‘A season like the one before but bettered with European nights’

We take an in-depth look back at a season that showed we’re now a force to be reckoned with

Two years ago, when Brian Williams wrote this review, he referred to ‘A year like no other’ in respect of the pandemic and escaping relegation. After finishing sixth in 2020-2021, this season’s review looks at ‘A year just like last year – only better’.

West Ham fans could be forgiven for thinking that finishing sixth in 2020-21 would not be followed by similar success in 2021-22. Afterall, West Ham have only finished in the top six of the top-flight on six occasions and had never finished in the top six two season running. Historically, successful seasons stood out among surrounding years of mediocrity.

Transfers

Failure to secure the permanent signing of Jesse Lingard did not help – and indeed by the time the season kicked off the only significant transfer activity had been the permanent signing of Craig Dawson for £2m and the loan signing of goalkeeper Alphonse Areola from Paris St Germain. Armstrong Okoflex signed from Celtic and came with huge expectations – but was largely untried at senior level.

Another reason to be cheerfully pessimistic was that West Ham had an amazing pre-season: something which normally lulls supporters into the kind of false sense of security you get from having a lifejacket on a Boeing 737. 

Famously we had a brilliant pre-season under Avram Grant in a season that ended in relegation, and we didn’t win a game pre-season in 1985-86 when we ended up finishing third. It’s hardly an indication of how things will go. A 6-2 win at Celtic and a 2-0 win in the Betway Cup over Atalanta were hard to ignore though as the season kicked off at St James’s park against Newcastle.

AUGUST

By half time, we had that feeling the previous campaign was a flash in the pan. This was a painfully average Newcastle that took the lead twice and made us look like a team that was going to struggle. But David Moyes has, if nothing else, made this West Ham side one of the most resilient in the league. 

Three second half goals set the record straight and gave us encouragement. Fornals was imperious. Antonio unplayable. Soucek found the net again. After the initial pandemonium we looked organised and efficient. But maybe that said more about Newcastle than about us? 

Leicester would provide a bigger test at the London Stadium – a test passed with flying colours on a pivotal night. Yes, two games in, this was indeed a pivotal night. The 4-1 win over Leicester was not just a great performance by the team but it was a coming of age for the stadium, which after sporadic matches with atmosphere and then a year of emptiness, finally showed it could rock for a league match. It helped that it was the first full stadium since the pandemic, and it also helped that we were under the lights and played well, but the crowd cast the die for the rest of the season.

New signing

Some activity on the transfer front at last – Alex Kral joined on loan from CSKA Moscow, joining his Czech compatriots, and Kurt Zouma signed from Chelsea for £29.8m. This was an indication of how far we had come. Zouma was a risk given his injury record, but here was a man still at the top of his game who would surely push us forward. Nikola Vlasic also signed on deadline day for an eye-watering £33.5m – he had to be better than when he was at Everton. His showreel did not impress.

West Ham closed August at home to Crystal Palace, who had failed to score in their first two games under Patrick Vieira – and when Fornals put West Ham 1-0 up the outcome appeared to be a formality – nine points from the first three games, going into September wearing our collective hats at a jaunty angle. Palace’s Connor Gallagher had other ideas and scored two remarkable goals to earn a 2-2 draw which was still enough to put West Ham top of the Premier League.

SEPTEMBER

The new signings would be vital – given that there were the additional demands of at least six Europa League ties to play. The draw was made in early September and paired us with Dinamo Zagreb, Genk and Rapid Vienna. I had promised myself I would go to one away game in the group. I selected Vienna, booked flights and accommodation and thought no more about it. I’d worry about a match ticket later.

Meanwhile West Ham were lucky to escape with a point at Southampton – largely outplayed, the relief of a 0-0 draw was extinguished by the dismissal of Michail Antonio for a second yellow, which made it feel like a defeat.

With only two weeks from the date of the draw to the first Europe League game in Zagreb, fans scrambled over to Croatia for what was likely to be the toughest of the six games, with Zagreb the seeded team in the group. West Ham made it look easy – a first half goal from Antonio followed by a run from his own half by Declan Rice which, had it been scored by Liverpool or Manchester City would be on a constant loop on television.

Low expectation

Expectations for the Europa League were low – the general view was that progressing out of the group would be success. This was a good start. There didn’t appear to be the anticipated hangover on Sunday against an unbeaten Manchester United who had Ole at the wheel and boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and the coveted Jesse Lingard. Benrahma put us 1-0 up – Ronaldo equalised, then in the final minutes came the drama. 

