A tinpot trophy? West Ham have made memories and other clubs should follow

I had a perfect view of Nigel Reo-Coker’s header. It was the last minute of extra time in the 2006 FA Cup final, the score was 3-3 and West Ham had a free-kick on the left wing. It was their last chance to win a game they had already won twice. The ball came in, Reo-Coker glanced it on and from my position behind the Liverpool goal at the Millennium Stadium I was certain it was going to loop into the far corner.

I picture it sometimes: the ball hanging in the air, the fans getting ready to celebrate West Ham’s fourth FA Cup win, Pepe Reina leaping to his left. There were fingertips in it. Reina just managed to push the ball on to the inside of the post and the dream died when Marlon Harewood, who had been hobbling on one leg for most of extra time, slashed the rebound wide.

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Liverpool won on penalties because, well, how else was it going to end? The guy next to me had burst into tears when Steven Gerrard scored in the last minute of normal time.

Most fans never see their team win anything. Since 2006, West Ham have been relegated under Avram Grant, blown one League Cup semi-final against Birmingham City, lost 9-0 on aggregate to Manchester City in another and conceded in the first minute of a Europa League semi-final against the eventual winners, Eintracht Frankfurt. It has always been someone else’s turn to celebrate.

But now the images are of Lucas Paquetá playing the pass, time standing still as Jarrod Bowen ran through and the winger’s shot rolling into the Fiorentina net in the last minute of the Europa Conference League final; of David Moyes running down the touchline like Pep Guardiola at Stamford Bridge in 2009 and deciding against copying José Mourinho’s knee slide at Old Trafford in 2004; of Declan Rice sitting on the pitch two hours after the final whistle, posing for photos with the trophy and hugging jubilant club staff.

Leaving aside the 1999 Intertoto Cup and a couple of nervy Championship playoff final victories, West Ham had not won anything since beating Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup final. Winning the Conference League matters. Anyone dismissing it as a tinpot competition is missing the point.

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It is just over two years since a group of entitled clubs tried to destroy football by creating a European Super League. The game has changed since West Ham, who were in the old Second Division, beat Arsenal at Wembley 43 years ago. Finances have made it fiendishly hard for mid-table Premier League clubs to challenge for domestic honours. Shocks are rare. Since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, five clubs outside the elite have won the FA Cup: Everton in 1995, pre-Abramovich Chelsea in 1997, Portsmouth in 2008, Wigan in 2013 and Leicester in 2021.

Even Tottenham, who have Harry Kane, a rich pedigree and a huge stadium, have not won anything since the League Cup 15 years ago. Manchester City, who face Internazionale in the Champions League final on Saturday, are probably about to ease their way to the treble. Newcastle’s rise thanks to investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is another obstacle for would-be challengers. Ultimately, there is very little reason to think a club of West Ham’s stature is about to repeat Leicester’s 5,000-1 title win of 2016 any time soon, not least because Rice is about to leave for a bigger club.

West Ham’s Declan Rice (left) and David Moyes lift the Europa Conference League trophy.
West Ham’s Declan Rice (left) and David Moyes lift the Europa Conference League trophy. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

It makes West Ham’s triumph over Fiorentina special. It was Moyes’s 1,097th game as a manager and his first major trophy. Moyes has put in the hard yards and fought back from dispiriting spells at Manchester United and Sunderland. He has silenced the critics who wrote him off as a dinosaur; he has done a wonderful job since returning to West Ham in December 2019, even though until recently it appeared the Moyes project might have run its course. There were even doubts over his future before the final.

Not once have West Ham treated European football as an inconvenience. They embraced the Europa League last season. The London Stadium, once so unloved, rocked when West Ham beat Sevilla in the last 16 and the 3-0 win at Lyon in the quarter-final will never be forgotten. Losing to Eintracht stung.

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It made West Ham even more determined to win the Conference League. Admittedly, the standard in Uefa’s third competition has been mixed. West Ham cruised past forgettable opposition during the group stage and were mostly untroubled during the knockouts. Fiorentina provided by far their toughest test. West Ham did not play particularly well. Victory summed up their season: they did just about enough by sitting deep and waiting for moments to strike on the break.

That approach is unlikely to take them forward in the league. West Ham had a disappointing domestic campaign and there have been grumbles about the quality of the football under Moyes. There were flaws on show against Fiorentina.

Yet nobody cared when Rice went up to lift the trophy. West Ham had secured qualification into the Europa League and provided an example for other English teams to follow. Brighton should not worry about the demands of the Europa League affecting their league form next season and Aston Villa, who have won nothing since the League Cup in 1996, should attack the Conference League under Unai Emery. It is a chance to make some beautiful memories.