EPL TALK: West Ham's triumph shows why football's always bigger than the big boys

Conference League win proves that it is more fun when winning is spread around, and the dreams of small clubs don't fade and die

West Ham United's Said Benrahma celebrates scoring their first goal with fans.
West Ham United's Said Benrahma celebrates scoring their first goal with fans. (PHOTO: Reuters/Eva Korinkova)

IN THE end, football is really about moments. It’s not about games, records or even seasons, it’s about snapshots in time. They must be rare, fleeting and priceless. That’s the point.

It’s why Manchester City collected a double and the collective response was a guttural roar of “one more” from within the camp and an indifferent shrug from everyone else. It’s why West Ham United made grown men cry and why even Jamie Carragher expressed his genuine delight at the Hammers winning the European Conference League, because elite football cannot – and should not – always be about Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, or Liverpool and Manchester United, or Manchester City and the other cocooned one-percenters on an oligarch’s payroll.

It’s why the European Super League had to be suffocated at birth and why the European Conference League may prove to be an unlikely success beyond mocking pundits and hacks (including this one), as the third-tier trophy delivered a timely reminder that moments cannot be monopolised, in any sport, but particularly one still insisting on calling itself the people’s game.

More than 50,000 Hammers turned up in Prague for those moments, despite a derisory ticket allocation of around 5,000 each to the fanbases of both West Ham and Fiorentina. Fans wanted to step over the velvet rope and catch a glimpse of the game’s VIP section and sample some of that privilege and exclusivity, like standing beside a waxwork figure at Madame Tussauds and pretending to be a part of a private members’ club. So this is what it feels like, eh? This is what it feels like to be within touching distance of greatness.

And already, there’s a snigger, a condescending reflex to the casual mention of “greatness”, delivered in the same, patronising tone of those trolls who went after Gary Lineker last week. How dare Lineker suggest Leicester City's relegation was worth it in exchange for a few trophies? Because they are not a few trophies for Lineker, they are a lifetime’s worth of moments for a long-suffering Foxes fan. They are not five league titles in six years and a shrug of entitlement. They are minnows daring to behave like the mighty.

In an ideal world, the Foxes and the Hammers might routinely challenge for major domestic honours, but that world largely ended after Brian Clough’s retirement, before being decisively obliterated by sanctioned Russian oligarchs, megalomaniacal American trust fund managers and competing political interests in the Middle East. Doesn’t that sound like good, wholesome fun?

And most fans and clubs beneath the apex of the pyramid begrudgingly accept their positions, wearily acknowledging that their roles are often reduced to walk-on parts, like the FBI minion who pops up on screen to deliver a couple of lines to Tom Cruise before swiftly disappearing. They make up the numbers. They provide punching bags for box office stars. They are, in essence, the others, the ones who make up the fixture list, but rarely feature in the Super Sunday blockbusters.

West Ham captain Declan Rice and teammates celebrate with the trophy after winning the Europa Conference League.
West Ham captain Declan Rice and teammates celebrate with the trophy after winning the Europa Conference League. (PHOTO: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Winning much more fun when spread around

But on Wednesday night, in a tiny stadium in Prague, a handful of them had their moment. There was the huge Hammers fan trying to keep pace with a jogging Mark Noble in a Prague town square whilst recording a video and not spilling his beer (the fan, not Noble.) And there was Noble after the final whistle, blubbing with Declan Rice, blubbing with the trophy, blubbing with fans, just blubbing. As the retired West Ham midfielder explained to Joe Cole, he’s a local Londoner made good, watching his local club made good, winning a trophy for the first time in 43 years, in a tournament dismissed by the elite. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Three years ago, Jarred Bowen was playing for Hull City in the Championship. Last night, he scored a last-minute winner in a European final. His unlikely journey was more plausible in the past. Now he’s a throwback. Fans once dreamed of finding an undiscovered gem like Bowen or Jamie Vardy in the lower leagues and writing another underdog’s yarn. Now they dream of colossal investment from a Saudi investment fund. Who says romance is dead?

Luckily, there was plenty to go around in Prague. There was David Moyes, taking his elderly father onto the pitch and gently placing a winner’s medal around the old man’s neck. And for one beautiful moment, we had a chance to forget that the West Ham manager had been one game from the sack and remember a likeable, relatively successful manager whose career unfairly spiralled after accepting the poisoned chalice of Alex Ferguson’s empty chair at Manchester United. A decent man got a decent return on those 25 years invested in club management.

And Declan Rice emulated Bobby Moore in lifting a European trophy for West Ham. Moore trotted up the Wembley steps in 1965 to pick up the European Cup Winners Cup. He returned a year later to collect the World Cup. Rice’s career is following a similar path. He will captain England. He will not win a World Cup as a West Ham player. That's life in the EPL.

The rules have changed. Loyalty is no longer enough. Elite footballers must join elite clubs. But Rice had his moment, with the trophy, with the fans, a perfect swansong for an impeccable professional. He’ll go on to better things, West Ham may not. It doesn’t really matter. Their job was done in Prague. They delivered a first European trophy in 58 years for themselves and a message for everyone else.

They still count. Just like Bournemouth, Wolves, Brentford and Brighton and all the other smaller clubs who could use an occasional reason to believe in a purpose beyond providing target practice for competing oligarchs. Major trophies are out of their grasp for the foreseeable future, if not indefinitely, but there must still be days in the sun.

For all the sneering, the European Conference League reminded us that monopolies are dull to those on the outside. Winning is much more fun when it’s spread around a bit. And a club like West Ham got a chance to prove, just once, that dreams should not always fade and die.

Winning is much more fun when it’s spread around a bit. And a club like West Ham got a chance to prove, just once, that dreams should not always fade and die.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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