an incredible journey for West Ham in the Europa League, I’m still keen to share the energy and joy that this season’s competition has brought us.
As a club and as fans, we came into this competition hoping to bring some prowess to the club. The group draw looked favorable, we could get out of it and probably win it. As it turned out, we really were the giants of Group H.
It just felt good to be playing on Thursday nights. Sure, the Thursday/Sunday thing isn’t the dream, but I wanted to enjoy it while it lasted. Getting home from work, changing into my West Ham shirt, cracking open a beer – it was a routine I was willing to adapt to.
I have to apologise to the team though for being so blasé about the final round game against Zagreb. We lost, I didn’t care. It was a formality. But imagine being in that position as a West Ham fan; having the audacity to watch a Europa League game and be thinking that it doesn’t even matter. Different times indeed.
Round of 16
Being drawn against Sevilla in the round of 16 was, frankly, terrifying. Before the first leg had even kicked off, there was an air of resignation about me. This was the competition donned ‘The Sevilla Cup’ by the Spanish fans. They’re famed for making great progress, if not winning the whole thing. Having said that, this did feel like the biggest games of my lifetime that were coming up and the excitement and anticipation of the potential glory had me giddy.
I was in with the away fans for the first leg in Seville, it was the trip of a lifetime. A 1-0 defeat wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, before the game I had been speaking to other West Ham fans and I’d said that a 2-0 loss would be OK – not embarrassing and we still would have the opportunity to level it up at home. We gave it such a good go in that first leg, it was encouraging for the “second half”.
I thought watching the second leg on the television might be anti-climactic after being there in the flesh for the first leg, but I was wrong. I can’t remember ever being so covered in goosebumps during a pre-match build up.
Soucek’s goal was an absolute ‘I remember where I was’ moment. Sure, I was only on the sofa at home, but it’s almost etched on my eyelids when I close my eyes. Then the world seemed to stop when Yarmolenko put us ahead. My first thoughts weren’t that we were winning after coming from behind, there was just a pure outlet of emotion for the Ukrainian. This was his moment and he’d written himself into Hammers history.
This was dream stuff. We’d come from behind to beat one of the best teams in the competition’s history and enter the quarter finals. Both ties, by the way, without the ever reliable Jarrod Bowen.
I cried more than I have ever cried at a final whistle. What an incredible moment to be a West Ham fan. Although I had hoped this could happen after the first leg, I didn’t really believe it would. My Dad called me after the game and we didn’t even really talk. We just speechlessly bumbled through a maze of words like ‘well’, ‘I just…’, ‘pfffff’. And there was a lot of exhaling.
So, on we went from what had been the biggest games of my life, to more of the biggest games of my life.
Being drawn against Lyon was OK, if a little unknown. I was more anxious about being drawn at home for the first leg. It just doesn’t give the same oomph for the second leg, which is so often the decider. Added to the mix was expectation. Even if we didn’t admit it as fans, I had gone from wondering how far we could get, to thinking that we could actually at least make a final. This is not a comfortable disposition for me and I tried to quash the optimism.
Well, we weren’t far into the first leg against the French side before we realised what we were up against. This was a game we were in, not a football match. The players could well have been prepared for it to be that way, but as a fan maybe I was naive. The time wasting (I mean, who has cramp after half an hour?), the aggravating tactics, the diving – it was all part of Peter Bosz’ plan to dishevel the players and quieten the home crowd.
If you really want to see how to quieten a home crowd, Peter, just wait a week.
Talking of home crowds, what about the idiot who ran onto the pitch when West Ham were on the attack and seeking a second goal? I never condone throwing missiles, but the images I saw of people throwing anything in their possession at him as he was dragged away was justified. And his apology on social media, pointless. You’re not a West Ham fan, mate.
Back to the game, and I, like David Moyes, would like to remain silent about the referee’s performance. We all know the score. But as it happens, sending Aaron Cresswell off before half time was probably one of the more forgivable moments he had during that 90 minutes.
