As West Ham fans gathered in Amsterdam’s central square this afternoon, a couple of hundred yards away across the cobbles a children’s street entertainer blew bubbles - pretty ones - into the crisp air. This was the stage of European competition where, 12 months ago, their final dreams had come to not so much fade but vanish, to die. But not this time. Not this year.
For the first time since 1976, this proud east London club are headed for a major European showpiece, a Prague final against Fiorentina and 90 minutes now away from a first trophy in 43 years.
The thousand or so fans that made the easy journey 40 minutes north of the Dutch capital to Alkmaar on the country’s famously efficient railway would not have done so expecting a similarly straightforward night, even with a 2-1 lead to defend from last week’s home leg in London.
True to form, there was no easy moment, even the delirious respite delivered by Pablo Fornals’ 94th-minute clincher short-lived, as a group of AZ Alkmaar supporters launched a despicable attack on the section of travelling support where West Ham players’ families were sat.
Unsurprisingly, several members of David Moyes’s squad weighed in to attempt to protect their loved ones from the pathetic actions of a sizeable minority, who had breached a barrier to race around the pitch and disgrace themselves and their club, for whom the repercussions will surely be severe.
Until its despicable end, and before that Fornals’ late strike, this was a night on which the suspense and drama lay not in the action, but in the lack of it, in the unchanging complexion of the tie and the shrinking margin for error.
It is usually when such affairs are all-square that neither side quite knows whether to stick or twist, but the first-leg scoreline created a similar flux from the outset here. West Ham seemed inhibited by their narrow advantage and the knowledge that with each minute it survived they crept closer to history, while Alkmaar played some tidy stuff but took few risks, knowing a sucker-punch on the break might be a killer blow.
Lucas Paqueta, West Ham’s standout player, almost delivered it midway through the first period, Michail Antonio too strong for his man, the Brazilian too agile for his, but curling too precisely for the far corner and finding the upright instead.
Alphonse Areola’s goal at the other end was largely untroubled, West Ham’s seriousness about their defensive work summed up by the rare sight of the hardly diligent Said Benrahma tucking in and tracking his man in what almost became a back five. In midfield, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek were each dribbled past only once, and on each occasion stretched out a giant recovering leg to poke the ball away just as the back-four threatened to be exposed. As at the London Stadium, the Premier League side’s physical advantage was telling, West Ham too big, too quick, too strong, too massive.
The second half began with a different feel, though, as if Pascal Jansen had finally managed to persuade his inexperienced side that the urgency of their predicament warranted replacing their youthful naivety with the fearlessness of youth.
Milos Kerkez, back at left-back after suspension, and Yukinari Sugawara on the other flank flashed across the face of goal. Top-scorer Vangelis Pavlidis broke away over the top, but the excellent Nayef Aguerd did just enough. Sven Mijnans forced Areola into his first save, then centre-back Pantelis Hatzidiakos his second.
Time was against the Dutch side, but also weighed heavily on the Hammers as the seconds ticked by, Tomas Soucek and Thilo Kehrer both booked for their dawdling attempts to eat up a few more.
There were moments of near-agony at both ends, Kehrer so close to toeing past his own ‘keeper, Aguerd not reacting quite quickly enough to guide Soucek’s slice in, substitute Danny Ings’ ball inches from sneaking through goalkeeper Mat Ryan for Jarrod Bowen to tap in.
At one point, a straight delivery was clipped into the West Ham box and four players ended up stricken on the floor in the scramble for it, two on each side, Areola, crucially, in possession after a flailing grab at the second or third attempt.
Alkmaar, in truth, did not look like they believed, their best hope as five minutes of added time went up on the board that West Ham’s own desperation might yet prove their downfall.
But the Hammers were brave, Paqueta demanding the ball and twice dragging his side high into the Alkmaar half, clear of danger. From there, Fornals pounced, nudging past one and steering home.
It ought to have been a moment of unbridled joy for West Ham and it was, albeit one that did not last, tainted through no fault of their own. Fortunately, Prague still offers a chance for a perfect end.