Football Features

“Astra Giurgiu, the bane of Bilic” – The last West Ham side to play in Europe

By Ben Green

Published: 17:15, 15 September 2021

“We all follow the West Ham, over land and sea” is an anthem regularly heard across the terraces in east London, but there have been scant opportunities to follow the Irons ‘over sea’ in recent memory.

The halcyon days of Ron Greenwood’s mighty Hammers — skippered by the ever-majestic Bobby Moore and inspired by Martin Peters — winning the 1965 European Cup Winners’ Cup is a timestamp firmly etched in the psyche of all West Ham fans, no matter the generation.

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Unfortunately, success in Europe has often eluded the club since that historic evening on the hallowed Wembley turf — Harry Redknapp’s Intertoto Cup-winning team aside — so make no mistake, David Moyes sealing Europa League football for a fanbase craving continental nights is absolutely huge.

However, West Ham were actually in Europe in successive seasons not too long ago. Under Slaven Bilic, the club made the Europa League qualifiers in 2015/16 and 2016/17, but failed to make the group stages on both occasions, getting knocked out by Astra Giurgiu (the bane of Bilic’s existence) on both occasions.

It’s arguably the most bizarre bogey team in football, and yet, Bilic was outfoxed twice by a club that only recently got relegated from the Romanian top-flight. So, where are the players that were dealt a hammer blow in that 2016/17 season, the last time West Ham were ‘technically’ in Europe?

West Ham’s strongest XI in 2016/17

Goalkeeper: Adrian

A West Ham cult hero if ever there was one. Adrian’s flamboyant (often bordering on the reckless) goalkeeping style ensured there were more than a few heart-in-mouth moments when he was donning the colours, but for every rush of blood from the zany Spaniard, there was an acrobatic match-saver, and West Ham fans loved it. The unpredictability of Adrian meant there was never a dull moment, and that is certainly something Liverpool fans can attest to.

Right-back: Sam Byram 

There were high hopes when the Hammers prised Sam Byram away from Leeds United in 2016. Essex born and bred, the buccaneering full-back was returning to familiar pastures after rising to prominence at Elland Road, but injuries and problems with consistency scuppered his progress in east London. West Ham’s polarising hierarchy took a punt on an ageing Alvaro Arbeloa to challenge Byram — who is back in the Premier League with Norwich City — for the right-back berth, but that was always destined to fail (as it predictably did).

Centre-back: Winston Reid

Signed during Avram Grant’s ill-fated reign, Reid was perhaps the only good thing to come out of that gut-wrenching season. The New Zealander will always have a special place in the hearts of West Ham fans after netting the final goal at Upton Park, heading home to beat Manchester United 3-2 on an emotional night. A long-term knee injury has plagued his career lately, but he recently played a key role in helping Brentford seal promotion while on loan from West Ham.

Centre-back: Angelo Ogbonna

Angelo Ogbonna is very quickly becoming a fan favourite in E20. In fact, he’s already there. Fans adore him. Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Jesse Lingard ultimately stole the headlines last term, but prior to an ankle injury sustained in mid-February, Ogbonna was arguably Moyes’ most important player, as he formed an unyielding bulwark. Unfortunately, those qualities escaped the club in the playoffs vs Astra Giurgiu, as Ogbonna twice failed to keep a clean sheet in 2016, with the Romanians running amok. First in a 1-1 draw at the Stadionul Marin Anastasovici, then that infamous 1-0 reversal in the capital.

Left-back: Aaron Cresswell

Incredibly, even after those humiliations to Astra Giurgiu, two of the club’s main defensive cogs from that season are still around. Aaron Cresswell just finished the most recent season having registered the most assists of any defender in the Premier League (eight). I would say Gareth Southgate should have given him the nod for Euro 2020, but then again, he seems almost allergic to playing left-backs at left-back, so rest up for the next European adventure, Aaron!

Central midfield: Cheikhou Kouyate

Grace and gangly are rarely happy bedfellows, but they perfectly sum up Cheikhou Kouyate in a West Ham shirt. The inexorable No.8 was a perfect complement to the languid playing style of Mark Noble, putting in the hard yards so the ‘Cockney Pirlo’ could work on setting the tempo. Kouyate was another who endeared himself to the fan base, impressing with his heart-on-sleeve mentality and willingness to run himself into the ground. Crystal Palace are now enjoying those tenacious exploits.

