Europe and from one extreme to another

We really are getting the highs and lows this week. Maybe we could be reaching a European final, but the certainty is that we will see Declan Rice in the claret and blue at the London Stadium for the last time.

And between the two we get the opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of the greatest achievement in our history.

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If all goes to plan (yes, I know, I know) our brave boys will be returning home from achieving our first European final for 47 years, on the very day we mark the 58th anniversary of our European Cup Winners Cup final victory. If ever there was an omen.

The mood of our week will be totally controlled by the outcome of Thursday’s Europa Conference semi-final in Alkmaar, 2-1 ahead from the first leg and within touching distance of the Prague final on 7 June against either Basel or Fiorentina.

We are that close. I’m old enough to have seen us get to two European finals, and to see us win one. There are very few like me (that old, I mean) so it would be wonderful for the current generations to experience that joy. Nothing won of any real consequence since 1980. Time to change all that and they will know a worldwide fan base, the West Ham nation, will kick every ball. Time for new heroes, new legends, anyone?

But first things first. 19 May, 1965, Wembley Stadium, West Ham 2 TSV Munich 0. Alan Sealey’s two goals winning a spectacular match, considered by many at the time as one of the best-ever performances by an English side, captained by Bobby Moore, managed by the great Ron Greenwood.

Now I’ve seen a fair bit of discussion of late about this final and its validity as our greatest achievement. I’ve seen it described by the Premier League generation as a “good game” but just nine matches against ordinary opposition. Not sure the Czech army side of Sparta Prague or the brilliant Real Zaragoza, at the time Spain’s third best team, would consider themselves ordinary.

But it’s an impossible comparison. Football, life in general was so different to now. Foreign travel was in its infancy, still just 20 years after the end of the war and there were still bombsites in the East End.

Very little football was on TV, every tie was knock out and our rivals a mystery. West Ham finished ninth in the First Division that season, drew only four games, scored 82 and conceded 71. Johnny Byrne and Geoff Hurst scored 50 between them. We beat Manchester United, Leeds, Spurs, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea that season. We were a very good side, and the European tournament was tough.

The comparison has come because folk are trying to compare then and now. But it’s impossible. The ELC is demanding because of the extra matches - at the moment 13 - our rivals maybe “second division” in European terms. We played 55 matches in the 1964/65 season, this term it will be 57 if we get to the final in Prague.

The difference? Well I certainly enjoyed the football in the 1960s more than now. Modern footballers are fitter, quicker and arguably better technically. But I do feel that George Best and the like would have got a game now. Rice, Lucas Paqueta, Kurt Zouma and maybe Lukasz Fabianski would get into the ’65 team. But then I’m biased, I’ve seen both sides at their best and it’s my opinion. There is no debate.

Now this season’s European adventure. David Moyes threw all his eggs in one basket at Brentford, selecting a starting eleven including only two who would expect to be in Thursday’s side against Alkmaar in Nayef Aguerd and Tomas Soucek.

And what we got was another of those insipid displays and a fourth defeat in five league games. We are limping towards avoiding the drop, and it’s been painful to witness. Just 17 points from the last 14 matches, and it’s left us praying for other teams to lose.

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It’s still not mathematically safe, but it will be if Everton fail to win at Wolves on Saturday or if not that, we avoid defeat at home to Leeds the following day. It shouldn’t be like that. They horrible, unacceptable performances against Brentford, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Brighton and Spurs have seen to that, it’s why Moyes was being “sacked if we lose this one” on a weekly basis.

We have all been exasperated, including Moyes it seems. Discussing Brentford’s second goal - a long throw flicked on at the near post and headed home dead centre of the six yard box , said it all. Nobody was challenged in that goal. Moyes insisted they had practiced defending Brentford’s set pieces and long throws, saying: “You wouldn’t have thought so”.

And of course there was another VAR controversy. The ball cannoned back off a post to hit Divin Mubama, a foot away. Danny Murphy on TV reckoned, like Moyes, that handball decision was a disgrace. Normally Dermot Gallagher is good on these, but somehow he saw it as handball.