Lingard – who else – scored what appeared to be the winner. But then deep into injury time, a penalty to West Ham was awarded after a VAR review. Mark Noble had just taken to the pitch as a substitute. Had he been brought on to take it? Surely England’s experiences at Euro 2020 would suggest not. He took it anyway – and missed. With hindsight it might have been better if someone else had taken the kick.

A chance for immediate revenge as West Ham played at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup mid-week. Lanzini scored early and it looked like that might just upset them and we would be punished. United seemed curiously disinterested and failed to score. West Ham progressed and their reward was a home tie – against Carabao Cup owners Manchester City. Victory at Leeds the following Saturday confirmed our position in the top seven and our place as one of the most resilient teams in the league, coming from behind to win 2-1. Consecutive wins at Elland Road for the first time since year dot.

Tension

At times the atmosphere at the London Stadium was a little tense as West Ham beat Rapid Vienna – a slender 1-0 lead provided by Declan Rice was almost wiped out in the second half but for VAR intervention, Benrahma only sealing a 2-0 win in the final minute. There were a number of objects flying through the air between West Ham and Vienna fans including as I saw it, a chair and a water cooler bottle. Rather than be appalled by this I had to admire their ingenuity.

OCTOBER

The curse of the Sunday after Europa League struck again at the start of October as Brentford denied us any space for the first hour and should have been leading by more than one goal when Jarrod Bowen managed to squeeze in an equaliser. As many traipsed out of the stadium, Brentford scored a winner – it was hard to argue that they did not deserve it.

Everton had started well under Rafa Benitez but an Angelo Ogbonna header sparked the start of an astonishing decline for them that would see them so desperate they would appoint Frank Lampard. West Ham won 1-0 – consecutive wins at Goodison since several years before the year dot.

Fixtures

In a kind of weird seventies throwback we had three home games in the space of ten days which would not define the season, but would provide a good indication of how we had progressed. First up, Genk in the Europa League, as comfortable a win as we could have hoped for by a score of 3-0.

The Sunday hangover was avoided, thankfully, as an Antonio strike beat Tottenham 1-0, then Manchester City, who had monopolised the Carabao Cup in recent years, were dumped out on penalty kicks following a goalless 90 minutes. Pep Guardiola could only admire our resolve, and hope that he wouldn’t need a result in the league match come May.

Aston Villa were clinically beaten 4-1 at Villa Park on the Sunday. At this point my left arm was black and blue from pinching myself. Was this really West Ham United I was watching? Was this team that could bounce back from conceding a goal really my team? 

This team that, if they did lose, only lost by one goal and fought to the bitter end? Really? Four goals in an away game for the second time and it’s not even November yet?

NOVEMBER

The Europa League campaign was gathering momentum with other results in the group meaning that we were well in front by the time we faced Genk away in November. Leading 2-1 an unfortunate own goal from Soucek meant that we remained unbeaten in the group – but disappointed, as victory would have guaranteed qualification for the last 16, avoiding the playoffs against the Champions League also-rans.

Liverpool arrived at the London Stadium on the Sunday – although we had now twice proved that the hangover wasn’t a thing, this was Liverpool. Expectations were set accordingly. But when Allison let a corner slip through his hands and VAR amazingly couldn’t find a reason to disallow it, it looked like it might be our day. 

West Ham were magnificent. Despite Alexander-Arnold’s free kick – won by Salah apparently being shot by a sniper in the crowd – we took our second half chances and Fornals and Zouma put us 3-1 ahead. By the time Origi reduced the arrears right at the end only the most pessimistic West Ham fan would have considered we might throw it away. The most disappointing aspect of the game was the serious injury picked up by Ogbonna who, with Zouma had been formidable in central defence.

Momentum

With the momentum such a victory gives you, it was disappointing to have to wait for the international break before taking on Wolves at Molineux – and the momentum did seem to have drained away as West Ham slumped to a 1-0 defeat in possibly the most disappointing result of the season so far. 

Having secured a ticket for the game in Vienna, I was anxiously watching news that West Ham fans might be banned for having had things thrown at them in the home game. How dare they. It came to pass. Then a Covid-outbreak in Vienna put the rubber stamp on things and the game was to be played behind closed doors.

