UEFA Europa League – who could we face?

A look at which clubs West Ham United could be drawn to tackle in the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round
West Ham United fans have spent Tuesday afternoon enthusiastically scouring the internet, trying to work out who their heroes could face in the early rounds of the UEFA Europa League.

A glance down the list of clubs who have joined the Hammers in the tournament’s first qualifying round dispels suggestions that it is the reserve of clubs from the continent’s smallest leagues.

Instead, the 104 clubs included in the first qualifying round draw are expected to represent 41 different nations, with West Ham being England’s sole representative at that stage of the competition.

The Hammers are one of three clubs to have qualified for the tournament through finishing top of their domestic Fair Play League – Dutch side Go Ahead Eagles and Irish outfit University College Dublin (UCD) being the other two.

Go Ahead will be the only Dutch club in the first qualifying round, which kicks-off with the first leg on Thursday 2 July, while UCD are joined by fellow countrymen FAI Cup winners St Patrick’s Athletic and League of Ireland runners-up Cork City and fourth-place Shamrock Rovers.

So, who else is in the first qualifying draw, which will be made on 22 June?

Of the clubs to have already qualified, the Hammers have faced two of them previously.

FC Lahti finished third in the Finnish Veikkausluga, and were known by their former guise of Lahden Reipas when West Ham beat them 5-2 on aggregate in the European Cup Winners’ Cup first round in 1975/76.
Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi finished third in their domestic league this season, earning them the chance to be drawn against the club they knocked out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup at the quarter-final stage in 1980/81. Then a Soviet league club, Dinamo won 4-1 courtesy of arguably the finest performance by an visiting side that the Boleyn Ground has ever witnessed.

Of the teams whose qualification has been confirmed, West Ham are expected to be amongst the seeded teams, including Moldovan Cup winners Sheriff Tiraspol, Norwegian league runners-up Rosenborg, Swedish side Elfsborg and Croatian league runners-up Hadjuk Split.

Also in the hat are 1991 European Cup finalists Red Star Belgrade of Serbia, 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup winners Aberdeen of Scotland and two-time UEFA Cup winners IFK Gothenburg of Sweden.

Due to expected seedings, West Ham are almost certain not to meet any of the above in the first qualifying round, bar FC Lahti, who are unlikely to be seeded.

That is not to say that the unseeded teams could not present a banana skin for West Ham, with Norwegian side Odd, Hungarians Ferencvaros and MTK Budapest, Latvians Skonto Riga and League of Ireland title chasers Cork City – who hosted the Hammers in a friendly a year ago – all potential opponents.

For those among the Claret and Blue Army who want to collect some air miles while following their heroes, the longest potential trip is to Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat, based in the city of Almaty a mammoth 3,482 miles from the Boleyn Ground. Compatriots Ordabasy finished fourth in the Kazakhstan Premier League and are based just a tad closer at 3,211 miles from east London.

If you fancy a bit of sun on your back, Balzan FC finished fourth in the Maltese Premier League and are unseeded, as are the yet to be crowned Gibraltan Cup winners. Unfortunately, Cypriot clubs Apollon Limassol and Omonia Nicosia are both seeded!

Closer to home, the shortest potential trip West Ham could make is likely to be to Welsh Premier League side Newtown, who qualified through a play-off and are based in the Powys town just 208 miles from the Boleyn Ground. Fellow Welsh sides Airbus UK Broughton (214 miles) and Bala Town (221 miles) will also represent Wales in the 2015/16 competition.

The two Scottish sides – Aberdeen and one other – are both likely to be seeded, but Northern Irish clubs Glentoran and Glenavon are also expected to be among the unseeded clubs in the draw, as are representatives from Albania, Azerbaijan, Iceland, Luxembourg, Montenegro and San Marino, among others.

Whoever West Ham are drawn to face, the Claret and Blue Army are sure to enthusiastically follow their team over land and, providing we do not draw any of the three Welsh sides in the hat, sea in their thousands. Roll on 22 June!