Fool if you think it’s over

The dream is over, the heartbreak palpable in the retreat of the claret and blue army from Frankfurt. So near, but so far.

This was the season that West Ham touched the next level, saw what top level European football was like and, more than anything, felt the pride in our team of honest, courageous, resilient, talented and brave footballers who fought to make their dreams, and ours, come true.

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It wasn’t quite enough, but there we were in a European semi-final, where in the end fate and the frailties of sport and it’s stars saw as crash and burn at the final fence.

I’m not interested in recriminations. Aaron Cresswell made a mistake, we were dead in the water from that moment and nobody will feel worse than he does. That it’s the second such incident in this European run that Cresswell has been isolated as last man needs addressing.

Just look at the still picture of the incident, our two centre backs were dragged miles out of position to the right, there was no defensive midfield screen within 30 yards and it’s all Cresswell’s fault? Sorry, I'm not having that - as they say. The vile abuse he’s had on social media has been disgusting, and so-called fans should be ashamed of themselves.

It was probably a red card, but in the words of our former player Frank Lampard Jnr, would it have been given at the other end like that? Lamps had the temerity to question something similar at Liverpool recently, when his Everton side suffered, and has been charged by the FA for saying what the rest of the country have been saying for years.

I’ve seen them not given like that, but an over officious Spanish referee - who, with his VAR mates enraged Declan Rice throughout, saw to it that our fight to reach the final was over really after that 19th minute foul on Jens Petter Hauge. You don’t win European semi-finals with ten men for 70 minutes.

Rice shouldn’t have said what he did in the tunnel, easy when you are not so angry. David Moyes was wrong to kick the ball back to an insolent ball boy. But Moyes lost it after a match of shithousery from the Frankfurt bench, constantly sending out half-a -dozen from the bench to harangue linesmen and the fourth official. Our manager and skipper will be punished, but my god they showed they cared.

Quick rule of thumb shows that in the Premier League over the last five years, 57 times in 275 games when a team has been reduced to ten men, do they go on to win. And precious few playing for 71 minutes with that handicap. And when Frankfurt scored seven minutes later, it really was over.

That our team fought so hard, had an equal amount of shots, more on target and half as many fouls tells you a lot about us. We fought to the very end and the sight of Vladimir Coufal forcing his way through the mass pitch invasion of German fans to applaud us in the away section said it all.

More of the same is what we all hope and pray for, isn’t it? Our European dream may be over for this momentous season, but the thirst for another crack at it all again - and soon - was never more evident.

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Our retreat to Frankfurt airport the following day was one of deep sadness. It had been an amazing run, and an experience for many who had never seen such things and we want to be back next season. If it’s the Conference, so be it.

The clubs in this new tournament are not much different to the Europa League qualifiers. And just look at the emotion and amazing atmosphere when Roma got to the final on Thursday at Leicester’s expense.

Jose Mourinho admits that be cried afterwards, so let’s not get sniffy about the Conference, even though it was fun to tell Spurs they were playing non-league football. Though an unfortunate name for a competition, in England at least.

I wouldn’t usually try to write anything meaningful - stop laughing at the lack - after a Thursday match with another game on Sunday, but this was something special.

Something between 5,000 and 10,000 West Ham fans were there, the vast majority having no chance of getting close to a ticket. They just wanted to be there, to share in a piece of West Ham history.

Some of us had been around for the European finals of 1965 and 1976, the FA Cup wins of 1964, 1975 and 1980. I’ve experienced those magic days. Now this new generation can say they’ve witnessed something similar.

The lucky ones were picking up tickets from the 2,400 allocation at the club's designated hotel, aware that outside on the pavement fans were paying £1,000 on the black market.

Yes, it’s hard for the club to control that, but twice right in front of our group outside the central station sports bar our party witnessed this happen. It's hard to say where those tickets came from and from whom but they were exchanged, I can assure you all.

Across the road the obligatory Irish pub, O’Reillys, housed the bulk of our following, singing, chanting, drinking the place dry. A few local likely lads in black and with masks tried their luck later in the evening, but local police were having none of that. They made, it seems, 30 arrests - all Germans.

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The noise from that pub, even before the police escort took us to the stadium via the station and a one mile hike through a forest - I kid you not - was deafening. It was a day to remember for the rest of our loves, and we deserve more.

During my working career I was fortunate enough to be involved in Champions League and UEFA/Europa competitions for 20 years. Four Liverpool finals, two Manchester United and they were all enjoyable experiences. I was not a fan, but still have great memories from Rotterdam to Istanbul.

I always dreamed that one day it would be my club out there. And this was the time, never to be forgotten, and hopefully repeated again some time soon.

Just being there was fantastic. We met many friends from the London Stadium, guys we have seen around the away circuit and enjoyed a few drinks into the night at the hotel. This is something that Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United fans experience all the time. Now it was our turn - and it meant so much to everyone.

The experience of the event was more important than what went wrong on the pitch. Social media was awash again with “if we had signed more players in January.” It's painful really, who is to say what was available? Who would have come to sit on the bench? Would they have integrated quickly? Would the team spirit and camaraderie have been damaged. Who's to know.

It’s water under the bridge now and we are where we are, so let's stop banging on about the past and enjoy what we have now and what this squad of heroes did to write their names in our club’s history.

I don’t want to harp on about where we were three years ago, people are sick of that. But on the day of Thursday’s semi-final second leg, three years to the day, Mark Noble scored a fine goal at Leicester to save us from relegation.

Clubs just do not make the jump from relegation to a European semi-final in three years. It’s nonsense but we have done it. It’s 46 years since we were last at this stage, but Moyes galvanised this squad into this position. Unprecedented. He may have missed the boat in January, but we don’t know why he and Rob Newman didn’t get the players we needed. We all have our opinions on that.

It’s all been emotional as they say. I welled up a bit writing this, just thinking of our few days in Frankfurt and seeing our fan base relish the whole experience. There will be more, I’m sure. Fool if you think this is over.

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