The story of West Ham United’s 2020/21 campaign, which ended in qualification for next season’s UEFA Europa League...
West Ham United’s road to Europe arguably began on the evening of 1 July 2020.
That night, the Hammers hosted Chelsea in an important Premier League fixture. Kicking-off 17th in the table and outside the relegation zone only on goal difference, having lost their opening two matches since the 2019/20 season restart, West Ham desperately need a positive result, not only to boost their position, but to instil confidence for the run-in.
On the night, the Irons withstood blow after blow, seeing Tomáš Souček’s first-half strike ruled out by VAR, going behind to Willian’s penalty, going in front and then being pegged back by the Brazilian’s equaliser, but somehow dug deep enough to snatch a vital victory through Andriy Yarmolenko’s superb goal a minute from full-time.
The win took David Moyes’ side three points clear of the bottom three. Further victories over Norwich City and Watford and a hard-earned point at Manchester United ensured West Ham’s Premier League status with a game to spare – and also set the foundation for a memorable 2020/21 campaign.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic and the absence of the vociferous and loyal support of the Claret and Blue Army, Moyes’ squad and staff have consistently displayed resilience and belief, traits that have carried them to a top-six finish and into Europe for the ninth time in the Club’s history – and just the third occasion achieved by the Hammers’ final league position.
As West Ham prepare to travel over land and sea in the UEFA Europa League, we tell the story of how the Hammers did it…
West Ham United’s success in 2020/21 was based on contributions from every member of Moyes’ squad, but those made by the Club’s newest signings cannot be overstated.
The first piece of business the manager did was arguably his most important, turning Tomáš Souček’s loan move from Slavia Prague into a permanent transfer on 24 July 2020, just before the end of last season.
It took the Scot slightly longer to acquire his other targets but his patience paid off, as October saw the arrivals of right-back Vladimír Coufal, like Souček signed from Slavia Prague, experienced centre-back Craig Dawson on loan from Watford; and exciting Algerian winger Saïd Benrahma from Championship Play-Off final runners-up Brentford.
All four would play important roles over the course of the campaign, with Benrahma making his loan move permanent in January and Dawson following suit at the season’s end.
An uncertain start
While there was plenty of optimism in the camp ahead of the new season, despite a 5-3 Betway Cup defeat by recently relegated AFC Bournemouth at London Stadium in pre-season, the 2020/21 Premier League campaign kicked-off with successive narrow defeats at home to Newcastle United and away at Arsenal.
Manager David Moyes – along with defender Issa Diop and midfielder Josh Cullen – then tested positive for coronavirus ahead of an Carabao Cup third-round victory over League One club Hull City, meaning each would have to isolate away from the squad for 14 days. Circumstances, it seemed, were conspiring against the Hammers almost before the season had properly got started.
However, Moyes’ backroom staff and players pulled together in adversity, securing a thumping 4-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at London Stadium. When they followed that up with a 3-0 win at Leicester City in a game that saw Coufal debut, confidence again began to grow.
Another relatively recent signing, Jarrod Bowen, who had signed from Hull in January 2020, scored in both games, further illustrating the pay-off of Moyes’ desire to build a young and hungry squad.
A sparkling comeback
In between the wins over Leicester and Wolves, West Ham were knocked out of the Carabao Cup at Everton at the fourth-round stage.
And when Tottenham Hotspur raced into a three-goal lead inside 16 minutes in north London, West Ham supporters could have been forgiven for thinking that those two emphatic Premier League successes were going to be the exception rather than the norm.
But those who did would have quickly reassessed their thoughts following a stunning, historic late comeback that saw Moyes’ men score three goals in the final eight minutes, plus added time, to snatch an unlikely draw with their London rivals.
When this was followed by a hard-fought 1-1 home draw with Manchester City, highlighted by Michail Antonio’s acrobatic overhead kick goal, and an unfortunate late 2-1 defeat at champions Liverpool, the signs were there that West Ham could indeed enjoy something other than a relegation battle this term.
Riding our luck to a perfect month
If October had provided West Ham supporters with reasons to be optimistic, November provided them with reasons to get carried away.
Playing with recognisable desire and resilience, the Irons may not have produced their best by way of performances in November, but they battled their way to three straight Premier League victories to climb up to fifth in the table.
The first came at London Stadium against struggling Fulham, managed by three-time Hammer of the Year Scott Parker. The Whites pushed their hosts all the way, but Souček popped up in the first minute of added time to score, before Fulham’s Ademola Lookman needlessly chipped his late, late penalty straight down the middle, enabling Łukasz Fabiański to make a simple save.
The second win also relied on good fortune, as Oli McBurnie’s shot cannoned back off the underside of the crossbar at Bramall Lane, denying Sheffield United an equaliser after Sebastien Haller had smashed West Ham into the lead eleven minutes after half-time.
And the same was true of the third, as Ollie Watkins blazed his own late penalty over the crossbar to condemn his Aston Villa side to a 2-1 defeat in east London.
If November had allowed West Ham supporters reason to get carried away, December brought them back down to earth.
