From the Terraces

Author and lifelong Hammer Steve Blowers revels in the prospect of West Ham United returning to continental competition next season
*Steve Blowers is author of Nearly Reached the Sky - West Ham United: 1989-2005 and has attended more than 1,000 Hammers matches at home and abroad.
For sure, those tongue-in-cheek, mid-season chants of “Barcelona we're coming for you” were always a bit on the ambitious side.

But when ripples of “We're all going on a European tour” began to sound around the Boleyn Ground as Big Sam's men drew down the curtain on their final home match of the campaign against Everton on Saturday, the Hammers fans could have been easily forgiven for rushing home down Green Street to dust off their passports.

Fair Play to them.

After all, European football is not part of the staple Claret and Blue diet, is it?

And nine years on from our last UEFA Cup foray in the Vespa-fumed, Sicilian city of Palermo, who cares whether it is a back-door entry into the first qualifying round of the much-maligned Europa League?

True, half-a-century on from West Ham United's valiant victory over TSV Munich 1860 in the European Cup Winners' Cup, an early July qualifier in some far flung outpost does not quite have the same attraction as a Wembley final.

But looking back through the decades, there has always been something special about the Hammers, foreign foe and floodlights.

Unlike Ken Dyer, the father of the East End press pack, I was not fortunate enough to witness at first hand West Ham's wonderful Wembley win in 1965 but as a spotty, teenaged Hammer, the 1975/76 European Cup Winners' Cup campaign proved to be a barnstorming baptism of foreign fire.

Indeed, in my mum's airing cupboard just an Adrian drop kick from the Hammers’ Chadwell Heath training HQ, fully four decades later, my parka coat is still drying out following the tremendous Trevor
Brooking-inspired semi-final win over Eintracht Frankfurt in April 1976.

Nearly 1,000 visits on – and alongside many half-drowned observers who just about managed to keep their heads above water in an unprecedented Upton Park monsoon – that muddy, marvellous 3-1 win over the Germans must go down as the greatest game ever seen on the Boleyn Ground's green, green grass of home.
In those days, only finals were broadcast live on television, so while we could witness the straight  two-legged knock-out of Reipas Lahden (Finland), Ararat Erevan (Armenia), Den Haag (Holland) and the Frankfurters at Upton Park, the away ties meant a frantic search through the tuning dial for a crackly Medium Wave commentary from the likes of BBC Radio 2's Bryon Butler, Maurice Edelstone or Peter Jones.

After that Eintracht epic, a final defeat to Belgian side Anderlecht in their own backyard of Brussels' Heysel Stadium was a bitter blow, but at least West Ham United had announced their return to the European stage just over a decade on from their greatest-ever night.

We looked like becoming regular visitors to the European table, when we returned, once more, to the Cup Winners’ Cup for the 1980/81 campaign.

Sadly, with the first round, first leg marred by crowd trouble in Madrid, it was back to the trusty transistor radio for the return leg, too, given UEFA decreed that it must be played out in front of just 262 ‘observers’ holding the hottest ticket in town.

In an eerie, ghost-like Boleyn Ground, John Lyall's team comfortably saw off the Spanish side, Castilla Club de Futbol in the behind closed doors return and, thankfully, it was business as usual with victory over Politechnica Timisoara (Romania) in the next round.

Nothing, however, could prepare the East End for the arrival of Dinamo Tbilisi in the quarter-finals. The Georgians had already put out a red alert by eliminating Liverpool from the previous season's European Cup and a partisan Claret and Blue crowd were, for once, silenced by the silky skills of Aleksandr Chivadze, David Kipiani, Ramaz Shengalia & Co, who were generously applauded from the field after out-footballing Lyall's shell-shocked side in a 4-1 win.

Incredibly, the Hammers salvaged some pride in the return leg, courtesy of Stuart Pearson's late winner in front of 80,000 fans in Tbilisi's Lenin Stadium, just four days after taking Liverpool to extra-time in the League Cup final at Wembley but – aside from the folly of the ill-conceived Anglo-Italian Cup that was more fight fest than footballing fiesta – West Ham United Football Club had to wait a full 18 years for a return to proper European competition.
Just as the next edition of the Europa League will demand a July start, participation in the Intertoto Cup called for a shortened close season of just 62 days but it did give the Hammers the opportunity to kick off the 1999/00 season with a competitive fixture.

