It was May 2021 and West Ham United had clinched a top-six berth when privately David Moyes admitted qualification for Europe was not enough for him. He had wanted sixth place to send West Ham to the Europa League, not the Conference League.
For much of an inspired run in the second continental competition, it seemed like a route to the Champions League. Even after their bad-tempered exit to Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-finals, the Europa League beckoned again. A goal clear at half-time on the final day at Brighton, they were heading for sixth place. A second-half collapse dropped them to seventh. A year later, West Ham made their debut in the Conference League.
Their manager’s attitude has changed, perhaps out of necessity. “It’s an absolutely fantastic thing,” Moyes said on Sunday. “We finished seventh in the league last year and you talk, ‘Is Europe any good?’ My God, I don’t know how many teams in the leagues would shake your hand and say, ‘Please give us European football.’
It’s a valid point, and for years West Ham would have been one of those clubs that looked on with envy. The gap between ambition and reality has sometimes been huge. They hadn’t had a great European run in four decades until last year; Moyes’ reinvention of the club that has long been flattered to deceive should make them more regular occurrences. He is a specialist in steering a path to positions between fifth and eighth – in contrast West Ham had failed to finish in the top seven in a row until his reappointment – and a club which hosted 62,443 fans at its first home game of the season has the kind of infrastructure to suggest that their participation in Europe shouldn’t be a one-off.
Moyes is synonymous with consistency and relentlessness, while West Ham have tended to follow good seasons with bad ones. The downside to the Scot’s record is that it still doesn’t include any trophies except for a Second Division title with Preston and a Community Shield which Manchester United were only on the line because Sir Alex Ferguson had won the Premier League.
The Conference League offers the opportunity to remedy this. Certainly, West Ham are starting a play-off against Viborg, who finished seventh in the Danish Superliga last year, supposed to win, and not just on Thursday. They must be among the favorites in the competition, along with Fiorentina and Villarreal, but with the caveat that it can be won by a side starting the season in the Europa League.
West Ham start with a trio of suspensions, each of which should be cause for embarrassment. Aaron Cresswell’s red card against Frankfurt bore some similarities to his dismissal against Lyon, suggesting he had learned no lessons. Moyes was sent to the stands for throwing the ball at a ball boy. Declan Rice has a two-match ban for accusing the referee of bribery; he may want to check the definition of the word. If there’s a flattering slant to the actions of Moyes and Rice, they showed just how much winning the Europa League means to West Ham.
Now, any victory can be welcome. Their Premier League campaign began with back-to-back defeats. The expectation of a first goal has increased which, as their last four pre-season games have produced just three, indicates that the problems may go beyond simply facing Manchester City and do everything but score as a visit to Nottingham Forest included a missed penalty, a goal-line clearance, an unauthorized strike and a few brushes against the woodwork.
This should provide a chance to give Moyes’ two attacking additions a first start. Gianluca Scamacca made two appearances as a substitute and West Ham’s progress in Europe last year meant Michail Antonio was overworked and his goalscoring dried up. Maxwel Cornet made his Nottingham debut.
The former Lyon winger scored four Champions League goals against Manchester City and Moyes’ summer deals show he intends to build a squad big enough to compete on multiple fronts and with plenty of European pedigree. One target, Emerson Palmieri, was a Champions League winner with Chelsea in 2021, albeit as an unused substitute in the final, and scored in a knockout victory over Atletico Madrid; Moyes’ new signing, Thilo Kehrer, played in the 2020 final for Paris Saint-Germain.
Each might seem like a sign of ambition, or the sort of signing West Ham used to make back in the days when they bought the rejects of the biggest clubs and signed players from the bottom up. Moyes has largely succeeded in reinventing West Ham, in forging a work ethic, in finding players who share his determination. Former Hammers sides have spoken of a number of ignominious European exits. The latter secured memorable victories against Sevilla and Lyon last season. But if such fond memories are to be created, West Ham must first avoid going back to type, avoid upheaval and ensure that, for only the second time since 1981, they play in Europe after Christmas.