Pablo Fornals banishes West Ham struggles to become unlikely hero in European adventure
Having sat on the bench for most of the evening, as he has, in fact, for most of the season, West Ham’s goalscoring hero here in Alkmaar then missed most of the action after the final whistle, too, much of it blessedly so.
As the tie ended, West Ham 3-1 aggregate winners, and the home ultras launched their shameful attack on the family section of the travelling support, Pablo Fornals was, briefly at least, oblivious to it all.
“To be honest, I didn’t see a lot,” he said. “When the referee whistled for the end, I just threw myself onto the floor and started crying like a kid. I don’t know why, but I seem to cry a lot this season!”
The post-match scenes marred a famous night in West Ham’s history, the club booking passage to a first major European final since 1976 and now one game away from ending a 43-year trophy drought. Italian side Fiorentina lie in wait, having reversed a 2-1 first-leg deficit in the night’s other semi-final, before eventually beating Basel on penalties.
By the time the dust settled and West Ham’s players, fresh from having to step in to help protect their loved ones from the pathetic violence of a beaten, bitter mob, could finally enjoy their historic moment in the safe haven of the visiting dressing room, Fornals was absent again, collared by Uefa’s anti-doping officials for a random drugs test.
“From the doping area I could hear the guys shouting and they’re really happy,” the midfielder said with a smile, adding endearingly: “That made me a bit sad, because I would have liked to be in there as well.”
Sadness has been a theme of Fornals’ personal season. The Spaniard has made only 15 League starts this term, less than half as many as a year ago, and, having played regularly earlier in the Europa Conference League campaign, had not been trusted from the outset in either leg of the quarter-final, nor this semi.
There were tears at Bournemouth last month, when a superb scorpion kick brought a first League goal since August and an outpouring of emotion slightly out of place at the fourth goal in a 4-0 win. Last night’s needed no explanation, though the 27-year-old offered one anyway.
“In difficult moments, any good news is even bigger,” he said. “This moment for me and my family after this season is unbelievable. I’m having a lot of feelings inside myself and when I score or have moments like that, or when I’m with my son receiving a hug or a kiss from him, I realise how happy I am and how proud [I am] to be here right now.”
Fornals is a hugely popular member of the West Ham squad. Declan Rice said at full-time that his name would be “written in West Ham’s history forever”, while manager David Moyes claimed there was no player he would have rather seen score. But if the substitute was, with his stoppage-time winner, an unlikely hero, there felt a curious inevitability to West Ham’s progress here.
Not to the extent of Manchester City’s in their obliteration of Real Madrid 24 hours earlier, though, like the English champions, West Ham’s Premier League financial clout has them at a clear advantage over their rivals in this competition. For the fee they expect to command for Rice this summer, they could probably buy Alkmaar’s entire squad.
More for the fact that, despite being just one goal from parity for 94 minutes of this tie, the Dutch side never truly got closer than arm’s length.
There were fireworks outside the AFAS Stadion two hours before kick-off, just as there had been outside the West Ham players’ hotel at two-o’clock the previous morning, but no real explosive start, the superb Lucas Paqueta’s curler off the post closest to a first-half goal.
For a 15-minute period after the interval, the home side enjoyed their best spell, if not really threatening then at least threatening to threaten, but with the restoration of West Ham calm came the dispersal of a young side’s reserves and belief.
Five minutes of added time only afforded Fornals the chance to dismantle Alkmaar’s 35-game unbeaten home record in Europe with his wonderful solo goal.
“It’s unbelievable, I’m really happy for the club, because it was a long time without being in this situation,” Fornals added, before borrowing the refrain that has been the soundtrack to the club’s European adventure over the past two seasons.
“Thank you for the [fans] who came here, they’re massive everywhere they go. We know they’ll be in Prague as well, because that’s what they do, they’re always behind us.”
West Ham arrived back in London in the early hours, Moyes resisting his players’ dressing-room chants for “one more night” to savour the triumph on Dutch soil.
They will have to wait instead for June 7 and Prague, one more night and an opening for one more hero, unlikely or otherwise.