West Ham In Europe: Where It All Began

It's where it all began for West Ham United, 59 years ago. On a ferry to Ostend for the very first match in European competition for us back in 1964.

When former Liverpool star Vladimir Smicer pulled our name out of the hat for the Europa Conference quarter finals draw alongside KAA Gent, it must have sparked some misty-eyed memories for those of us old timers who can remember the swinging sixties.

Back in 1964 we played our very first European tie away to La Gantoise, as they were then. September 23 to be accurate. A frankly little known Belgian side from Flanders. Well, I’d never heard of them, although I don’t think I was that sure where Belgium was either!

Times were very different then. Foreign travel was in its infancy, 19 years after the war ended, London still bore the scars and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I flew anywhere on holiday, or could afford it.

So La Gantoise could just as well have been on the moon. They are now called GAA Gent, the Flemish version of their name adopted in 1971, although Belgium’s French speakers still use the old name.

Travel was even different for the team. They took the train from Victoria and crossed the channel by ferry. There’s a famous old picture of the team leaning on the ship’s rail. Mind you, it might give David Sullivan too many ideas this time around.

So, 59 years later we are back at the beginning, due to face Gent at their newish Ghelamco Arena stadium, 20,175 capacity, in the quarter final first leg on April 13 with the return a week later at the London Stadium.

It didn’t take long for the memory jerkers after that draw. Gent posted a nice little ‘remember us’ tweet with a picture of a ticket for the Upton Park match back in 1964. A kids' three shillings ticket for the North Bank.

And within a few hours a YouTube highlights film emerged of the second leg back on October 7, 1964 which really had me thinking. Usually such material is grainy, hard to follow and just few minutes. But this one was different, Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary and a substantial amount of the match.

And it was obvious how awful we were in that return. Leading 1-0 from the first leg, Martin Peters scored a daft own goal in the first half to level things for the then part-timers. Peters and Alan Dickie, in goal because Jim Standen was injured.

All very West Ham. We’d wasted half a dozen great chances by then and the 24,000 crowd were left just a little stunned. The team that had won the FA Cup for the first time back in May were making a pig's ear of things.

Bobby Moore and Ronnie Boyce were both roundly criticised in the press for being off-form, and that was putting it mildly. Moore’s passing was hopelessly astray and the rest of the side were having a collective nightmare.

But out on the left wing young John Sissons was having a blinder. Still just 18, he was destroying the Belgian defence and two minutes before the break he set off on a blistering 40-yard run, leaving defenders trailing, before crossing on the run for Johnny Byrne to fire West Ham level, his 14th of the season.

The papers were talking of Sissons getting an England call from Alf Ramsey, a frequent tale that and the following season, but it never came. I still don’t really know why the lad who went to my secondary school never got more than Under 23 caps. He was outstanding and it was good to be reminded of that in the YouTube footage of the game.

West Ham still made heavy weather of the second half and La Gantoise could easily have nicked a win. So much so that our fans gave them a standing ovation at the end. More from relief than anything else.

La Gantoise’s 40 year-old captain/goalkeeper Armand Seghers had been in amazing form, despite the large, floppy jersey he adorned that amused the Chicken Run, if I recall correctly.

The game produced record receipts for West Ham, the princely sum of £5,192, with prices being raised for the match. The posh seats cost as much as £1. Our fans were not amused. Now where have I heard that before?

So we were through. Sparta Prague, Lausanne and Real Zaragoza were to follow, the excitement around the East End rising with every wonderful night at Upton Park ahead of the greatest night in our history, May 19, 1965 at Wembley when Alan Sealey’s double won the final against TSV Munich.

Compare that night to the very low-key victory in Belgium that started it all off the previous September. A second half header by Ronnie Boyce from Sealey’s corner secured a scratchy 1-0 win in front of 18,000 fans, including 1,000 'airlifted' as the papers said, into Belgium on the day of the match. War time terminology still in use, obviously.

So what of Gent since then? Well, they should not be taken as lightly as some of our fans already are. Since moving to their new stadium in 2013, they have won the Belgian Cup again and their first league title and been regulars in Europe.

They’ve been in the Champions League, and in the 2016/17 season they put Spurs out of the Europa League, winning 1-0 at home and drawing 2-2 at Wembley. I’m liking them more already.

They’ve acquired considerable sponsorship finances in the last decade and are a formidable team in their own league and have amassed 112 European ties, the majority in the UEFA/Europa League.

This season they have got past Molde, Shamrock Rovers, Djurgarden, Qurabag and Istanbul Basaksehir so far in the Europa Conference. Take them lightly at our peril.

Their most famous former player? How about Kevin De Bruyne, who spent six years in their youth set up before moving to Chelsea. Now one of the world’s best players at Manchester City. Let’s hope Gent don’t have any more like him!

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