On 17 July, Harry Redknapp's side faced FC Jokerit in front of just 11,098 spectators at Upton Park, where Paul Kitson's strike was enough to take a slender lead out to Helsinki.

The Olympic Stadium was sparsely populated, too, and while the rest of football was in hibernation, the travelling fans enjoyed a short summer sojourn to the Finnish capital and, in the land of the midnight sun, Frank Lampard's leveller was enough to send West Ham into the next round.

For Harry, it was also an opportunity to give some of his more promising youngsters a chance to travel with the squad, while new-boy Paulo Wanchope met up with his new team-mates and Liverpool's former England defender, Rob Jones was given a run-out, too.

Just four days later, the ring-rusty Hammers met Heerenveen at Upton Park in front of a mere 7,485, who saw Lampard strike again and our tour continued with a return trip to Holland, where the local fans pedalled to the ground in the Dutch dusk, before chaining their bicycles to the stadium railings and watching Wanchope end their own Euro dreams.

The Claret and Blue Army in full voice at the Stade Saint Symphorien in Metz

While the rest of the Premier League started to stir from their pre-season slumber, West Ham were by now in full flow and as well as winning on the European front, they also admirably accounted for Tottenham Hotspur in the opening game of the domestic season, too.

With ticket prices now sensibly slashed, the fans were starting to love it and having seen Heerenveen clogged out of the tournament, 25,372 arrived at Upton Park to watch Harry's Hammers take on FC Metz in a two-legged final.

Louis Saha – remember him? – gave the Frenchmen a slender first-leg lead to take back across the English Channel but this was to be West Ham's D-Day and 3,000 Englishmen descended on the Stade Saint Symphorien to cheer goals from Lampard, Trevor Sinclair and Wanchope as the Hammers overturned that deficit in a Cockney cauldron of joy.

Bizarrely, it may only have been one of three Intertoto Cups up for grabs that night – Juventus and Montpellier won the other two – and the Twin Towers were nowhere in sight but when Steve Lomas lifted the trophy, those travelling supporters simply could not care less...West Ham United had progressed to the UEFA Cup.

Still the unbeaten Hammers were on the front foot on the home front, too, going fourth in the Premier League.

And still the European bandwagon continued to roll with a 6-1 first round aggregate victory over Croatia's NK Osijek, whose bullet-riddled Gradski Vrt Stadium - just 10 minutes’ drive from the Serbian border – still carried the scars of the Balkan war, just a few years earlier.
A whistle-stop summer tour had seen the Hammers in competitive action in Finland, Holland, France and Croatia before 1986 European Cup winners Steaua Bucharest took the wheels off the West Ham bandwagon with a 2-0 win in Romania's colourless capital where, bizarrely, the late Larry Hagman – JR from Dallas – was presented to the crowd at half-time.

The exit lights were flashing and a disappointing goalless draw back at the Boleyn Ground meant that the passports were locked away until next time.

It had sure been a surreal summer – different to any other in the club's history – but those of us who had been lucky enough to join the tour are left with fond recollections of matches played on foreign fields, never trodden before or since.

And despite a marathon 302-day, 53-game season, West Ham United still secured a top-ten finish in the Premier League, too.

Now as we contemplate the likelihood of an even earlier start, many observers quite rightly point to the precarious demands of putting the squad through a punishing league and cup campaign ahead of next summer's arrival at the new Stadium.

But with many clubs now circumventing the globe on long-haul flights to play lucrative, pre and post-season friendlies, the Europa League would, at least, provide the Hammers with an opportunity to play increasingly competitive matches, closer to home.

And bolstered by a handful of inevitable close-season captures, those early knockout stages would provide the perfect chance for any early signings to bed down into the team in good time for the Premier League kick-off on 8 August.

Just as the top-rated Development Squad youngsters usually get their chance to shine in pre-season friendlies, then they can gain equally valuable experience playing on foreign soil with the seniors – just look at a certain Harry Kane, whose seven strikes in this year's tournament propelled him from bit-part player to coveted England striker.

Any schedule of Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons would certainly not be helpful – and the thought of the eliminated Champions League big-boys entering the fray further down the line is equally daunting – but here in the 21st-century, the sports scientists can help managers and coaches rotate their squads and structure travel plans to ensure that players do not fall foul of fatigue.

First and foremost, the Premier League will always be the Hammers priority but looking back at all those magic memories of Europe, let's buy a ticket to ride and see how far the journey takes us...