West Ham slipped back down to tenth place, having won just one of their six of their top-flight matches played in the final month of 2020 - albeit an impressive come-from-behind 2-1 victory at Leeds United secured by Angelo Ogbonna’s powerful header.
Before that win at Elland Road, the Hammers had welcomed 2,000 fans back to London Stadium for the first time in 279 days for the visit of Manchester United. Everything went to plan off the pitch but sadly on it, the Irons relinquished a half-time lead to lose 3-1.
Four of the final six games of the year ended in draws – 1-1 at home to Crystal Palace, 2-2 at home to Brighton & Hove Albion and 0-0 at Southampton – and it became clear Moyes’ men needed to up their levels if they were to mount a sustained European challenge in 2021.
Happy New Year
If December had proved frustrating, January was anything but as West Ham won six straight matches to kick-off the New Year – four in the Premier League and two in the Emirates FA Cup – for the first time in the Club’s 125-year history.
The first came at Goodison Park, where Souček scored another late winner against Everton, and the second at Edgeley Park, where the Hammers overcame torrential rain, a mid-match fireworks display and determined National League side Stockport County to reach the FA Cup fourth round through Dawson’s late header.
Antonio completed a hat-trick of 1-0 wins with an early goal against Burnley before finding the net again in a 2-1 home victory over West Bromwich Albion. And it was five in a row when Pablo Fornals, Andriy Yarmolenko and young forward Oladapo Afolayan all scored in a 4-0 FA Cup fourth-round win over League One outfit Doncaster Rovers in a game which brought the total number of Academy of Football debuts for the season to seven.
Souček then struck twice and Dawson headed home again to complete a rain-soaked win at Crystal Palace – a result that again lifted West Ham into the Premier League’s top five.
Three days later, Moyes did another shrewd piece of business, signing England forward Jesse Lingard on loan from Manchester United for the remainder of the season.
A fine February
As January had done, February also started well for the east Londoners, with new boy Lingard instantly finding himself at home in a Claret and Blue shirt.
The attacker scored twice in a thrilling 3-1 win at Aston Villa and netted a superb left-footed strike to secure a 2-1 home victory over local rivals Tottenham Hotspur. In between, Declan Rice, Issa Diop and Ryan Fredericks had all scored their first goals of the season in a 3-0 win over lowly Sheffield United.
February also featured a narrow extra-time FA Cup fifth round exit at Manchester United and ended with a 2-1 defeat at Manchester City but, by then, West Ham had risen to fourth in the table and the chat around possible European qualification was growing ever louder, even if manager Moyes admitted to feeling ‘uneasy’ talking about the topic.
After a busy start to 2021 that saw West Ham play 13 times in the opening two months of the year, the Irons contested just three fixtures in March due to an international break.
Man of the moment Lingard, who would go on to be nominated for three consecutive Premier League Player of the Month awards in February, March and April, scored both goals in a 2-0 home win over Leeds United, but a second visit to Old Trafford in the space of five weeks ended in a 1-0 defeat.
The Irons looked to have returned to winning ways in style when Lingard, Bowen and Souček put them into a three-goal lead against Arsenal at London Stadium, only for the Gunners to stage their own dramatic fightback to snatch a point.
Goals galore in April
Having gone 3-0 up against Arsenal in their final match of March, West Ham then proceeded to repeat the trick in their first two games of April.
However, while they relinquished their advantage to the Gunners, Moyes’ men held on to win 3-2 at Wolverhampton Wanderers and again by the same scoreline - and in similar circumstances - at home to Leicester City.
Lingard’s breath-taking start to his West Ham career continued with goals in both matches, earning him the Premier League Player and Goal of the Month awards in the process, while a resurgent Bowen was also on target as the Irons tamed the Wolves and the Foxes.
A goal-filled month continued with a 3-2 defeat at Newcastle United, where the Hammers lost Dawson to a first-half red card and went two goals behind, then battled back to level, only to concede a late goal and suffer a disappointing defeat.
Another sending-off, this time a controversial decision which went against Fabián Balbuena that was later rescinded, did not help the Hammers’ cause as April ended with a 1-0 home defeat by Chelsea.
May the force be with us
West Ham shrugged off the disappointment of suffering back-to-back Premier League defeats for just the second time in the season by securing a gutsy victory at Burnley in their first match of May.
Chris Wood’s penalty set the Hammers back, but two fine goals from Antonio turned the game around and kept West Ham’s European challenge on track.
A frustrating home defeat by Everton tested Moyes’ men yet again, but yet again they responded, overcoming a succession of early setbacks, including a missed penalty from Declan Rice and a Matheus Pereira goal direct from a corner, and 5,500 vociferous home supporters, to win 3-1 at West Bromwich Albion in their penultimate game of the season.
Three points took West Ham onto 62, matching their all-time Premier League record, and also saw Moyes' men win a record ninth away Premier League match.
That result, combined with Tottenham Hotspur’s home defeat by Aston Villa, meant the Hammers climbed back into sixth place and needed just a point from their final match of the season against Southampton at London Stadium to secure a place in the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League group stage.
And that place was duly secured with a 3-0 final-day victory in front of 10,000 jubilant Hammers supporters, many of whom will now be digging out their passports and planning for a European tour!