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West Ham United: 10 moments that transformed relegation battlers into Europa hopefuls

West Ham United
(Image credit: Getty)

For the first time in their history, West Ham United will take part in the group stages of a European club competition when they face Dinamo Zagreb in the Croatian capital.

It follows a number of false dawns, including two play-off defeats against Astra Giurgiu, but it’s not too long ago that the prospect of the club even being in the Premier League was no guarantee, let alone clinching a top-six finish.

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There have been a few moments along the way which have helped this phenomenal transformation to take shape, and we’ve picked out some of the most important.

1. Your job is to stand by the new manager

The arrival of David Moyes for a second stint as manager didn’t feel too many West Ham fans with a huge amount of confidence. He had done enough the first time around, but there were few signs of the turnaround we’d see after he replaced Manuel Pellegrini with the club in freefall in December 2019. 

Without the Scot in charge, though, it’s hard to imagine West Ham being anywhere near where they are today...

2. Andriy Yarmolenko’s one move

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When the Premier League returned from its COVID-enforced hiatus in 2020, the Hammers started badly. They looked like a team that was going down without a fight, and a run of bad luck made that look even more likely. 

But you need to take the good luck with the bad, and that means finding the one person in the country who was unaware that Andriy Yarmolenko likes to cut back inside onto his left foot. In a wonderful coincidence, that person - Antonio Rudiger - was playing against West Ham for Chelsea at the time, helping clinch a last-gasp win that breathed new life into a floundering squad.

3. The Watford six-pointer

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Even after rebuilding under Moyes, a home meeting with Watford with three games left of the 2019/20 season was massive. The two teams both sat three points above the drop at kick-off, but by full-time the Hammers could effectively start planning for the following season. Declan Rice only scored one league goal in his 38 league games that season, but his long-range hit against the Hornets was the perfect way to do it.

4. Enter the Czech mates

Tomas Soucek, West Ham

(Image credit: Getty)

West Ham’s survival was crucial for more than one reason. Yes, another year of top-flight football was the most important, but it also ensured Tomás Souček extended his stay. 

Not only that, but he played his part in convincing international colleague Vladmir Coufal to move to east London, helping set up a balanced backbone to the team and - crucially - two component parts who could be relied upon last season to play nearly every minute.

5. More than a comeback

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Avoiding defeat in a derby is good. Coming from behind to avoid defeat in a derby is great. 

Coming from 3-0 down is greater. Coming from 3-0 down in the final 10 minutes away to Tottenham is unheard of. Not only did the result preserve a bit of momentum after two defeats in the first two games, but - when the points were tallied up in May - it meant the difference between West Ham finishing above Spurs or below them. 

And as for the equalising goal itself, from Manuel Lanzini? We have no words.

6. Panenka relief

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Momentum is one hell of a thing. After losing to Liverpool, West Ham could easily have dropped back towards mid-table without the right response, and a last-gasp winner in a dour game against Fulham was just that. 

Except it very nearly wasn’t. If Ademola Lookman had done something different with his stoppage-time penalty, the game could have ended all-square. 

Instead, to the relief of West Ham fans, he attempted a Panenka which Łukasz Fabiański saw coming. Phew.

7. A New Year's turnaround

West Ham’s longest winless run last season came in a congested Christmas period, when four games brought three draws and a defeat. It looked like being a fourth draw from five on New Year’s Day as the clock ticked towards 90 at Goodison Park. 

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But then Souček popped up with a late winner. And then West Ham won their next three to climb from 10th to 5th. Quite a big deal, really.

8. The Lingard redemption

West Ham United's Jesse Lingard celebrates scoring their second goal of the game during the Premier League match at the London Stadium, London. Picture date: Sunday February 21, 2021.

(Image credit: PA Images)

With a stretched squad, West Ham needed new blood in the second half of the season. While the Jesse Lingard loan move made sense for all concerned, no one could have foreseen it going quite as well as it did. 16 games brought nine goals, many of them crucial, and a stunning return to England contention for the first time since 2019. It’s rare to see a loan move work out quite as well.

9. Antonio's perfectly-timed return

Michail Antonio has had his injury issues throughout his six years as a West Ham player, but his absence in April 2021 looked like being especially devastating. Moyes’ team held on for a 3-2 win over Leicester City in the first of his three games on the sidelines, but defeats in the next two meant his return couldn’t come soon enough. 

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As if to make up for lost time as quickly as possible, he led West Ham to a comeback victory at Burnley, without which they surely would have missed out on Europe.

10. Getting over the line

In a heavily congested top half of the table, there was always a feeling that one poor result could give everyone else a chance to catch up. 

Still, with two games remaining, West Ham knew six points would guarantee sixth place. Even then, though, they did it the hard way, missing an early penalty against relegated West Bromwich Albion and going behind before sorting things out just in time. 

A final-day win over Southampton was far more comfortable, and ensured a new European adventure would be taking place.

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