From the Terraces

Graeme Howlett is relishing the prospect of following West Ham United to a far-flung corner of the continent in next season's UEFA Europa League
Graeme Howlett is a lifelong West Ham United fan and runs the popular supporters' website

So after months of speculation, it's finally in the bag. We may have not followed the conventional path to qualification, but West Ham are in the Europa League for the first time in the club's illustrious history nonetheless.

Or almost in the Europa League, I should say. That's because prior to the first round proper commencing in mid-September, we'll have to navigate our way through three tricky preliminary rounds and a play-off round – that's eight matches before the Group phase even starts!

Still, those preliminary rounds – should we progress, as will be expected – are likely to provide slightly more interesting fixtures than the standard pre-season fayre which usually encapsulates trips to non-league venues in Essex and other surrounding counties.

Looking closer, there's a good number of teams involved in the first qualifying round that a great many of you (myself included) will almost certainly be entirely unfamiliar with.

Of the 104 teams in the draw, West Ham could be paired with the likes of FK Shkëndija (from Tetovo, Macedonia), FK Mladost Podgorica (whose home is a 2,000 capacity stadium in Montenegro's capital) or even FC Ordabasy, who finished fourth in the Kazakhstan Premier League this term.

Fortunately, if you don't particularly fancy a trip behind the former Iron Curtain, there are one or two clubs somewhat closer to home such as the gloriously-named Airbus UK Broughton of Wales – a few miles south of Liverpool as the crow flies – or Ireland's Cork City (who as all keen Hammers stattos will know was the only other club Trevor Brooking represented during his professional career).

We'll know for sure who we're due to face on 22 June, when the draw for the first and second qualifying rounds take place. That means it's going to be a busy few weeks for the club, who are also hunting for a new manager and new playing staff to supplement the existing squad.

Whilst there are justified concerns over the long-term effects of a prolonged and sustained Europa League campaign, it was an offer the club simply couldn't afford to turn down in what will be West Ham United's final season at the Boleyn Ground.
Looking back over the years, some of our greatest nights under the Upton Park floodlights have come in European competition – although our most recent sojourn into European competition ended miserably and at the first attempt.

With Liverpool having qualified for Europe via the Champions League, being runners-up in the 2006 FA Cup final was enough to earn West Ham a spot in the now-defunct UEFA Cup.

Sadly, the Hammers got a stinker of a draw against a solid Palermo side who were flying high in Serie A at the time and even the inclusion of Argentine internationals Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez failed to prevent a thumping 4-0 aggregate defeat for Alan Pardew's side.

Rather fonder memories of the competition lie with the 1999/00 campaign however, when Harry Redknapp's team qualified for the UEFA Cup proper courtesy of winning the Intertoto Cup (the equivalent of the Europa League qualifying round but with the added incentive of an egg-sized trophy at the end of it).

West Ham saw off Helsinki's FC Jokerit (who were in business for just four years between 1999-2003) 2-1 on aggregate, Dutch side Heerenveen (2-0 courtesy of two 1-0 wins) and then, most notably, Metz in the two-legged Intertoto final.

By the end of the first meeting at the Boleyn, West Ham's chances of progressing to the first round of the UEFA Cup appeared slim, at best, having succumbed to a disappointing 1-0 defeat courtesy of a young striker called Louis Saha – who ended up playing at Fulham, Everton and Manchester United.
But Hammers fans were in buoyant mood ahead of the second leg in France, despite the slim chances of success, and thousands crossed the channel to watch West Ham secure an historic 3-1 victory through goals from Trevor Sinclair, Frank Lampard Jnr and Paulo Wanchope.

Paired with little-known Croatian side FC Osijek in the first round proper, the Hammers went into the first leg still unbeaten in the league. That form helped the Irons secure a 3-0 win at the Boleyn to take to Croatia, where the match was all but over by half-time thanks to Paul Kitson's 27th-minute effort.

Stanko Bubalo levelled the tie on 70 minutes, beating Shaka Hislop from close range, but late strikes from Neil Ruddock and Marc-Vivien Foe were enough to secure a 3-1 win on the night and an impressive 6-1 aggregate result.

Sadly West Ham's run was to end in the very next round at the hands of Romanians Steaua Bucharest. A disappointing 2-0 defeat away from home in the first leg left Redknapp's team with a mountain to climb in the return fixture. Although the Hammers battered Steaua from start to finish, the game ended goalless and West Ham were dumped out of the competition, despite having survived four rounds previously.

That was the first time West Ham had qualified for European competition in some 18 years. On the previous occasion, in 1980/81, a crack Soviet side called Dynamo Tbilisi did for United with what is generally viewed as the most complete performance by an away team at the Boleyn ever. The Russians triumphed 4-1 on the night and were clapped off by the home fans; in typical West Ham fashion, we won the return tie 1-0 through Stuart Pearson’s 88th-minute strike.

Prior to that, few who were there will forget the 1976 Cup Winners’ Cup ties against Den Haag and Eintracht Frankfurt, which a poll recently adjudged to be the greatest ever game at the Boleyn Ground (a match in which John Lyall’s team overturned a 2-1 first leg deficit to win 4-3 on aggregate and earn a place in the Final).

And 50 years ago this month, West Ham triumphed in their first ever European adventure when beating TSV Munich 2-0 at Wembley to lift the Cup Winners' Cup – a triumph they narrowly failed to emulate the following season (1965/66) when losing to Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Ham United