Astra Giurgiu are found in the Romanian second division now. Champions as recently as 2016, they were relegated last season. Their rise and fall might feel an irrelevant curiosity but for one element: an otherwise obscure club eliminated West Ham from the Europa League in both 2015 and 2016.
As the Hammers return to continental competition, it is with recent memories of ignominy. Their presence in the group stages, product of a top-six finish in the Premier League, in itself ensures they will play in Europe for the first time in a season after November since the 1980-81 Cup Winners’ Cup. Their last two forays have brought play-off and qualifying exits to the Romanian underdogs.
Monday marked the fifth anniversary of an infamous tweet by West Ham co-chairman David Gold. “There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t be playing in the Champions League in the next five years,” he wrote. It seemed an example of the gulf between rhetoric and reality: West Ham rarely reached Europe and when they did, they beat an embarrassingly early exit.
David Moyes has done much to alter the culture of the club, rebranding expensive underachievers as industrious achievers. Last season brought their highest finish for 22 years and only their second in the upper half of the Premier League in 12. West Ham only finished two points behind fourth and they have begun the current campaign as one of the division’s five unbeaten teams.
West Ham go to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday looking to offer further proof of their stature. It offers a comparison with local rivals: Tottenham lost 3-0 to the serial Croatian champions last season, a few days after manager Zoran Mamic was convicted of fraud. He is now a fugitive in Bosnia and Dinamo are coached by his former assistant Damir Krznar. If it has made West Ham look a normal club in comparison, Dinamo still possess Mislav Orsic, the scorer of the hat-trick against Tottenham.
For Moyes, this seems another stepping stone in his renaissance. His last European tie was Manchester United’s 2014 Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich. If his record in Europe with Everton was undistinguished, he was at least a regular qualifier. If much of Moyes’ work in London is reminiscent of the job he did on Merseyside, from an excellent record in the transfer market to forging a purposeful, resilient team, the realistic objective ought to be to ensure top-eight finishes are an annual affair.
They have been rarities for West Ham. If he plays, this will be Declan Rice’s European debut.
In a sense, he has been an incongruous presence in the England team, playing in the final of Euro 2020 before any continental club game. That fuelled the sense he should decamp to a Champions League club.
As Moyes faces a reunion with United on Sunday, he has decisions to make. This is arguably the hardest game in a pool that also contains Genk and Rapid Vienna. Michail Antonio, his only specialist striker, may play as he is suspended on Sunday. The new signing Nikola Vlasic could get a first start though, as a former Hajduk Split player, the Dinamo fans may be hostile towards him. Perhaps the other summer signings, Kurt Zouma, Alex Kral and Alphonse Areola, will be granted debuts.
And maybe West Ham will bring back memories of a distant past. They are a club with a European pedigree. When they won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965, they were the second English club to taste glory in continental competition, after Tottenham. Their first four European adventures also brought appearances in the final, semi-final and quarter-final. Their subsequent record is wretched but Moyes has changed much about West Ham.