How would it feel if we won?

Last week, someone at work asked me how I'd feel if we won the final. The simplicity of the question caught me off guard and I mumbled something forgettable. For some reason the question has stuck with me and I keep coming back to it.

Sinking feelings

My first away game was in 2004. It was an otherwise nondescript Championship game which we lost 1-0. Me and my brother stood outside the ground with Uncle Kev - he would have had a beer in his hand, I'd have had a packet of cherry drops and some bubblegum. I don't remember any details about the game (I actually thought we lost 2-0 until I fact checked), but I do remember the pre-match ritual and the sinking feeling when we lost.

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That sinking feeling became familiar - eight months later we lost a playoff final in Cardiff on my 11th birthday. I had a shit in a service station toilet that didn't have any loo roll, and then cried on the way home as the Palace fans mooned our coach on the M4 back to London.

Family and football

This isn't a story just about sadness though, it's a story about family, visceral emotions and memories.

When we won the play-off final the following year, the lucky few of us that had that a ticket were met at Elm Park Station by the rest of the family. We sang songs on the street on the way back home and had one hell of a party.

My arm was in a plaster cast the next time we were in a play-off final. When Carlton Cole scored, uncle Kev fell over celebrating and broke one of the bright red seats we were stood in front of.

Those small details stay with you as much as the match itself. Having those experiences with friends and family are just as significant as who scored and who won. West Ham has tied us together as a family since I used to stand on my seat on the back row of the Centenary Upper with my brothers and Uncle. Twenty years later, Uncle Kev doesn't go to games any more, but he set us on a path in a way he probably doesn't fully realise.

That path has certainly had its ups and downs. I remember the anger I felt at the City Ground watching Sam Allardyce sending our Academy players out for the slaughter to shrewdly save our first team for a big semi final three days later. I remember the despair after taking the pilgrimage up to Wigan on the fateful day we were relegated. BBC news caught me at full time, sat with head in hands on my own, tear in my eye, as we were mocked by Wigan fans that stormed the pitch at full time.

Some of those moments genuinely haunt me to this day and can resurface emotions that I thought were long gone.

We weren't able to go to the FA Cup final, so we watched at home with the family. We had two TVs, one at each end of the room because there were too many people to watch on one screen. My mum, who had recently lost her parents, sat holding a photo of them, crying, as the penalty shootout unfolded. Nan had been at one of the cup final wins in the '70s - triumphant moments like that have since proven elusive.

Memories like that stay with you. But yet we still allow ourselves to go through it, renewing our season tickets year after year despite our better judgement. I like to imagine that every disappointment is saved up, like a pound put into a fruit machine, which occasionally pays out when something memorable happens. And just like someone playing a fruit machine, we're all addicted.

It's just a game

People say that football is just a game, and that it's ridiculous that we place so much importance on it. On the face of it, of course, they're right.

What we do as football fans is objectively strange. We spend untold amounts of time and money chasing something elusive. At times, when you're waking up at 6am on a Sunday to rely on a heavily reduced train service to travel half way up the country, it's hard to describe exactly what it is you are chasing. And after years of doing it, what used to be exciting becomes routine.

And when the inevitable disappointment arrives, and when players come and go, all that's left is the community you're a part of and the shared identity you have with friends and family you go to games with. In the end, this matters more than the goals that were scored.

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The European Tour

So after a largely mediocre two decades on the pitch, the last two seasons have been nothing short of remarkable. I'm so grateful that this time has come when we're in a position to be able to go, and that I have a wife that puts up with the hassle of me disappearing around Europe several times a season. If this had come ten years earlier, I probably couldn't afford it, if it was ten years later, life priorities may be different.

I feel like I could write a book with all the memories from the last two years alone. Some are obvious - the jubilation of realising that our stadium could be a fortress when we despatched Sevilla. Or when Moyes re-emerged from the tunnel in Lyon, close to midnight, and just stood and took in the sight of us singing his name over and over. Or even last month, as I watched Fornals run through on goal in a pub in Hornchurch after not getting a ticket, as the penny dropped: we are actually going to Prague.

But for every major moment, there is a minor moment that is just as memorable. Feeling so sick with nerves on the morning of the Frankfurt game I could barely drink my 6am airport beer. Sitting on our Seville apartment terrace eating Chorizo and drinking Cruzcampo in the sun. Or drinking cocktails in the Bucharest thermal spas.

Time for firsts

It took me 10 years to witness our first away win in the top flight. It was another nondescript game against an abject West Brom side on a freezing cold Tuesday night. The catharsis kicked in at full time and I remember getting an odd look by my brother who was confused why this win was so important to me.

Fast forward another ten years and that feeling of catharsis is lingering again, currently just out of reach, but dialled up to eleven. As fans, all we want is to be a small part of the moments that will go down in their club's history. That Tuesday night at the Hawthorns was certainly not one of those. But this game is. For anyone in doubt of what this competition means to the fans, 3,000 of us travelled to Romania to watch the reserves and under 18s in a dead rubber match. The way we've prioritised this competition as a club is the whole reason we find ourselves in the final.

History makers

So when Declan Rice leads the team out in Prague, emulating Billy Bonds and Bobby Moore, make no mistake that the club is writing a new chapter of history.

I'll be standing proudly next to the same people that have been through those highs and lows with me. In 30 years time we'll tell our kids the stories from the last two years, and how it culminated in a European cup final in Prague. We'll remember the (probably painful) journey out there, the beer we drunk before the game, the view from our seats.

All those fans in the ground, as well as the thousands watching outside the ground in Prague and at home have been paying into their own fruit machines for years, sometimes decades. For those of us that have been fortunate enough to go on the journey over the last two years, perhaps we've already had our payout. But there's a chance that we will soon be proud owners of a European trophy. It would feel like we hit the jackpot.

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