Season Review: ‘This campaign was one of the greatest in the club’s history’

We take an in-depth look back at a season which ended with European glory in Prague

Recent seasons have seen the Claret and Blue Army spoilt by that elusive butterfly called success. Last season ultimately promised more than it delivered. There was a feeling of deflation in losing the Europa League semi-final to Eintracht Frankfurt. Defeat at Brighton on Super Sunday left us in 7th place with an entry into the fledgling Europa Conference League. It wasn’t the worst season I could remember as a fan, but as U2 so eloquently put it in ‘The Fly’, there are times when ‘ambition bites the nails of success’. Had we reached the extent of our achievements with this present side? I feared the 2022-23 season could be something of a hangover from the giddy heights of the previous campaign. 

August is the month where hope springs eternal as everyone is equal and anything is possible. Close season transfer activity wasn’t earth shattering but there were some interesting acquisitions. Striker Gianluca Scamacca was signed from Italian club Sassuolo for £30 million. Aged only 24 he was already a full Italian international, but with a poor strike rate of one goal in four games. It was our latest effort to secure the services of a predatory striker and didn’t appear to be the marquee signing we expected. But he stared inscrutably from the programme cover for our first game against Manchester City on 5 August.

Flynn Downes arrived from Swansea City badged as the long term replacement for Mark Noble. He and Scamacca started on the bench as did Alphonse Areola now permanently signed from PSG. Moroccan international Naeuf Aguerd was captured from Rennes; but in the finest of club traditions he injured his ankle in a friendly against Rangers. The resulting surgery put him out of action for two months. A dearth of central defenders put Ben Johnson at centre half alongside Kurt Zouma. There’s a lesson in letting Issa Diopp go on loan to Fulham. We gently crumble to City and lose 2-0 curtesy of a double from Erling Haaland.

Next was an opportunity to take our frustration out on Nottingham Forest who have a certain Jesse Lingard among their ranks. Fans had their most spiteful invective on stand-by. But Forest seemed to be riding on a wave of emotional energy and closed the game off with a 1-0 victory. David Moyes still appeared wedded to a lone striker system. Reports in the media suggest he will only play Scamacca if Antonio is unavailable. We’re not Manchester City; we can’t spend £30 million on a player and leave him on the bench?

The indignity of a play-off for the Conference League pitched us against Viborg of Denmark. I have a ticket but everything conspires against me. There was a massive signal failure on the Central Line; and alternative routes on national rail are denied curtesy of an RMT strike. A 3-1 victory was a satisfactory result; it also sees Scamacca open his account. There was more frenzied negotiation before the transfer window closed as Maxwel Cornet is signed from Burnley and Thilo Kehrer joins from PSG.  

Brighton have redefined the concept of a bogey team as we’ve never beaten them in the Premier League. Shocking statistics of four defeats and six draws were never likely to improve. Kehrer’s first tangible contribution is to bring down Welbeck for a penalty in the 20th minute and they later add a second to record a 2-0 win. It wasn’t an ideal start to the season but would rather be bottom in August than in May. David Moyes’ post-match conference suggests the team has lacked leadership since Mark Noble’s retirement, which is surely clutching at the tiniest of straws. The second leg against Viborg in the Conference League brought some light relief with a comfortable 3-0 victory. 

There’s a flurry of transfer activity at the back end of August as we raid the piggy bank. Emerson Palmieri looked to be a useful addition; but the real Harrods purchase was midfielder Lucas Paqueta, signed from Lyon for something in the region of £50 million plus add-ons. A regular in the Brazilian national side he should deliver the goods. We claimed our first win of the season away at Aston Villa and finished the month at home to Spurs. The match announcer cranked up the atmosphere by promising a carnival atmosphere, hinting that Paqueta won’t get away with a simple ‘hello’. Someone was waving a Brazilian flag, that’s about as ‘carnival’ as it got.

The lights dim and floodlights flash intermittently. The budget obviously didn’t stretch to a proper laser show; all to unveil record signing Lucas Paqueta. VAR takes an age to decide whether the handball by Cresswell was in fact handball. The ref finally looks and decides not, but Spurs walk the ball into the net shortly afterwards. The first half lasts for the best part of an hour; but a seemingly shorter second half brings a well-deserved equaliser. 

