Let's make it special

According to one report, the day was saved by 'the West Ham fans' refusal to let disappointment turn to sullen resentment'.

With football still recovering, post-Hillsborough, the sight of supporters in all manner of fancy dress, celebrating their club despite the day's events, put football in a different light for a few hours.


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Yes, we're talking about the 1991 FA Cup Semi-Final with Forest at Villa Park, an occasion for which the word 'bittersweet' might have been invented. And it was a big day - our first semi for eleven years, earned with a superb quarter-final win over Everton.

In our end that day, PC Plod rubbed shoulders with Postman Pat, Frankenstein and HRH in a celebration of football fandom. It was a joyous demonstration of support that pushed the actual match reports further down the back pages.

I watched the game unfold in a mate's house in Stratford, and remember that the non-stop backing of the West Ham faithful as the goals flew in past Ludo, sweetened if only slightly the pill of defeat.

The club earned a fair bit of goodwill from our fans' display at Villa Park that day, but reality bit pretty quickly. A late season collapse cost us the division two title, and the Bond Scheme - with fans asked to pay up to £950* for the right to buy a season ticket, poisoned the air still further.

"Look at us celebrating that defeat. They (the board) must take us for mugs," ran one, probably apocryphal quote after the semi. But it summed up the general mood the following season.

For those who were there, however, the memories are more upbeat. I remember a West Ham-supporting neighbour of mine in Islington - who attended the game - saying it was one of the best days he'd ever had supporting the Irons.

The fact that this was so was down to the fans themselves. In other words, 'This is a big occasion. We might not be here again for a while, so let's give it everything.'

Similar thoughts are with me as we approach the Europa League game with Leverkusen, who at time of writing top the Bundesliga, unbeaten in 26 league games and ten points clear of Bayern Munich.

They also have three players; centre half Jonathan Tah, and midfielders Florian Wirtz and Robert Andrich in the current German squad. If ever there was an occasion where we - players and supporters - have nothing whatever to lose, then surely this is it.

The fact that we're underdogs and may have to cede possession for much of the game, could suit David Moyes' counter-attacking style. The perfect scenario has us scoring early and threatening Leverkusen on the break, Fiorentina-style - though I'm sure the manager has thought of that already.




And we all hope lessons have been learned from the 4-0 pre-season defeat to Leverkusen, though certain elements of the media might not be too disappointed at a repeat; "West Ham thrashed..." wrote a gleeful Simon Stone on the BBC website, for whom our loss last August was a convenient hook to hang an early-season, anti-Irons agenda.

The line-ups on Thursday night will be quite different though, as James Ward-Prowse and Edson Alvarez were only 'on the radar' as the pundits would have it, at the time.

In the same bracket was Jonathan Tah - subject of much online speculation linking him to West Ham since last summer - and striker Victor Boniface, who scored twice in the August friendly. These two are likely to feature in Xabi Alonso's team on 11th April.

In January, West Ham were reportedly - albeit in the Sun on Sunday - prepared to break their transfer record for Boniface. We'll soon find out if our fiscal conservatism is about to cost us.

For Leverkusen players linked with West Ham, this game may be a dress rehearsal for next August in E20. Leverkusen, like Dortmund, may have to make the most of this season before, like Dortmund, they are cherry-picked by 'Bayern', Liverpool and the like.

It's not just the players who may be lured away. With his tremendous success this season, Alonso himself has attracted the interest of former employers Liverpool, among others, who would like to see the Spaniard in their dugout come August, despite his commitment to stay at the Bay Arena next season.

And though top players and managers are notably focused individuals, the speculation may divert the Leverkusen boss in the coming months. Or then again, it may not. In the end, it's the West Ham players and management team, aided by the supporters who will make the difference.

Simple economics mean that I won't be going to Germany for the first leg and will probably watch it in my mate's flat in Bradford. This is where I saw the Conference final, so it's an omen of sorts. Don't be surprised if our league form dries up between now and 11 April, as it did before last season's heroics.

Instead, treat it as a downpayment on something better. Above all, in the spirit of '91, forget what the Board might think; let's make it special in Leverkusen, win or lose, and leave a good impression on our Westphalian hosts. Some tasteful fancy dress wouldn't go amiss, either.

*Source: pasttense.co.uk

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