Friday, June 9, 2023

bonding in Portugal

 Morning Briefing, Europe Edition

June 9, 2023

West Ham’s path to European glory: Winning the Europa Conference League involved David Moyes’s magic, a perfect plan for Jarrod Bowen and bonding in Portugal.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - JUNE 07: Declan Rice of West Ham United lifts the UEFA Europa Conference League trophy after the team's victory during the UEFA Europa Conference League 2022/23 final match between ACF Fiorentina and West Ham United FC at Eden Arena on June 07, 2023 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

West Ham United: Europa Conference League winners. Wow

Roshane Thomas
Jun 8, 2023


It was at the Mandarin Oriental hotel where West Ham United celebrated long into the night. When the party ends is anyone’s guess — some players were only heading for bed as other guests came down to breakfast this morning.

After beating Fiorentina 2-1 in the final of the Europa Conference League, courtesy of Jarrod Bowen’s 90th-minute winner, the squad were greeted by delighted travelling West Ham fans as they walked towards the entrance of their hotel in Prague. They have made themselves legends at the east London club by winning a first major trophy since 1980, with Declan Rice following in the footsteps of icons Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds by lifting silverware.

Even the usually reserved David Moyes lost the plot when Bowen’s winner hit the net — letting it all out in the celebrations by charging down the touchline. A move he regretted even while he was in motion.

“The minute Jarrod went through, I was edging down the touchline,” Moyes said. “If there was anybody I thought was going to score, it would be Jarrod. The minute he got through, I thought, ‘This is the moment, this is the one, Jarrod will do it’. I was probably halfway down the line but I couldn’t do a full (Jose) Mourinho because I can’t slide on my knees and the grass was a bit dry so I was worried I was going to go on my belly, so I just ran down.

“I would have to say it’s the best moment of my career. The moments you get to celebrate and have your family, with everyone here, and to win in the last two minutes of the game. And we did it in Alkmaar the other week as well to get into the semi-final. That doesn’t happen often. Sometimes it goes against you. This is a great feeling.”

Back at the hotel, Alphonse Areola, the goalkeeper-turned-DJ for the night, held a speaker aloft as Gala’s Freed From Desire blared out, and Moyes was playing a full part. The proud players made their way into the foyer, winners’ medals swinging around their necks. They started singing Bowen’s terrace chant and were joined by other supporters, members of Moyes’ backroom staff and Mark Noble, the team’s long-time captain and talisman, now their sporting director.

“I thought I was going to cry, I’m just so happy,” said Bowen. “I dreamed of scoring, but to score the winner in the last minute… to do it in front of these fans… I can’t put it into words. We haven’t had the best season (see table below), myself included, but to do what we have done tonight for these fans, it’s incredible.”

It was a night of huge significance, not least for Moyes, Bowen, and the club’s Czech players, Vladimir Coufal and Tomas Soucek.

Other than the Community Shield he won on his official debut as Manchester United manager in 2013, this was Moyes’ first trophy since Preston North End were champions of English football’s third tier in 1999-2000. The Scot embraced his 87-year-old father, David Senior, who has had such a huge impact on his playing and managerial career, on the touchline and gave him his medal to wear.

Bowen, a new dad to twins, scored with his father, Sam; brother, Harry; and best friend Lewis in attendance. Coufal and Soucek, who both used to play in this same stadium for Slavia Prague, fulfilled their prophecy by winning this final on home soil — their aim at the start of the season.

The dressing room was so loud afterwards that Moyes struggled to give his celebratory speech. But his best moment happened moments before as he paraded the trophy in front of the West Ham supporters, some of whom had wanted him sacked earlier in the season. How times change as the former Everton, Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Sunderland manager received a great reception before and after the game. Considering the mounting pressure he was under before securing West Ham’s Premier League safety, the win against Fiorentina shows David Sullivan and the board were right to bring him back for a second spell in December 2019 and to stick with him this season.