An increasingly rare 3pm kick-off at Chelsea bears witness to yet more VAR controversy. Cornet scores a perfectly good goal but is disallowed for a foul on the goalie. Benjamin Mendy is built like a brick house and writhes in (un)convincing agony after moderate contact with Bowen. I’ve seen better acting in provincial pantomime which only rubs salt into the wound of a 2-1 defeat.

The Queen’s death on 8th September casts a shadow over the first group game in the Conference League. Those giants of Romanian football FCSB are the opponents. A poor first half performance left us a goal behind; and in my own favoured imagination conjured horrific visions of Astra Georgiu and the European campaign that never was. It turned out ok in the end with respectable 3-1 scoreline but we shouldn’t be faltering against teams like this.

The Newcastle game was postponed as a mark of respect for the Queen. A scrappy 3-2 win in the Conference League against Silkeborg is gratefully received. The competition is something of an oasis in a desert called the Premier League. It never ceases to amaze me how a cup competition can provide a potent distraction for a team struggling with indifferent league form. Victory is often followed by defeat as we look for a decent run of form. A turgid 1-0 defeat to Everton with Fat Frank at the helm is not what I had in mind. We remain in the bottom 3 going into the international break. 

The Hammers host fellow strugglers Wolves at the beginning of October. There is inevitable talk of David Moyes being under pressure. How quickly times change as he falls from messiah to pariah quicker than you can say ‘Watford have a new manager’. A fairly non-descript game was distinguished by the result and a peach of a goal scored by Scamacca. On our travels to Anderlecht away in the Conference League, the only faintly glamour fixture in our group. A hard fought game but three substitutions are pivotal in a 1-0 win.

I had chilled premonitions about Fulham at home in the crisp autumn sunshine. We are unbeaten in 11 home Premier League games against Fulham; tell me that’s not a record just begging to be broken? We go behind but parity is restored when Bowen converts a penalty; the result of a foul by Pereira on Dawson. Looked like they were rehearsing for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. More VAR hysteria in the second half as Scamacca and Antonio both score with apparent use of the hands. The former is debatable but the latter was clearly handball. I was happily wrong as we nailed a 3-1 victory. 

The return fixture against Anderlecht falls on a surprisingly mild October evening. We comfortably knock the ball around and soon go into the lead as Benrahma smartly converts a free kick. The result never seemed in doubt as Bowen finished a sublime move in the second half. We leak a consolation goal near the end but with no real consequence. 

Mid-month the Hammers visit Southampton which had score draw written all over it and so it came to pass. A cracker by Declan Rice is a candidate for goal of the season. Liverpool away is one of my least favourite fixtures as we’ve only been massive twice in 59 years at Anfield. And the nightmare continues as we lose 1-0 although deserved a draw. Jarrod Bowen has a penalty saved by Alisson. A rainy, miserable evening as we play Bournemouth next. Not a classic game by any means; there was a blatant handball in the build up to Zouma’s goal. A penalty is converted by Benrahma near the end to claim three points and high 5’s all around.

We face Danish side Silkeborg in the last home game of the Conference League. A flat atmosphere and a game that felt more like a training session. 1-0 in the end but the winning margin should have been much greater. The Premier League is preparing to wind down for the World Cup; it’s a Sunday afternoon and I’ve got my feet up watching the Hammers play Manchester United. A strong performance against the Mancs yet we end up on the losing side; it seems to be a recurring theme away from home. Our final group game in the Conference League is something of a victory roll. The kids play well and contribute to a comfortable 3-0 victory against FCSB.

The last three games before the break are all at home and deeply jarring. We lose to Crystal Palace who are easily the better side but strangely go into the lead. Zaha equalises and later sets up the winner. We played poorly and Palace deserved the win. The Carabou Cup turns into a graveyard as five London clubs are eliminated in the third round. We held a 2-1 lead until two minutes from time. Ben Brereton Diaz (a former Hammers target) comes on as substitute and scores the equaliser. We eventually lose 10-9 on penalties to Blackburn Rovers, who are a decent side but it’s a game we should easily have put to bed.

West Ham play Leicester at home in the last game before the World Cup. A minutes’ silence for Remembrance Sunday is impeccably observed. We give them time and space to walk the ball into the net. But pummel them for most of the first half without any joy. Daka goes down after a perfectly good tackle by Dawson but stays down for a full two minutes. He gets up after VAR awards a penalty. Our fans are outraged but these decisions are routinely given. Fabianski saves brilliantly from Tielemans but we are still trailing 1-0 at the break. 