The ball hit our youngster on the shoulder but Stockley Park saw it flick his fingertips. Deliberate? You must be joking.

Gallagher did concede that messing about with the handball law to make it clearer has had the opposite effect. And then of course we had new referees’ supremo Howard Webb on Sky trying to convince us all was hunky dory. Dressed all in black, like a mafia boss, he must have used the word ‘process’ a hundred times. Jamie Carragher looked bemused, which is not difficult, and Gary Neville nodded away like one of those bulldog toys you see in cars.

The idea was to show how the system works, but not one of the contentious issues that have befallen us in recent weeks was even discussed. Just the decisions they’d got right. Not surprisingly, because Sky have a confect of interest here.

Don’t forget it was Sky with all their high tech and camera slow-mos that virtually forced football authorities to adopt VAR in the first place. I was generally in favour at first, it was going to level up for the small clubs against the big boys.

All it has done is given referees the opportunity to make daft decisions from the safety of a industrial estate under a Heathrow flight path. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

So, while we embark on our most important week in many years, the rumour mill continues unabated over the future of Moyes. He knows his job is/has been hawked around, he’s not stupid and maybe a better player of football’s media circus than even David Sullivan. How he’s managing to block everything out as he concentrates on West Ham and his players in the circumstances is remarkable. The constant pressure from outside and inside the club is in overdrive.

Inside a week he has been told he will lose control over transfers to our ‘multi-talented’ board. Yea, right.

He’s got through the clarion calls for him to be sacked, he’s seen everyone and his dog linked with his job and we are virtually safe from relegation and on the brink of a European final with West Ham’s best managerial record in Euro’ competition to boot. Thursday will be his 26th West Ham match in Europe, he’s won 18 of 25, a win percentage of 72%. Greenwood had 53% from 15 games and John Lyall 46% also from 15 matches.

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I fully understand the reasons many have to see a managerial change, but I do enjoy hearing them try to talk their way out of that record. Then we are back to the quality of opposition, I suppose.

And at the end of the client website assault on the manager, we now are being told that the board want him to stay, and it will be his decision to leave this summer. And of course that would avoid that messy business of compensation. Surely nobody thinks Moyes is that daft?

And now we also have the director of football stuff too. I find the material this week far more interesting because it has come from top draw sports journos than the client website mates of Sullivan.

Jacob Steinberg and Matt Law know what they are talking about. Paul Mitchell from Monaco, a mate of Mark Noble who has visited him in the south of France recently. Mitchell has now announced he is quitting Monaco and wants to return to the Premier League where he has worked for Spurs and Southampton. But there are more than West Ham interested.

Former Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards, the guiding hand behind Jurgen Klopp’s reign at Anfield, is also mentioned. Again he is much in demand. Lee Dykes from Brentford, Victor Orta, recently departed from Leeds gets a mention too.

As does Welshman Lee Congerton, now at Atlanta, having worked with Moyes at Sunderland a while back. All very interesting, all seemingly beyond the reach of Sullivan, who is running the search for a director of football to work alongside Noble. Maybe Moyes will bide his time on who he has to work with.

And of course all this comes back to Rice, and the end of his time at West Ham. There won’t gen be a dry eye in the house on Sunday, will there?

Rice has never let us down on the pitch, he is by a country mile the Hammer of the Year, and anyone who thinks it’s Said Benrahma has not really been paying attention. A vote for Benni is, I feel, a vote against Moyes, and that should not the criteria.

Those who hang onto the belief that Rice will change his mind and see out the last season of his contract are fooling themselves. His departure, I believe, was agreed last summer and there are some who feel the fee was factored into the 2022 summer transfer dealings. We still have £80m to pay other clubs for those deals.

The stories are plentiful. Arsenal are ‘in talks’ at £100m, he’s too expensive for Manchester United but they could throw in deadwood like Phil Jones. Manchester City fancy £70m with Kalvin Phillips thrown in. All this must be music to Sullivan’s ears. And you can rule out Chelsea and Liverpool because they are unlikely to be in the Champions League. It’s going to run all summer, isn’t it?

So let’s just bother about ourselves, the European dream, and how good that could feel on Friday morning. We can all pray.

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