“He came in, saved us (midway through the 2017-18 campaign), he came back and saved us, he got us to Europe twice in a row and then won us that (the trophy) — he’s probably our best manager ever,” said Rice. “He got every call right tonight.”

Victory is the perfect way for Rice to bow out. The captain refused to confirm he is leaving this summer but has become one of the best midfielders in Europe and deserves a crack at the Champions League, with Arsenal and Bayern Munich among the clubs interested. This win means West Ham will play in the Europa League next season.

“There’s a lot of speculation about my future,” said Rice. “There’s interest from other clubs but, ultimately, I’ve still got two years left (on my contract) at West Ham. I love this club, I love playing for this club, there hasn’t been anything yet (in terms of a transfer), so my focus is on playing for West Ham, enjoying tonight and let’s see what happens. I’m captain of this club, I absolutely love it to pieces. I cannot speak highly enough of this place. Let’s just see what happens. Who knows? Who knows?”

But it was a shame a small section of those supporters let themselves, and the club, down.

Fiorentina captain Cristiano Biraghi required medical treatment after he was struck by a vape and plastic cups thrown from the West Ham end in the first half. Blood poured from the back of Biraghi’s head as Rice, Nayef AguerdLucas Paqueta and Coufal pleaded with fans to stop hurling things onto the pitch. The club said at full-time they will review the footage and take action.

Thankfully, order was restored and the West Ham players stood tall in the second half.

Moyes and the squad will continue the party, with an open-top bus parade in east London planned for this evening (Thursday) that starts at the site of Upton Park, the club’s long-time stadium. It will be some journey — entirely in keeping with the season.

This is how Moyes was able to mastermind a historic night in Prague…

(Photo: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Preparations for the final stepped up as soon as the league season ended on May 28 with a 2-1 defeat away to Leicester City. There was a 10-day break before facing Fiorentina in Prague, which was crucial given the club’s Premier League struggles this season, with safety from relegation only secured by beating Leeds United 3-1 in the previous game, three days after their semi-final triumph over AZ Alkmaar.

A three-day trip to Portugal following that Leicester loss has now proved money well spent.

As the squad left the King Power Stadium that Sunday, the focus immediately shifted to their warm-weather training camp in Algarve. The decision to go to Portugal was made before the Leicester match. Staff had visited and been impressed with the facilities at the Quinta do Lago sports complex and urged Moyes to take the team away.

The squad arrived on the Monday morning and stayed for two nights. It is here where the camaraderie that was a contributing factor to winning in Prague was built, the team spirit powering them on to Bowen’s late winner.

The West Ham bench empties at full-time in Prague (Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

Staff believe West Ham would have had a much better season overall had the squad been able to get away like this during it, given the number of new faces that were added last summer. Nine players arrived with more than £160million ($199m) spent on the likes of Paqueta and Aguerd, but they had little time to form a close bond with those already at the club. It was a trip Moyes had waited months to make. He had hoped to take the players away earlier but due to the condensed schedule because of the mid-season World Cup in Qatar and their long battle to avoid relegation, they were unable to do so.

The change in scenery from that trip to Portugal has been viewed as a “game-changer” for the players.

After their double sessions, which were led by fitness coaches Josh Ewens and Nick Davies, players were given downtime in the afternoons — Kurt Zouma, Aguerd and Paqueta beat Thilo Kehrer, Benrahma and Maxwel Cornet in head tennis after training.

At one point, temperatures reached 27C (80F). Kehrer, Aguerd, Paqueta, Benrahma, Zouma, Michail Antonio and Emerson decided to cool down by going to the Aquashow water park in Quarteira, a short drive from their base. The Benrahma chant was belted out by the players in a giant log flume.