The second half is similarly frenetic but we look less likely to score. They subsequently hit us on the break and we lose 2-0. It’s not exactly a full scale crisis but I sensed it wasn’t far off. A break for the World Cup might do us good. Declan Rice is selected for the England squad but they are two West Ham players short of a World Cup win; surely a schoolboy error Gareth?  

The Premier League programme re-started on Boxing Day and will continue until the end of May; which pushes all the finals back to June. It seems deeply weird when the cricket season will be full swing. We start brightly against Arsenal and go into the lead. But are soon undone by Arsenal’s lightening quick movement in the final third.

The day before New Year’s Eve we play Brentford at home. Reverence abounds as one minutes’ applause is held in memory of Pele who died the previous day. It was barely two months before the 30th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s passing. Another link with the golden age is broken and the game feels much poorer. How we could have used Mooro’s calm vision in this game. Another good start is quickly buried by Ivan Toney’s tap-in. Brentford double their lead before half time. We look tired, pedestrian and almost disinterested.

The trip to Leeds is tinged with sadness as the death of co-chairman David Gold is announced. I watched the game on the radio; I concluded it was the best way at the time. Moyes must have grabbed his coat and put it back throughout this nervy encounter. The excitable Vicki Sparkes voiced the game on BBC5 Live Extra.  Every wide miss of the target sounds like it grazed a post. Leeds could have won it at the death, but we hang on for a morale boosting 2-2 draw.

The new year brings the romance of the FA Cup and our opponents are Brentford. Former Bee Said Benrahma scores the only goal of the game.  The result is nicely topped by a decent 4th round draw against Derby. Those with a fondness for omens will have noted 2023 as the centenary of West Ham’s first appearance in the FA Cup Final. Mid-January is a bit early in the season for a 6 pointer but Wolves away has all the hallmarks of a relegation scrap. A turgid performance ends in a 1-0 defeat. Many expected the axe to fall on David Moyes.

It’s late January and Moyes is still here. With the number of Premier League managers being shown the door it’s a sign that the board are holding their nerve. Everton at home is the latest ‘must win’ for both sides. New signing Danny Ings starts on the bench and I’m mystified; scoring goals have been a problem and assumed he would start. 

The Hammers are well on top but the deadlock is broken by a Jarrod Bowen double in the space of five minutes. A deserved lead but Everton are low on confidence and anyone could beat them at the moment. The Toffees are much better in second half but thankfully can’t finish. Out of the bottom three and breathe!

Derby away in the 4th round of the FA Cup presented me with my first 1923 omen; West Ham beat Derby 5-2 in the FA Cup semi-final that year. West Ham cantor to a solid 2-0 victory against a surprisingly flat Rams side. Any joy is tempered by a 5th round draw away to Man U. My lucky omen has now transferred to 1964 when we beat the Mancs 3-1 in the FA Cup semi-final. Straight back to the hard graft of Premier League survival against Newcastle, and a sloppy goal is conceded early on. But recover well to salvage a hard fought and well-earned 1-1 draw.

There is a lunchtime kick-off for the home game against Chelsea in February. The queue for security seems longer than usual. A man next to me has a young boy on his shoulders; he says ‘remember this day kid it’s your first time’. We all recognise that feeling but only realise the significance years later. Chelsea deservedly take the lead but Emerson levels. Four goals were disallowed and Chelsea should have been awarded a penalty when Soucek handled. But we gratefully accept these breaks when they come along.

The mini-revival ends as quickly as it started as the Hammers lose 2-0 at Spurs. All the teams in the relegation zone win and dump us in the bottom three. This is nowhere we haven’t been before so this is not the time to panic. Let battle commence and remember that reputations don’t win matches. No team is too good to go down and the players have to start turning up for games.

They were obviously listening as West Ham put Nottingham Forest to the sword. Bobby Moore adorns the programme cover in recognition of 30 years since his death. A minutes’ applause in memory of John Motson is well observed. We pummel Forest in the first half and waste a hatful of chances. Our cup runeth over in the second as four goals are rattled past a shell shocked Forest defence.

Cup runs are always a mixed blessing when you’re fighting relegation. My ambivalence extended to the FA Cup as we played Manchester United away in the 5th round. A sweet strike from Benrahma puts us into the lead. Antonio had a great chance to put us two up but totally fluffed it. We eventually buckle and lose 3-1. This was swiftly followed by the shocking ineptitude of a 4-0 defeat at Brighton. If West Ham keep defending like that they’ll be playing Rotherham next season. 