I switched my flights to Budapaest and had a holiday anyway. At £1.30 for a pint I found myself able to watch the game in Hungary, but far from thirsty. First half goals from Yarmolenko and a Noble penalty made the home game against Zagreb a dead rubber. West Ham had won the group.

Good as West Ham were at this point, defeat at the Etihad against Manchester City was somewhat inevitable – the 2-1 score line somewhat flattering but Lanzini’s goal was one of the best of the season so far.

DECEMBER

West Ham faced a daunting eight games in December, always a busy month with the Christmas fixtures but augmented this time by involvement in the Europa League and the quarter final of the Carabao Cup. Brighton first, in recent years a bogey team, but Soucek scored from a corner early on and it looked like maybe this time. Antonio’s second half goal was ruled out by VAR and we just hoped it wouldn’t be costly. Brighton showed themselves to be last minute specialists and grabbed an equaliser in the dying seconds, a spectacular overhead effort from Neale Maupay that was good enough to deserve a share of the points. Disappointing though – as the upcoming fixtures looked tough, including Chelsea the following Saturday. 

Chelsea led twice and on each occasion this battling West Ham side who just don’t care much for reputation of the opposition twice equalised, first through a Lanzini penalty then a spectacular low drive from the edge of the box by Bowen. 

Postponements

A neutral observer might have said that a draw would be a fair result, but Arthur Masuaku did not agree and put a ball into the box for which the expression ‘cross-cum-shot’ could have been invented. It drifted inside Mendy’s near post for another 3-2 win over a supposed top-four rival. That victory left West Ham in fourth on 27 points after 15 games but Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves below all had games in hand. The resurgence of Covid and the proximity to Christmas meant a lot of clubs were getting games postponed while West Ham just ploughed on.

With the Europa League group already won, the final game at home to Zagreb was meaningless and Moyes took the opportunity to blood youngsters Ashby, Alese, Longelo and Perkins, who were undone by a goal as freakish as Masuaku’s. Senior players Noble, Yarmolenko, Kral, Fornals and Vlasic could maybe have done more but with the group won there was little point in overexertion.

Burnley away has always been a tough fixture, this proved no exception, and for once West Ham did not look like scoring and the game ended 0-0. The same pattern followed at Arsenal a few days later, little offered up front but Arsenal are a different attacking prospect to Burnley and won 2-0. It was West Ham’s first defeat by a two-goal margin all season and saw Arsenal leapfrog us into fourth, something we had suspected might happen but other teams below had, for now, seemed reluctant to pass, like runners in a 1,500 metre race jostling for position in the pack.

Festive fixtures

Just before Christmas came the disappointment of a Carabao Cup exit at Spurs – looking at the draw Chelsea and Liverpool would have followed – winning the trophy unlikely on the face of it but having beaten both teams already, why not? Well, because we didn’t beat Spurs that’s why not.

West Ham fans had been moaning since the move about not having a game at home on Boxing Day but we finally got the chance the stadium was far from full. The latest Covid scare and transport issues didn’t help. An eerie atmosphere at the London Stadium as the ground echoed to a crowd a good 20,000 below capacity, watching a team also playing well below capacity as Southampton were twice pegged back only to lead for a third time to win 3-2. 

Two days later a trip to Watford, in recent years a happy hunting ground and so it proved to be after again going behind early on, even Nicola Vlasic managed to score in a 4-1 victory that rounded the year off nicely.

JANUARY

New Year’s Day and a trip to Selhurst Park, scene of a 3-2 triumph the year before. Antonio, and a brace from Lanzini, his first yet another contender for goal of the season, his second a debatable penalty that had it gone against us would have been aggravating in the extreme. Three goals up at half time, and as we knew from last season that can be a dodgy old score for West Ham as Palace clawed it back to 3-2 and almost scraped a draw.

The FA Cup represented a realistic opportunity for success so it was pleasing that Moyes took it seriously and fielded a strong team against Bielsa sitting on a bucket that was about to be kicked from under him. Lanzini scored again, and with Leeds piling forward in search of an equaliser, Antonio and Bowen combined on the break for the latter to make it 2-0 and give safe passage into round four and a trip to Kidderminster Harriers.

A new star

Declan Rice had been first name on the team sheet for a few years, and for the first half of the season Antonio had been the second. But now Jarrod Bowen was proving to be the star. Norwich arrived in deep trouble having sacked Daniel Farke and brought in Dean Smith. The fixture had been set for before Christmas but Covid in the Norwich camp necessitated a postponement. Bowen scored twice in a win as comfortable as they come at this level.

