West Ham manager David Moyes must now prove he is a man for the big occasion in the Europa Conference League
If West Ham win the Europa Conference League, it will be the least enjoyable successful season ever. So it was succinctly put by someone on social media this week of a Hammers persuasion.
The murmurs in the press box at the London Stadium just after 10pm on Thursday night, however, what that flights to Alkmaar via Amsterdam were selling fast, and the prices were sky-rocketing.
Given West Ham’s disappointing Premier League campaign, that European glory is now within sight is especially jarring, unexpected and bemusing in equal measure.
David Moyes picked arguably his strongest available side against Gent, having managed to create a little breathing space between themselves and the Premier League’s bottom three.
The Hammers fell a goal behind but hit back for a thumping 4-1 win on the night and 5-2 on aggregate. It means a continental semi-final for a second consecutive year, having reached the same stage of the Europa League last term.
There had been few memories worthy of a slick montage—until Declan Rice picked up the ball from Kamil Piatkowski just shy of the hour-mark, ran with it and didn’t look back.
“It was a fabulous goal,” Moyes said. “An individual Roy of the Rovers goal. He is some player with great ability, and that goal just summed him up tonight.
“He’s some player. That’s why we value him so highly. If anyone doubted whether he could do that, then I would say you are naïve. He has so many parts to his game. He doesn’t always show them.
“He’s got a good personality, but he can show his personality a bit more and other aspects of his game. Some people think it’s not there, but let me tell you it’s there.”
As with the Hammers captain, there has been further speculation surrounding Moyes’ future beyond the end of the current campaign this week, with Lille boss Paulo Fonseca reportedly under consideration.
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And yet, Moyes is again just 180 minutes away from a major European final.
Twelve months ago, at the midway point of their Europa League quarter-final tie against Lyon, the Hammers were tasked with beating the French side away from home. Then it was ultimately Eintracht Frankfurt who stood in their way, victors over Barcelona and eventual winners.
It could not have been a stiffer assignment, but now Moyes faces the possibility of three games that will define his second West Ham spell, and possibly his entire managerial career.
“I hope we’ll be able to deal with it slightly better,” added Moyes reflecting on last year.
“Let’s be fair, we played against a really good Frankfurt team so we shouldn’t underestimate the quality of the team we played. But we need to handle the occasion well emotionally. Hopefully, the experience will help us.”
In Europe’s third club cup competition, AZ Alkmaar now awaits in the semi-finals. It feels all so very possible when on a Thursday night.
“I’m smiling saying that [back-to-back European semi-finals],” continued Moyes. “I’m struggling to think of a time when West Ham had back-to-back semi-finals, and I’m a football man. We won the group last year and we won our group this year.
“Gent made it hard for us over the two legs. I wouldn’t say they made it comfortable for us. It took the wonder goal from Declan to make it 3-1 and we then abused the opportunity to really finish it off. It’s not often you score four in a game, so I’m thrilled.”
Moyes will certainly not get carried away with talk of a trip to Prague in early June just yet, despite a route to the final four that has been largely devoid of drama. Eleven wins and a draw.
The Scot is too long in the tooth to count his chickens in the same week Manchester United marked a decade since their last Premier League title when he was the chosen one to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.
In football, there is no divine right, but the lights of the Czech capital are shining brightly in the distance.
The bread and butter of an underwhelming league season must be negotiated with West Ham not entirely safe – four points clear of the relegation zone – but few would believe Moyes a few more big European nights ahead.
Fiorentina are on the other side of the draw and made heavy work of overcoming Lech Poznan. The Serie A club once knocked out Moyes’ Everton on penalties in a UEFA Cup last 16 tie in 2008, coincidentally after AZ Alkmaar had been overcome earlier in that particular campaign.
“I think this year, this competition has kept our positivity and kept everyone going during a difficult season. When we’ve needed to, we’ve pulled out results and we pulled out another one tonight.
“I would never be that presumptuous, but the last I looked at AZ Alkmaar were third in the Dutch league. They’re a team of young players with a lot of top talent in the ranks.
“With them third in the division, they’ve shown consistent good form throughout the year and they will have momentum.”
West Ham’s 43-year trophy wait meets Moyes’ own personal battle to add a first piece of silverware to his CV. There has been a serenity to this stealthily crafted European adventure but genuine jeopardy, more iconic moments, lie ahead.
If this does prove to be his Hammers Swansong, at the end of a marathon season, Moyes must go for the kill and prove he is finally a manager for the big occasion.