The Conference League round of 16 began in March and the Hammers drew AEK Larnaca of Cyprus. Not exactly vintage claret and blue but the Hammers posted a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win away. Nine wins out of nine in the Europa Conference League makes everyone long for anything approaching such form in the Premier League. Beware the ides of March so said Caesar’s soothsayer who was worryingly called Spurinna. Moyes is still on a knife-edge and many were feeling nervous about Aston Villa at home. We scrape a draw but it’s just not good enough.

The second leg of the Conference League and first setback of the evening as Chesney Hawkes was due to appear but went down with Covid. Late replacement John Moncur quipped that he once came on for Paulo Di Canio but never Chesney Hawkes! Larnaca get a player sent off and we stroll to a 4-0 victory. It was more like a training session than a competitive match but it’s a win. 

April crept menacingly into view but who would be the fools and succumb to the dreaded ‘R’ word We seem nervous and hesitant against relegation haunted Southampton. Aguerd scores in the 24th minute but four agonising minutes tick by before VAR decides it’s a goal. West Ham hang on for a 1-0 win. There are chances for both sides to alter the scoreline but the result is more important than the performance but there are stronger tests to come. 

Newcastle are the visitors to the London Stadium and they are greeted by a fantastic atmosphere. But a promising start is quickly extinguished as Ryan Wilson rises unmarked to convert the easiest of headers. They double their lead within 5 minutes. We pull a goal back before half time but it already feels over. A 5-1 defeat could have been even heavier had it not been for Lucasz Fabianski. I pondered our future prospects with a murderous run-in and a hole that gets deeper as the season slowly reaches its conclusion. David Moyes is still in post as we travel to Fulham. An otherwise forgettable game is enlivened as the Hammers clinch a 1-0 victory. Could this be the corner we have been so desperate to turn?

So here we are in the quarter final the Conference League with Gent providing the opposition. The Belgians look half decent but we come away with a highly credible 1-1 draw. One match away from another European semi-final but there is still work to do. Facing Arsenal as they fight Manchester City for the title are not ideal opponents at this stage of the season. I’d be grateful for a point but go 2-0 down in the first ten minutes. It’s all too easy as Arsenal drive a bus through our defence.  But we score a penalty and Arsenal miss one. Bowen equalises and they are on the run. We could easily have won it but a draw will do.

The Conference League seems to be gaining momentum now. A simple proposition after the first leg as a win of any description will clinch the tie. The football gods smiled upon us with a 4-1 win and Michail Antonio was in majestic form as he scores 2 goals and is full of flicks, tricks and turns of old. AZ Alkmaar in the semis with Fiorentina or Basle in the final. Am I dreaming or can I see a glittering trophy before me? I was expecting a bounce after the Gent result, but nothing like 4-0 against Bournemouth. Every Irons fan was gurgling with a mixture of bemusement and delight. The permutations are quickly analysed in the brain of every Hammers fan. Whilst not mathematically safe there is a tentative feeling the worst is over.

Another setback in the silver lining as we as we lose 2-1 to Liverpool. Once again punished for some poor defending and ignoring the basics. We possibly should have had a penalty for handball, then again maybe not. Shakespeare once spoke of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; bet he would have been an Irons fan?

The fabled Academy of Football is alive and well and firing on all cylinders. We beat Arsenal 5-1 at the Emirates to win the FA Youth Cup for the first time since 1999. Our kids have emulated the team that included Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. They also completed a domestic double by winning the U18 Premier League South title. Midfielder Oliver Scarles is already an England U18 international and made his first team against FCSB in the Conference League. David Moyes was glowing in his assessment and said his debut was exceptional. Let’s hope the Academy graduates are given a proper chance to shine.

Back in the big boys league West Ham’s friendly defence allowed Crystal Palace to win 4-3 at Selhurst Park. They are not the only club to do the double over us this season but at least football was the winner (?). Manchester City away was the ultimate write-off game. But in the first half we deliver our finest defensive display of the season. It was never likely to stay goaless and City scored three goals in the second half.

