Could West Ham really win the Europa League?

West Ham United
(Image credit: Getty)

It may sound strange now, as they sit 192nd in Uefa’s coefficients, but Dinamo Tbilisi were once one of the best teams in Europe. They had won the Soviet league. They knocked Liverpool out of the European Cup. They had eliminated Inter Milan and Napoli from the Uefa Cup. And, on their way to winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981, they beat West Ham.

Four decades on, it has a pertinence. The Hammers still have not had a bigger European game since. Until now? Perhaps. 

That was a quarter-final and they meet the serial Europa League winners Sevilla in the last 16 now. But if a Soviet-era Tbilisi may not have oozed glamour, this is the kind of attractive European tie that irregular visitors to continental competitions can deserve.

For David Moyes and West Ham, it is a dual reward: for their outstanding season last year and for taking the Europa League group matches sufficiently seriously that they cruised into the knockout stages. It is very possible, given their high position in the Premier League and the transformation of West Ham under Moyes, that such fixtures could become an annual occurrence. It is also feasible that this will stand out in Hammers history: rarely in continental competition in the last 40 years, if that is the case again in the next 40, they can at least look back on a meeting with a high-class team, a club with pedigree and a trip to an attractive city. If West Ham go out to Sevilla, it will at least be preferable to ignominious exits to Astra Giurgiu.

Because this is not about Liverpool, the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, the sextet who almost seem to have a season ticket for Europe. It is about the rest, some aspiring to reach that level, others always aware their ventures abroad will have the feel of a one-off. It is about how such ties can live in the memory, about how they should be celebrated. They can look still more incongruous from a distance.

Leeds have spent 20 years being reminded that they were Champions League semi-finalists in 2001. Almost three decades on, it feels more remarkable that Norwich beat Bayern Munich: mention the name of Jeremy Goss, however, and for many the first thing that comes to mind is his volleyed goal in Bavaria. Norwich faced Inter Milan in the next round, too, and have not returned to Europe since.

When Portsmouth descended from the Premier League to League Two in double quick time, it felt all the odder that they had faced AC Milan, who were European champions a couple of years earlier. Ronaldinho came off the bench for Milan. Sean Davis did for Pompey. It took an injury-time equaliser from Pippo Inzaghi to deny Glen Little, Richard Hughes and co victory.

Southampton beat Inter Milan, six years after their Champions League win. In 2007-08, 12 years before they were relegated to League Two, Bolton drew with Bayern Munich and beat Atletico Madrid. And if those were not the definitive Bayern, Atletico, AC or Inter Milan sides, if historic giants may have been slumming it in lesser European competitions, they remain special occasions for clubs unaccustomed to such fixtures. So, too, even when they end in defeat. Stoke lost to Valencia and Swansea in Napoli but they can savour the thought of such matches in a week when their opponents instead include Blackpool and Peterborough

For each, the glory lay in the game, in the achievement of getting there. None, perhaps, harboured realistic thoughts of winning the competition. Occasionally the English underdogs have multiple golden nights: Middlesbrough in beating Roma and then going on to repeat implausible comebacks on their path to a Uefa Cup final, Fulham in a four-goal demolition of Juventus and a similarly inspired charge to the final.

Maybe Moyes will emulate Roy Hodgson. Perhaps West Ham will advance to get a still more glamorous meeting with Barcelona. But even if not, West Ham against Sevilla has an endearingly different feel to it. And for clubs often confined to domestic competitions by the dominance of the usual suspects, that is something to be savoured.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.