In hindsight, I’m glad Winkgate happened in that first leg. Moussa Dembele gave players and fans alike all the motivation they needed to walk away with a very credible draw. And ahead of the second leg, the rockets had really been put up West Ham. This team was more determined than ever to reach that semi-final.
Did we really think that we would finish the second leg with a 3-0 away win? No, but that’s what we got. After the first leg, I thought we might need a two goal cushion and I’ve never been more happy to be wrong. I thought the second leg in Lyon was pretty tactical as well, but in a different way. Both teams started off being quite cagey and it was West Ham that decided to kick into gear first, a risk that paid off.
Dawson’s goal felt momentous, but not quite enough to seal the deal. When Rice netted home, I was still a little nervous. A 2-0 lead just before half time can easily be turned around with the noisy home fans on your side. This half time team talk from David Moyes was going to be huge, and the second half tactics could be difficult to call.
Alas, step up Sir Jarrod Bowen to seal the deal at 3-0 on the night, 4-1 on aggregate. And although the goal scoring stopped there, the efforts didn’t. Bowen looked up for scoring more, he looked excited and hungry.
The scenes after the final whistle were incredible. The West Ham fans singing to Moyes, Rice whipping up the crowd, Noble in tears. And who will ever forget the post-match social media post from the official West Ham accounts depicting Mr Wink himself?
I immediately texted my nine-year-old nephew to let him know what a major night this was in West Ham history – I don’t want him to ever forget it.
Onwards to the semi-final. Another couple of nights that would host the biggest games of my life.
Again, watching the London Stadium atmosphere grow ahead of kick off was spine-tingling. Carlton and Joe Cole’s enthusiasm for the game was infectious. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy. What killed that frenzy was the Eintracht Frankfurt goal that came after just 50 seconds of action. My fear was that this was just the start, we could be looking at a cricket score by a side who dismissed Barcelona.
Immediately, my heart sank and my brain switched to ‘oh well, we had a good run’ mode. And I feel like that’s what happened to the fans inside the stadium. It went quiet, and that dampened the whole mood of the night so quickly.
When Antonio got the slightest touch to equalise, I didn’t celebrate half as much as any of our other goals past the group stages. This felt serious, it was roll your sleeves up time.
I can’t say I watch Eintracht Frankfurt much (at all!), but prior game research had shown that they were an attacking side with confidence and the ability to pounce on the counter. What followed for most part of the game was exactly that.
Gladly though, we didn’t feel like underdogs, and nor should we, it’s the semi-finals of the Europa League. We were able to deal with their attacking nature and statistically outplay them in most senses. Conceding the second had an air of inevitability about it. Disappointed as I was, the classic ‘it’s only half time’ mentality kicked in.
I couldn’t concentrate at work ahead of the second leg, my feet were tapping, my brain was dreaming, my heart was nervous. Sure enough, exactly what we didn’t want to happen, happened. To be honest, it was a souring end to what had been an immense competition for the Hammers.
I’m not going to hang Cresswell out to dry, he’s been a hero in claret and blue for years. But he probably cost us the game. My heart absolutely sank when he put his hands all over Hauge, and I don’t know if his teammates agreed with me at the time, but I advised him through the TV to take the yellow and stop arguing.
Even before Borre scored the only goal of the game, I could only describe myself as deflated. The feelings had all drained out of me.
The minor scuffles that followed in the second half dampened what could have still been a proud night for the club. We suddenly felt like losers, instead of feeling like proud semi-finalists. It was just one game too far.
Declan Rice and David Moyes echoed my sentiments in their post match interviews – we pretty much lost that tie before a minute had passed in the first leg. It was an uphill battle.
I do wonder what could have been had the draw been kinder and let us play at home in the second leg. The crowd, the familiarity and the will to make London Stadium a real home might have given us the edge, even being a goal down.
As you can probably tell, the defeat is raw and my heart is heavy, pretty much like all West Ham fans today. It goes without saying I’m proud of the team. The feelings they have brought me this season haven’t been matched before and for that I’m grateful. We just need to dust ourselves off and get ready to go again next season, whatever that may bring.