Our recent European trip to the Serbian border with Hungary confirmed that West Ham will be playing Europa League football in 2024. As I write this piece, that could happen as early as February but certainly no later than March.
Yes our European campaign marches on and for those that travel home and away, there is the distinct possibility of a few more travel stamps in their passport. But I guess the question has to be asked just how many more travel stamps and for how much longer?
Over the previous two seasons we have seen some glorious performances. Our first campaign in the Europa League came up short when we lost to the eventual winners in the semi finals. Last season we were unstoppable and ended up winning our first European trophy since 1999, yes I am counting the Intertoto cup.
This year though it’s been slightly different. Yes we have qualified for the knockout stages and yes we may even end up topping our group but, in my eyes, it has not been the plain sailing dominance of those previous campaigns. We have huffed and puffed. The minnows from Serbia, Backa Topla, actually took the lead at our rented stadium and we scraped a late winner in the return fixture.
We also saw our record-breaking unbeaten European run come to an end against Olympiakos, currently the Greek side’s only win in the competition this season. The Europa League also looks a tougher competition this time around. Roma, Bayer Leverkusen and Liverpool, to name but a few, all sit waiting in the knockout stages.
We will also see teams drop out from the Champions League and add to that the likes of Villarreal and Rennes and it’s not going to be easy going forward. So could this glorious run be coming to a close? We have seen that our squad is spread thin. With injuries to Bowen and Antonio, it’s clear that we do not have a ready replacement up top.
Add to that the fact that we will lose players to the African Nations Cup, which will add further strain on a threadbare squad, and the need for investment becomes more urgent. With the transfer window due to open soon, this could be an opportunity to strengthen but historically we rarely seem to be successful in our purchases during the January window.
The FA Cup campaign will also commence in January, just at the time our African players depart for Côte d’Ivoire or the Ivory Coast to those of us of a certain age. The strain will be evident. By that time we may be out of the League Cup but during January and February, the fixtures come thick and fast and the fragility of Premier League players, who seem to roll around in absolute agony when touched, will be a concern.
This all makes our game on December 14 vitally important. We’re currently in the driving seat needing just a draw against Freiburg to finish top of the group. This will mean that we do not have to play in February and will give us the rest we need. But if things don’t go to plan then those extra two fixtures could be costly.
But maybe it’s not the amount of games we may have to play that is the real issue. Just maybe it could be the quality of opposition. Some of our potential opponents are well known to us. We all know what our record against Liverpool is, pretty good in London but pretty disastrous on Merseyside, and let’s not even mention our record on the south coast in Brighton, but there could also be additional Premier League opposition.
Currently both Newcastle and Manchester United could be future Europa League opponents and both will provide their own challenges. There is no doubt about it, this is a tougher competition this time out. There are possible opponents who will certainly strengthen in the transfer window with a desire to win the trophy.
Add to this the pressures of the Premier League which is of vital importance. We are currently grinding out wins and have been pretty lucky, Burnley was a prime example, a game we looked like losing but turned it all around in the last few minutes and ‘stole’ all three points.
That sort of luck will run out at some point and then where would we be. So far I have been all doom and gloom but let’s not forget that we are now almost seasoned European veterans.
We have the experience that the likes of Brighton do not have. We know how to negotiate these ties, and by and large know how to negotiate, the majority of times, with success. We now have players who are seasoned in European campaigns. We have a loyal following that will follow the team wherever they roam. So there are a few positives.
What we need though is a favourable draw, our injury worries to dissipate, a bit of investment and a little bit of luck. That game later this month may hold the key. It will lighten the load.
Yes it’s only two games but it’s two less in what is a busy winter of fixtures. Can I see another European trophy being lifted in Dublin by those that wear the claret and blue? I’m not so sure.
My heart says it’s possible but my head says this season’s campaign could be one step too far and a European campaign may not be accessible in 2025. West Ham though have a history of proving this pessimist wrong.
Let’s hope they do again and that our travelling fraternity will be replacing those 34-page documents and ordering a 50-page passport to accommodate those extra stamps they will be earning travelling with West Ham around Europe for years to come.