Bowen takes place in West Ham folklore as perfect late moment transforms season of struggle to stunning success story

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

The Europa Conference League is a pretty good idea, isn’t it? But only as long as the right clubs end up in it.

West Ham were the right club. Aston Villa are the right club. Fiorentina, too, were the right club, as were Roma 12 months ago. And Leicester even though they dropped into it from the Europa, but embraced it sufficiently to reach the semi-finals.

Certain other clubs who perhaps, say, looked upon it with indifference bordering on disdain when finishing only third in their group and actively hoped to avoid qualifying for it this season might have pause to wonder when watching the limbs in the West Ham end of the Fortuna Arena after Jarrod Bowen’s dramatic late winner whether they’ve really got the right idea.

The haters will hate and the sneerers will sneer, but the beauty of the Europa Conference is that it will become absolutely everything to the teams who find themselves in it. This was West Ham’s first major trophy since 1980; had Fiorentina prevailed it would have represented a first success since 2001. Roma’s victory 12 months ago was a first for 14 years.

If that sounds like it’s intended to cheapen the competition, then it’s actually the opposite. The top-tier domestic and European trophies are frequently beyond all but the super-rich now. There is absolutely room for three European trophies – there always was and always should have been, UEFA’s decision to scrap the Cup Winners’ Cup an act of vandalism that shouldn’t have been so quietly accepted – and it’s an unalloyed good that it offers opportunities to clubs like West Ham, like Fiorentina, like Villa next season.

UEFA’s primary aim with the Conference was really to give better opportunities to the best clubs from lower-ranked leagues. The effect has been slightly different, but no less welcome: it’s given better opportunities to lower-ranked clubs from the best leagues. It might not be quite the intended outcome, but it’s still one that makes the football landscape a better place.

This was also, by almost any reasonable measure, a far better final than the festival of housery served up in the Europa League by Roma and Sevilla last week. This was not a final untouched by on-field antics, most notably a cartoonishly bad and duly punished dive from Said Benrahma. We have surely also not heard the last of the deeply unpleasant incident late in the first half when Fiorentina’s captain Cristiano Biraghi was left bleeding profusely after being struck on the back of the head as a shower of missiles – mainly plastic pint pots with the occasional lighter – descended from the West Ham support.

While only the bitterest of Spurs fans could begrudge West Ham fans in general their celebrations tonight, we sincerely hope that the missile throwers were at least ejected before the denoument and thus denied that glorious celebratory moment by their earlier idiocy.

Enough about those twats, though. This was a very decent cup final. Styles make fights, and this one was always likely to work: Fiorentina the possession-based side, the slick purple machine that had seen more of the ball in Serie A this season than anyone bar champions Napoli. West Ham the dangerous counter-puncher, the threat often latent but never absent in a team that finished third from last in the Premier League possession table. Very different teams, but also very clearly the two standout teams in this year’s Conference and its two leading scorers.

The first half followed the predicted plan almost too perfectly, with the outcome being that the two sides rather cancelled each other out and the goals never came or ever really looked like doing so.

Fiorentina utterly dominated the ball and always felt like the side exuding the most control over proceedings. They were certainly serene in that opening 45 minutes. Yet nor were West Ham unduly stretched at any point and never were they overrun. The only attempt on target in that first 45 minutes belonged to the Hammers.

Still, though, it felt like something had to change for West Ham if they were to prevail, and in the second half it did. Chiefly what changed was that the ball stopped bouncing off Michail Antonio and started to stick. That brought Lucas Paqueta and Jarrod Bowen far more into the game on the now more frequent and sustained West Ham counter-attacks in what would turn out to be a foreshadowing of the night’s epic and dramatic conclusion.

It would still be a stretch to say West Ham deserved the opening goal, and especially in the manner in which it came. We’re sick to death of handball now, frankly, about what is and isn’t an offence or what is or isn’t a natural position for the hand or elbow or arm. We’re beyond the point of even knowing whether or not that should have been a penalty, but a quick glance at the wildly divergent opinions about it on instant-opinion-generator Twitter ranging from ‘stick-on penalty’ to ‘game’s gone absurdity’ show a working solution remains a long way off.

West Ham win Conference League Credit: Alamy
West Ham win Conference League Credit: Alamy

What we are sure of somewhere deep in our bones is that we’re increasingly uncomfortable with the size of the punishment for the size of the offence. In a final of few clear chances the punishment of a penalty for not being able to run back towards your own goal and defend a bouncing ball without moving your arms around a bit felt particularly outsized. West Ham won’t care, and nor should they. They could also point with justification to some curious decisions that went against them in the first half.

What West Ham didn’t do, was fully accept the gift they had been given. In the immediate aftermath of that opening goal, Fiorentina – perhaps bamboozled by the sudden loss of passive control they’d carefully constructed and the manner of that loss – lost their heads. Absurd screams for a penalty of their own drew a booking for Rolando Mandragora and suddenly West Ham looked well capable of a game-sealing second goal.

Instead, moments later, Fiorentina were level as Giacomo Bonaventura pounced decisively after Emerson failed to deal adequately with a routine long diagonal into the box.

Now it was West Ham’s turn to wobble. Further half-chances came and went, but the Hammers regained their composure and were already finishing the 90 minutes the stronger before Paqueta’s perfect pass and Bowen’s perfect finish inked their names into Hammers legend.

It was a thoroughly deserved success. Not necessarily for the performance on the night – this was, predictably, a game of wafer-thin margins that could have gone absolutely any way – but for the season.

David Moyes and West Ham deserve it for never giving the Conference anything less than absolute respect and their fullest attention. Even in the teeth of a relegation battle, the Conference remained a frequently-stated and, as the near flawless results demonstrate, relentlessly pursued objective.

It’s been a long and exhausting and very often fraught season for West Ham. Moyes has clung on to his job by his fingernails on more than one occasion, while fans spent months fretting over relegation and resigning themselves to Declan Rice’s inevitable departure.

Rice now leaves having become the first West Ham captain since Bobby Moore to lift a European trophy as that one late, late moment when Paqueta and Bowen got everything so very right changed the story of an entire season and made everything totally and utterly worth it.

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