Less comfortable the following Sunday when Leeds returned for the league fixture. The game followed the same pattern as Southampton, twice going behind, twice equalising before ultimately conceding a winner. These home defeats were likely to prove costly: The win over Norwich had put us back into fourth place but Arsenal had two, and Tottenham had a massive four games in hand on us. Losing at home for a fourth time before the end of January was not something a team with top four ambitions could afford. Oh, that and not buying anyone in the January window. That too.

A heart-breaking last-minute winner for Manchester United at Old Trafford was barely deserved and meant that February ended with the Hammers in fifth having played more games than all the teams around them.

FEBRUARY

There is a Coldplay song (so I’m told) that has the line: ‘Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard’ which could have been written about West Ham’s fourth round tie at Kidderminster. A non-league side playing 20% above their usual energy and commitment levels will usually beat a higher placed team playing 20% below theirs. 

So it looked as we entered injury time 0-1 down, staring one of the biggest FA Cup shocks of all time right in the mush. Previous West Ham teams would have surrendered. Not this one. Declan Rice scored in injury time to take the game to extra time, then Bowen prevented a penalty shoot-out but scored in the last minute of extra time. Dear Kidderminster. Hurts, doesn’t it? Lots of love, West Ham.

Fan favourite

Another routine, if narrow home win over Watford, and a last-minute equaliser at the King Power Stadium from Craig Dawson meant that fourth place was reclaimed for the final time. Dawson rapidly becoming a fans’ favourite with his no-nonsense approach.

Dawson scored again against a resurgent Newcastle United at the London Stadium but could only guarantee a point which saw West Ham end February in fifth – and looking at the teams around us with games in hand it looked unlikely we would even finish sixth. At least Wolves did not trouble us when they game to visit and meekly submitted.

MARCH

March opened with three away games – Southampton dumping us out of the FA Cup at St Mary’s and Liverpool riding their luck at Anfield to beat us by a single Mane goal. That meant everything was now hinging on a Europe League campaign which, if we were to progress would have to see us beat a Sevilla side that had won the competition six times since 2006. A 1-0 defeat in Seville was by no means a disaster, but a fourth defeat in six made progress seem unlikely.

The situation in Ukraine meant that Andriy Yarmolenko had been given leave but had indicated to Moyes he was ready to return. He came on as a sub against Aston Villa to score in an emotional moment that would live long in the memory of all concerned. But not as long as his next act. 

Second leg

Seville arrived at the London Stadium with a 1-0 lead and a huge reputation. We know what happens to them at the hands of West Ham. Soucek scored just before half time to level the tie and it stayed that way until full time, thanks mainly to a quite brilliant save from Areola. Enter Yarmolenko and his parting gift, a goal to crown West Ham’s most memorable and frankly unbelievable achievement of the season. 

To beat Sevilla over two legs was a quite remarkable achievement. If we did nothing else all year, we had that. The draw paired us in the quarter final with Olympique Lyonnais – the draw for the semi-finals was made at the same time meaning that should we beat Lyon we would face either Barcelona or Eintracht Frankfurt. Unfortunately, the draw for both ties placed us at home in the first leg which would be a huge disadvantage.

The team already appeared to be running on empty in the league as Tottenham overran us 3-1 at their place. 

APRIL

We found enough energy to beat Frank Lampard’s Everton at the start of April, but to be fair not much was needed, as the rest of the Premier League were also finding out.

Anyone who turned up for the first leg against Lyon thinking it would be like the Seville game were about to be bitterly disappointed. The atmosphere was, indeed, amazing. But it all felt like it was falling apart just before half time as Cresswell was sent off for an innocuous challenge on Demebele. His wink to a team-mate shortly after needed punishing. Bowen found the net just after half time, but Lyon equalised and most left the stadium that night feeling as though our chances of winning the tie had gone.

Fatigue

Brentford, with the bionic Christian Eriksen in midfield, served up the kind of vanilla 2-0 beating we used to receive under Allardyce. That was a shock – it seemed the Europa games were finally catching up with us. If it was indeed the case that Europa was getting priority from Moyes then long may it continue – after all the prospect of fourth place was now a distant memory so Europa was now the only way to qualify for the Champions League. Important, though not to go out and end up seventh and in the Conference, or worse, eighth and out of Europe altogether next season.

