The West Ham European adventure rumbles into Belgium tonight for a fixture in the city where it had all began almost 59 years ago.
In September 1964, KAA Gent were known by the French name of La Gantoise when they were drawn against the Hammers in the 1st round of the European Cup Winners Cup. The first leg match played at the now defunct Stade Jules Otten was shaded by the visitors with Ron Boyce scoring the only goal of the game. A scrappy 1-1 draw at Upton Park – Byrne replying after a Peters’ own goal – was enough to set West Ham on the road to a second Wembley final success in two years.
It was easy to imagine back then that silverware might be a regular visitor to the Upton Park trophy room. The club was on the rise, great things were expected and the danger was we would end up with open-top bus parade fatigue before too long. But then reality stepped in and we have had to make do with just two FA Cup wins in the intervening years.
West Ham’s form in the European Conference has been the polar opposite of that served up in league matches. An exemplary record ten wins from ten games played. And a tally of 25 goals that is just two short of the 27 scored in 29 Premier League fixtures. To a large extent this is a reflection of the quality of opposition being faced, but games still need to be won and it has been largely achieved through the efforts of a fringe group of players.
Whether the Euro campaign has impacted domestic performances in any positive or negative sense this season is open to speculation. There have been enough enforced breaks in a stop/ start campaign and sufficient squad rotation to avoid the excesses of fatigue and injury, although shortened preparation time for league games might be seen as an issue.
The same argument is true for the consequences of continued participation between now and the end of May . I would hope fellow supporters starved of silverware for 43 years would be desperate to go all the way to Prague in this competition. But equally, the majority would be distraught at losing our Premier League status. It shouldn’t be a choice of sacrificing one for the other and it would be unforgivable (admittedly in a long line of unforgivable actions) not to take the Euro games seriously.
The narrowest of Premier League breathing spaces was accomplished after plundering three points from Craven Cottage last Saturday. Fulham were the most accommodating of hosts, not only scoring on our behalf but also declining to make much in the way of serious attempts to score at the correct end of the pitch. If there is a dream opponent for David Moyes it would be one who spend the entire afternoon pinging in hopeful balls for a player who is serving an eight-match suspension in the stands. The Moyes defensive playbook is relatively sound when it comes to the art of heading the ball away. It is being attacked direct and at speed where it is full of holes.
We must now hope that Fulham rediscover their mojo before facing Leeds, Leicester, Everton, and Southampton in the other basement battles they are involved in. But the absence of Mitrovic leaves them with little in the way of threat and little left to play for.
Tonight’s opponents, Gent, originally qualified as Belgian cup-winners for the Europa League play-off round where they were soundly defeated 4-0 on aggregate by Omonia of Cyprus. Dropping down into the Conference League Group F, they finished as runners-up to Djurgårdens IF of Sweden. Gent then went on to beat Qarabağ FK of Azerbaijan in the Knockout round and Başakşehir of Turkey to reach the Quarter Finals. The 4-1 second leg win in Istanbul featured the fastest ever hattrick in UEFA club competition scored by Gent’s 20-year-old Nigerian striker Gift Orban. West Ham defenders have a long standing familiarity with gifts but hopefully used up their quota in the recent Premier League thrashing by Newcastle.
The Gent team are enigmatically known to supporters as the ‘The Buffalo’s’ and sport the image of a Native American chief as the club’s logo. Apparently, this is a throwback to a visit to Belgium by Buffalo Bill’s circus at the turn of the 20th century. With circuses and clowns never more appropriate in the stewardship of West Ham – and current leader, Chief Talking Bull – we should feel very much at home.
An advantage that West Ham have when playing in Europe is that opponents are dazzled by the aura associated with teams from the Premier League. Unless opponents have done a detailed level of homework, they will imagine a team of internationals weaving intricate and elegant patterns across the football pitch that are interrupted by sudden and clinical bursts of power and precision that leave them reeling. Little do they know that our style employs all the tactical sophistication and finesse of a mid-table Sunday league outfit.
Gent are riding high in 4th place in the Belgian Pro League with just two games remaining in the regular season – it then splits out into complicated play-off groups that determine next season’s European participation. This tie will be no walk in the park for the Hammers even though they will be considered as firm favourites to progress. In the context of the Premier League relegation battle it would be good to get the tie sewn up in the first leg, but that is easier said than done when a team is schooled to shut up shop at a goal up.
I expect Moyes again to rely on midweek stalwarts including Alphonse Areola, Ben Johnson, Thilo Kehrer, Manuel Lanzini, Flynn Downes, and Pablo Fornals as the core of tonight’s team. Will it be enough? Who knows? I’ve still got my eye on that silverware though. COYI!
3 thoughts on “Time Ghentlemen Please: Can West Ham’s Season Be Saved By A First Silverware in 43 Years?”
Chief Talking Bull may face face yet another pow wow with Bear Hat if we’re scalped…but it seems a bit unlikely. A win would be great, but it would also be nice to attend a competitive game next week. It’s the weekend, though, that makes me quiver…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ve mentally written off the Arsenal game. It will be a damage limitation approach. The sole hope is Arsenal getting the jitters. Should be good enough tonight
Damage limitation is after all the invariable default setting. At least the B-listers can give us a decent game to watch…
Comments are closed.