Rice, Flynn Downes, Danny Ings and Aaron Cresswell played golf instead. Moyes and his backroom staff joined in, although it was the players who often came out victorious. Coufal and Soucek played padel tennis against Manuel Lanzini and Pablo Fornals, with the atmosphere being described as “like being away with happy kids on holiday”, according to one source, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

Cresswell, Rice, Ings, Bowen, Downes and Ben Johnson had dinner at the resort’s Bamboo restaurant and got a taste of home. They were entertained by three youngsters singing a rendition of West Ham club anthem I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles in front of their heroes.

“To see West Ham fans there was fantastic,” former England striker Ings, who signed in January from Aston Villa but has played only a bit-part role thanks to Antonio’s resurgent form up front, said. “The courage they had to get up and sing, I thought it was unbelievable, I definitely wouldn’t have done that.

“(It was great to) just relax, just enjoy the sunshine and enjoy each other’s company. We’ve got to be there for each other when the final comes and we’ve done that, especially since I’ve come in, we’ve stuck together when times have been difficult.”

Meticulous planning by the backroom staff has been at the heart of West Ham’s success in Europe over the past two seasons — it extends far beyond Moyes and his players.

Two members of the analysis team went to AZ Alkmaar’s second-leg victory over Anderlecht in April’s quarter-finals, where they overturned a 2-0 deficit from the first leg in Belgium, then won on penalties. Staff came away thinking the Dutch side would be tough opponents because they play an open and expansive style. Their home record was a cause for concern, too, with AZ unbeaten on their own turf for 25 matches in European competition. They had only ever lost once to a visiting English team, in 2007, to Moyes’ Everton.

Before the first leg at the London Stadium, staff identified AZ goalkeeper Mat Ryan, formerly of Brighton & Hove Albion and Arsenal, as an area to exploit due to his height. Ryan is only 6ft (184cm) tall, which isn’t huge for a goalkeeper, whereas West Ham counterpart Lukasz Fabianski is 6ft 3in and backup Areola 6ft 5in. The game plan for that first leg was to hurt AZ with crosses.

It worked a treat at a crucial time, with Moyes’ side being awarded a penalty from a Paqueta delivery into the box — Ryan fouling Bowen to set up Benrahma’s 67th-minute equaliser from the spot that turned the tie. Antonio’s winner 10 minutes later then gave Moyes’ men something to hang onto in the Netherlands the following week, where Fornals’ added-time clincher was greeted by memorable scenes.

The analysis team deserve a bonus for their work before the final, too. Moyes got a close look at Fiorentina by attending their Coppa Italia loss to Inter Milan in Rome two weeks ago. Staff had watched them play live on four occasions already, but he wanted to see them in person. The preparation was split between travelling to that game and rewatching wide-angle recordings of their matches.

The feedback to Moyes was that left wing-back and captain Biraghi was their most dangerous player. He ended the Serie A campaign with two goals and four assists in 33 appearances and set up six more goals in 12 Conference League outings. His main strength is his delivery and his tendency to target Nicolas Gonzalez at the back post. Right-winger Gonzalez is good in the air, so the game plan was to prevent Biraghi from playing balls towards him.

Moyes’ staff also believed West Ham could exploit the space Biraghi would leave when in an advanced position with Bowen’s pace, even if Fiorentina tried to cover the gap with left centre-back Nikola Milenkovic.

Like so much of this memorable run to winning the Conference League, it was a plan that worked to perfection, with a last-gasp Bowen winner that will go down in history.

(Top photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Roshane Thomas

Roshane Thomas is a staff writer who covers West Ham United for The Athletic. Previously, he worked for the Sunday Times and talkSPORT. Follow Roshane on Twitter @RoshaneSport

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Roshane Thomas

Roshane Thomas

· Yesterday


What a night ⚒️❤️


Jozef B.

· Yesterday

I am not a West Ham, I am a Leicester fan but I am so happy for the Hammers and Moyes. Moyes has always struck me as a really decent and thoughtful manager and West Ham fans deserve a night like last night after all they have been through. Enjoy it!


Mark H.

· Yesterday

Solid work getting this out before 8am the morning after the night before