Central midfield: Mark Noble

This will be Mark Noble’s last season as a West Ham player. Fitting then that he will get to mark his swansong by lifting the Europa League aloft in Seville. Write off the ‘Moysiah’ at your peril. Of course, five years ago he was still doing what he’s been doing 17 years in claret and blue: barking orders, recycling possession and offering words of encouragement. Some traits transcend footballing ability, and Noble possesses those in abundance.

Left attacking midfield: Dimitri Payet

Paolo Di Canio, Carlos Tevez, Marko Arnautovic, Dimitri Payet. Name a better duo than West Ham and a temperamental talisman. Few words could do justice to the tangible impact Payet had at Upton Park. Not so much the London Stadium as he marked the club’s first season at the athletics arena by getting itchy feet, refusing to play and ultimately forcing a move back to Marseille. Even so, Payet has left an indelible mark on West Ham fans, and Crystal Palace fans, who breathed a huge sigh of relief when he upped sticks. 

Attacking midfield: Manuel Lanzini

The Manuel Lanzini of 2017 and the Manuel Lanzini of 2021 are, unfortunately, completely different players. A lot has been said of the club’s recruitment policy in recent years, but the unearthing of Lanzini from Al Jazira Club was a stroke of genius and should be praised thus.

In truth, Lanzini was on a golden path to glory, nudging his way into the Argentina team and receiving a dream call-up for the 2018 World Cup where, heartbreakingly, he ruptured his anterior knee ligament and endured a protracted spell on the sidelines.

He has not been the same since, but West Ham fans still love him. On his day, the pint-sized playmaker can conjure up a moment of magic (see his last-minute equaliser vs Spurs) and there is still hope that, at only 28, he can yet return to his previous form.

Right attacking midfield: Michail Antonio

Before transitioning to a centre-forward under Moyes, Antonio was switching between the right wing-back position and right midfield. In that sense, he is the ultimate utility man. Seriously, who goes from right-back to out-and-out No.9 in just a few years at Premier League level? With questionable celebrations, power, goals and wholesome interviews, Antonio is a West Ham favourite.

Striker: Andre Ayew

It looked a shrewd signing on paper, but Ayew never did live up to the promise after trading South Wales for the capital. He lasted only a season-and-a-half before returning to Swansea, where he was recently the club’s top scorer in consecutive Championship seasons, but for West Ham fans, he remains memorable for one reason and one reason only: netting twice in the club’s 3-2 win over Tottenham, in which they were 2-0 down at half-time, at Wembley, in the League Cup. The other scorer from that game in 2017? Ogbonna. Another gold star for the Italian.

Other regulars

James Collins

The affectionately named ‘Ginger Pele’ left his mark on the terraces, enjoying two separate spells at West Ham where his no-nonsense, muck-and-nettles approach chimed with a vociferous fanbase. ‘The West Ham Way’ has little room for a good ol’ rudimentary hoof, but sometimes it’s better to just hit Row Z rather than trying anything fancy. Must be why Craig Dawson has settled in nicely…

Pedro Obiang

Another, like Ayew and Lanzini, who will be remembered for a goal against Tottenham. If you haven’t checked it out, Obiang’s peach at Wembley in the Premier League was straight out of the top drawer. It whizzed past Hugo Lloris like an arrow. Unfortunately, those moments were few and far between for Obiang, who was a tidy metronome but largely underwhelming. He’s having a good time of it in Italy with Sassuolo now, though.

Sofiane Feghouli

A signing that would always go one of two ways. As a freebie, Feghouli’s signature looked like a masterstroke on paper, and when he did take to the turf there was something exciting about his direct approach. There was clear talent there, but like many at the club, he often flattered to deceive and rarely grabbed games by the scruff of the neck and influenced like a Payet.

Gokhan Tore and Simone Zaza

These two probably don’t deserve a paragraph each. The less said, the better.

Andy Carroll

Put it this way. Fans will always have that overhead kick vs Crystal Palace if nothing else.