A Night to Remember

When West Ham bowed out of the FA Cup and lost the first leg against Sevilla I was distraught. My friends call me negative. I call myself a realist. Gloom. Doom. Expecting Sevilla to sweep us across two legs with a broom.

Reckless speculation leads to surefire certitude that Declan will leave, should leave, this summer. I care about him. He deserves better. I hope it’s at the Bernabeu instead of in Manchester.

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I contemplate the season that could have been on the way to the airport. I check my betting account to see what the powers that be think of our chances to advance. Sevilla at +270 to win, West Ham at +110. Surely Vegas must know something I don’t. Maybe the oddsmakers couldn’t pony up $9.99 a month for Paramount Plus to stream Europa League matches in America?

My flight from Washington D.C. takes off two hours and fifteen minutes after kick-off. I should have just enough time to watch the last gasp of West Ham’s European dreams. I get there three hours late because A) I am an anxious traveller and B) I want a good seat at the bar with an outlet. I take in the prime people watching one can only find at the airport. It’s weird, no one else is wearing European football jerseys. Americans are so ignorant.

The game starts and West Ham come out of the blocks like a pack of wolves. Sevilla are shell-shocked. The tiki-taka light approach to football cannot compete. They try to pass out from the back but cannot find space. Maybe my youth football coach was wrong all along. Maybe man is faster than the ball, if only for one glorious night.

West Ham left their beloved home at Upton Park for nights just like this. 60,000 people. Nerves fraying. Bubbles flying. Hammers pressing. This, this has been what West Ham fans have been waiting for. The Moyes boys are at their best when flying down the pitch, nipping at the opposition’s heels and forcing mistakes.

The squad’s talent level is more Allardici than Allardyce, but West Ham are not a possession-dominant squad. Holders of six Europa league trophies, Sevilla do eventually get a hold of the game by methodically stringing together passes like a tenured seamstress weaving away on a loom.

But everyone came out to play. It seemed every attempted chip through targeting the space behind the back line ended with a “ZOUUUUU.” The American broadcast described Dawson’s no-nonsense collision as a “Truly English tackle.” It encapsulated the difference in approach between the Premier League newcomers and the "been there" Spaniards.

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Ben Johnson shows improvements on his delivery. Creswell puts in the usual shift of composure and class. Lanzini shares the ball like a kid who genuinely wants everyone to have a good time. Antonio’s muscles account for at least half the mass of our unofficial club slogan. Areola’s sharper than his namesake on a cold winter day.

And Fornals. He’s always active. Pushing forward and passing players open with a preternatural proclivity. Everyone looks great but Declan and Fornals come with an elite combination of vision, attitude, and talent.

The English language cannot capture, the written word cannot convey what Declan Rice means to the Claret and Blue. He swallows attacks like a dream catcher – plucking nightmares from the sky before they reach the cradle.

The boy we’ve watched become a man defies spacetime. He teleports. Multiplies. Declan somehow simultaneously plays defence and attack. Taking the ball and advancing the ball in a single breath. A dip of the shoulder leads to gliding strides forward. Gallivanting runs make defenders look like pub team bums.

Throwing bodies forward. Tie. Extra time. This performance earns pride regardless of the result.

My flight takes off at 6:35. If it goes to penalties, I’ll miss the single most pivotal moment for the Hammers since Ricardo Vaz Te put West Ham into the Premier League at Wembley 10 years ago.

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A slightly overweight elderly man asks if Southwest is boarding Group B or Group C. I make eye contact in the half-hearted and disinterested way only a millennial can, then hear an eruption through my headphones. I glance down to my iPhone glued to my hand the past two hours to see the replay of Yarmolenko’s second goal of the week (and season).

I’d be remiss if I overlooked Jesus Manuel Corona’s contributions. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Mexican’s family, I cannot imagine supporting a paraplegic. It’s inspiring to see him stay on the pitch after Declan almost broke his back. But maybe he should’ve given up his place instead.

A breakaway cutback found Corona with a straightforward, clear look at goal. The ball may still be in orbit over Heathrow. It just goes to show playing real football is not something you can turn on in the 75th minute. Moyes had his team out firing from the first whistle. Sevilla just couldn’t grab the game by the scruff of the neck after resorting to “The Dark Arts” in the 15th minute.

What’s next for the high-flying, freewheeling, fun-loving Hammers? The rational me is happy to have drawn Olympique Lyon and avoided the bigger sides. But the rational side of me died the day I chose to be a West Ham fan. I want Barca. To see Mark Noble at the Camp Nou would be proof there is a God.

He works in mysterious ways though. I am sitting between a baby and a mouth breather for a three-hour flight. But its okay. West Ham are in the final eight, and I am literally on cloud nine.

Come on You Irons.

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