Frank Lampard and Neil Ruddock pose with PLAYBOY BUNNIES in incredible throwback pics from 1999-2000 Uefa Cup adventure
EUROPEAN trips with West Ham are not what they used to be.
The Hammers kick-off their Europa Conference League group stage on Thursday against Romania’s FCSB — formerly Steaua Bucharest — at the London Stadium.
David Moyes’ men are hoping for another stunning journey across the continent after reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League last season.
Yet nothing will ever match the antics Harry Redknapp’s West Ham got up to in the 1999-2000 campaign — their first in Europe for almost 20 years.
It began on July 17 against Finland’s Jokerit in the Intertoto Cup — a competition the Hammers would go on to win — and ended on November 4, losing over two legs to Bucharest in the second round of the Uefa Cup.
The Uefa Cup run gave birth to stories that are still spoken of in hushed tones to this day, from Playboy bunnies in Romania to firing Uzi’s from the boot of a car in Croatia.
But it was in the warm-up for the first leg away at Steaua Bucharest where former West Ham midfielder Steve Lomas had his most surreal moment.
Lomas, 48, said: “It was a crappy old night and this delegation of people came walking out. The whole crowd to a man stood up and cheered.
“I was with Johnny Moncur and Paul Kitson and I was like, ‘Who the f*** is that? Must be the mayor of Bucharest or the president or something’.
“There was this big puff of smoke around them and then I saw this big Stetson hat and I suddenly went, ‘That’s f***ing JR Ewing from Dallas!’
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“All the boys go, ‘F*** off, that ain’t Larry Hagman!’. I said, ‘I’m telling you, that’s him’.
“I knew all the characters from that show but I didn’t like to admit that too much.
“So, we ran up and sure enough it was Larry Hagman from Dallas. The Romanians were about ten years behind so the TV show was in its prime over there.
“Larry Hagman was their superstar and he was here to watch our game. It was bizarre.”
If that was not enough, upon arrival at the hotel in Romania, it quickly became apparent there was a Playboy Bunny convention in town.
Lomas laughed and added: “You should have seen Harry’s face. The lads were begging to stay. I am sure we drove him mad.”
Having lost 2-0 in the first leg, a superb performance from visiting keeper Zoltan Ritli denied West Ham a comeback as the second leg at Upton Park ended goalless.
Lomas admitted: “We were pretty gutted. We were getting the taste for Europe and if we had got past Bucharest we would have had a really good run.”
There was at least something to cheer about in the first round, as the Hammers beat Croatian side Osijek 6-1 on aggregate.
But what made that trip memorable is scarcely believable.
Having only gained their independence in 1992 following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the wounds of war were still evident in Croatia.
He explained: “At the time we had Croatian international Igor Stimac and he brought out this guy that was the leader of around only 300 men who defended Osijek from an army.
“This guy opened up the boot of his car and the arsenal of weaponry was unbelievable.
“Any military would have been proud of it. A few of the boys were having a go on the guns.
“You couldn’t imagine that now, players firing Uzi’s from the back of a car. The stories he told us, wow. He had a massive scar. You knew he had been through it.
“I had seen bullet-ridden things in Belfast having grown up in Northern Ireland but this was completely different. Every house had thousands of rounds in them.
“That trip was good fun but a lot of things stick in your memory. We were in what was a war zone. It gave us perspective.”
Redknapp’s squad at the time was overflowing with characters, from veterans Paulo Di Canio, Neil Razor Ruddock and Stuart Pearce, to up-and-coming talents like Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand.
Lomas feels Moyes has built something similar, leading the club to successive top-seven finishes.
Former Hammer Lomas added: “Players want European nights. It is very difficult now as you only have to look at the top of the Premier League and what they are spending.
“We want to keep having as many of those nights as we can, especially for the fans. Long may it continue.
“If David was to get Europe again this year, it would be a staggering achievement.”