It’s the 8th May and the nation is bathed in sunshine and rosy glow of the King’s Coronation. Manchester United guaranteed a lively opening but they don’t seem able to finish. We go ahead as De Gea fumbles a shot from Benrhama. They hit the post but we have greater impetus. A memorable victory puts some proper daylight between us and the rest.

Don’t whisper it too loudly but we’re in the Conference League semi-final. There is a mood of confidence even swagger about us. Opening exchanges show AZ Alkmaar will be no pushover and they go into lead; a pea roller of a shot somehow evades the grasp of Areola. We bombard them for an hour without any joy. Benrahma equalises with a penalty and Antonio scores to secure a slim advantage going into the second leg. Shame we can’t take the atmosphere with us, it was electric. In total contrast another bogey team do the business against us. Brentford win 2-0 although we field a reserve side and are obviously distracted by the Conference League semi-final. Almost safe but ‘almost’ doesn’t provide much comfort.

To be standing on the edge of history and a first European final in 47 years is difficult to comprehend. This one has a life of its own as we defended a slender lead. A fine strike by Fornals in the dying minutes seals a sweet 3-1 aggregate victory. Celebrations are marred by ugly scenes after the game. Thankfully no one was hurt and none of our fans were involved.

The final home game of the season pitted West Ham against Leeds. They go into the lead but the Hammers roar back to win the game by a convincing 3-1 scoreline. A satisfying result that goes down like a cool beer on a hot and sunny day. Super Sunday is agony for teams at opposite ends of the table. Typically it was the bottom that held more interest for neutral observers. Teams can be safe from relegation one minute then heading down the next. West Ham were already safe, but for our opponents Leicester it signalled the final nail in the coffin. With Premier League status assured it was now time for the big one.

On the day of the final I tried to avoid all thought or contemplation of the game. It was a futile ambition as every news bulletin on TV and radio pounded out the same message. West Ham’s first European final in 58 years and 43 years since our last major trophy. The words were etched on my memory by kick-off. Fiorentina were nobody’s fool and had been narrowly beaten by Internationale in the Coppa Italia. 

I decided to watch the game at home, utterly convinced I would have been lousy company through 90 minutes of purgatory. The early exchanges were tense and exploratory. Fiorentina can certainly play but happily employ gamesmanship to disturb our rhythm and concentration. Somehow we don’t seem fazed and have perhaps leant from the previous campaign in Europe. 

The game remains goaless for over an hour until Cristiano Biraghi handles in the area. The hand ball rule needs clarification but this was an old fashioned ‘hand to ball’ offence. VAR confirms that it is indeed a penalty and Said Benrahma calmly steps up to the spot. He converts without hesitation and the realisation dawns that West Ham are actually in the lead. But always beware of a celebrating a goal for too long; the lead lasts for five minutes as Giacomo Bonaventura equalises for Fiorentina. 

The dying minutes are ticking away and it looks like extra time although I’m already thinking about penalties. Then the miracle that turned our silver lining into a golden season. Paqueta slips a slide rule pass through to Jarrod Bowen who beats the offside trap. He pulls the trigger and the ball bounces off the knee of Terracciano and into the goal. The time lapse between the ball being struck and hitting the net could barely have been two seconds but it felt like hours. I could see stars before my eyes; just for a second I was ten years old and watching West Ham beat Fulham in the FA Cup final. We tell ourselves it’s just a game of football but it’s really much more than that.

The next day friends, family and work colleagues were congratulating me personally on our win, as if I had actually been on the pitch. But they understand perfectly what it means to me. Those who support the team and those play for the team are one and the same. On that night the players realised they wear the shirt for us.

Once the dust settles and euphoria dies down it might be possible to assess the true gravity. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest seasons in the club’s history. David Moyes for all his detractors has proved a point, when he could easily have been another management casualty. He joins Ron Greenwood and John Lyall as one of only three managers to win a major trophy for the club. Even without this win Moyes compares favourably with other incumbents. He has twice saved the club from relegation, gained a 6th and 7th place finish in the Premier League and taken them to a European semi-final.

Declan Rice wrote the perfect ending to his career at West Ham. The captain will leave as a hero and his transfer will generate funds to refresh the squad. We have a crop of exciting youngsters and can look forward to another campaign in the Europa League. It’s been one of the maddest seasons I can remember as a West Ham fan and heaven knows there is a wide choice. But it’s been a season of setbacks and silver linings with a golden flourish. As my Dad used to say ‘how bad is that?!’

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