When Moyes’ Boys beat SC Freiburg 2-1 in the Europa League they broke a record that had stood since 1969. Leeds went on an unbeaten run of 16 games in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup – forerunner to the UEFA Cup. Between 1967-1969 they remained unbeaten and won the trophy in 1968.
Spurs equalled this feat in the UEFA Cup – forerunner to the Europa League – from 1971-1973 and won the trophy in ’72. This run included a second leg victory in the Cup Winners Cup in 1967/68. Manchester City look set to surpass our unbeaten run after their victory against Young Boys at the end of October took them to 16 games undefeated in the Champions League.
Whilst many fans will have been delighted to have taken a record away from Spurs, it really is quite an achievement and goes way beyond inter club rivalry. We aren’t generally noted for unbeaten runs especially in domestic football. The best we’ve managed in the Premier League is a 10-game unbeaten run between February and May 2016.
It started with a draw against Norwich but also included the defeat of Spurs and draws against Arsenal and Chelsea totalling five wins and five draws. Swansea City eventually ended this run that marked our final season at Upton Park, but how do West Ham compare against their illustrious predecessors?
The format of European competition has changed over the years and comparisons with previous holders of this record will always be difficult. It doesn’t just depend on a club winning the competition. A two-leg knock-out tie has always been involved at some point in the process. So it is possible to lose one game and still win the trophy.
All European competition has now adopted a group format in the early stages. So a club could even afford to lose two group games and theoretically still win it. It reduces the element of sudden death and makes an unbeaten run less likely and in some respects unnecessary.
Until the TV companies took control and demanded more games, the format was strictly two-leg and knock out. The record established by Leeds and Spurs was against quality opposition in competitions reserved for teams that finished in the top three of their respective leagues.
There was no possibility of clubs being drawn into the European Cup – forerunner to the Champions League – as it was designed for national league champions only. During Leeds’ unbeaten run they beat Partizan Belgrade, Ferencvaros and Napoli. Similarly, Spurs disposed of AC Milan, Olympiakos and Red Star Belgrade, all of whom were among the top club sides in Europe.
So the Hammers’ unbeaten run in Europe does have to be placed in proper context. We began with a two leg qualifying tie against Viborg. With the greatest of respect, they were never likely to knock us out. We won both games and breezed through 6-1 on aggregate.
The Europa Conference League is essentially a competition for mid-table or at a stretch top six teams. West Ham drew Anderlecht, Silkeborg and FCSB in the group stage. Anderlecht appeared to be the biggest threat but were no longer the force of old. We qualified for the next round with a 100% record.
The knock-out phase was a stress free cake walk. AEK Larnaca were beaten 6-0, Gent 5-2 and AZ Alkmaar 3-1 on aggregate. The first really competitive game was against Fiorentina in the final. A nervous but ultimately glorious 90 minutes ended in a narrow 2-1 victory.
Added to the two victories this season in the Europa League, West Ham had not only remained unbeaten for 17 games but have also recorded 16 victories in that total. It’s a record of which we should be proud but a reality check wouldn’t go amiss. In the Europa League campaign of 2021/22, we lost four games out of 12 and were beaten home and away by the eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt. Frankly our legs had gone but it was an important learning curve.
West Ham set their record against much weaker opposition than Leeds and Spurs faced. Unfortunately we weren’t able to add to our unbeaten total after defeat against Olympiakos. Let’s hope that we can now go on another unbeaten run into the knock-out stages of this competition.
Our squad has been strengthened with the right players and have two years’ experience of European football. Our league form seems relatively steady and can afford to be cautiously optimistic. I wonder where we’ll all be watching the Europa League final in May?