The night in Lyon will also live long in the memory as one of the best West Ham performances of all time. And Craig Dawson was slowly cementing a place in the heart of West Ham fans in the same way James Collins had done – lauding his abilities with a hint of irony – but man this lad came up with the goods. 

He scored the first, then Rice and Bowen added the others: West Ham triumphed 3-0 at the Groupama stadium in Lyon. Not only that, Eintracht Frankfurt had beaten Barcelona at the Nou Camp to grab the other semi-final spot. I was a little disappointed. To me, the pinnacle of European football would be to see West Ham taking on Barcelona or Real Madrid at the London Stadium. But this way it seemed we might have a better chance of actually getting to the final. As long as we didn’t do anything silly.

Last four

After the lord mayor’s show came not one, but two corporation dustcarts in the shape of Burnley, inspired by having a new manager called Michael Jackson the game was ‘Off The Wall’ but hardly a ‘Thriller’. In fact it was just ‘Bad’. Ok, I’ll stop now. Burnley missed a penalty that would ultimately cost them dearly – Soucek earned a 1-1 draw and Pope made saves that defied the laws of physics. Chelsea then won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. I don’t really want to talk about that.

Into the last four of the Europa League – yes you read that right – and our opponents, unbelievably, the same as the last time we reached that stage – Frankfurt. Just don’t do anything silly West Ham.

The biggest game of their lives for most of these players and they got caught napping in the first few minutes to be 0-1 down. That set the tone. Frankfurt clearly a better team away from home – they had beaten Real Betis as well as Barcelona to get to this stage. 

But as I have said so many times before, this West Ham team is made of stern stuff and they clawed their way back with a goal from Antonio, then had another little nap in the second half to allow Frankfurt the advantage. Bowen hit the bar with such ferocity near the end it’s still vibrating now – but in Europe we had also been better away from home – Frankfurt had won only once at home since Christmas – the tie was still in the balance.

Inevitable

The game against Arsenal had all the features of a home team managing its resources carefully, desperately wanting to beat local rivals but also now wanting any injuries. A 1-2 reverse was perhaps inevitable.

In Frankfurt the atmosphere had been building a good 24-hours before the game, and 10 minutes in it was West Ham who had the upper hand – this could develop into a classic. But then VAR intervened. It is hard to argue that Creswell’s challenge was not a foul by the last man – but the ref didn’t give it. You could almost sense he wanted to preserve the occasion as a spectacle which may have clouded his judgement, and good for him – but today you just can’t get away with it. Frankfurt scored and the mountain became a glacier. On Jupiter. Our dreams – just as always – faded and died.

MAY

But there were three games left in the Premier League in May and with Manchester United in freefall, urging the season to end, we still had an opportunity to go for sixth place. A 4-0 win at Norwich showed that the killer instinct was still there. United got battered by the same score at Brighton the day before – an eight goal swing in goal difference would probably help.

Manchester City at home marked the end of an era as Mark Noble played his last home game for West Ham. There is little I can say about this man that hasn’t been said elsewhere, other than to just add my own personal thanks for the great memories over the years. 

Two nil up against City at half time, it looked like we might grab a hat-trick of home wins over the top three for the first time in forever. But City’s desire was stronger and had it not been for Fabianksi’s penalty save from Mahrez, we would have had to settle for seventh right there. A draw it ended, meaning we would have to beat bogey team Brighton on the final day and hope Palace did us a favour at home to Manchester United to secure sixth place.

Bogey team

At half time at the Amex it was all going to plan – Antonio scored his first league goal since New Year’s Day to put us 1-0 up and Palace were beating United. But we looked like a team running up a hill tied to a huge elastic band. At some point we would just ping back down to the floor. And we did. The game ended 3-1 to Brighton, West Ham had to settle for seventh and a spot in the Europa Conference League.

So was the season a disappointment? Certainly not. Never in its history has the club finished top seven in consecutive top flight seasons. Never. In 126 years. 

Our First European semi-final for 46 years. Just think about that for a moment. Fans of clubs like ours live on our memories and our ‘what-might-have-beens’ with no actual trophy for 42 years we’ve managed on the ‘oh-so-close’. 

We will look back with some regrets – perhaps a couple more bodies in the squad in January would have pushed us over the line – but overall the season is up there with 1985/86 and 2015/16 in terms of excitement, anticipation and memories. 

In the past, West Ham teams have failed to capitalise on brief periods of success. We’ve had two good seasons in a row – here’s to a third!

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