Is West Ham’s class of 2003 the best to ever get relegated?

Is West Ham’s class of 2003 the best to ever get relegated?

Nothing in football compares to the crushing feeling of defeat when a team is relegated. Sometimes there is a dull predictability about it, after a consistently abject season; sometimes it follows last day heartbreak. Whatever the circumstances, relegation is usually an accurate representation of where a team stands in relation to others in the division, but every so often a team underperforms spectacularly.

Cast your minds back to the 2002-03 Premier League season. Arsenal won the title the previous year, spearheaded by Thierry Henry’s goals, and were favourites to repeat the feat, with the likes of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires in Arsène Wenger’s squad.

The Gunners’ main rivals would be Manchester United, who were smarting after a third-place finish and had made Rio Ferdinand the most expensive defender in the world after a £30 million move from Leeds United.

Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City were the new boys in the top division of English football. City had stormed the first division, accumulating 99 points, while West Brom finished 10 points behind in second place. Birmingham joined the duo via the playoffs after finishing in fifth place, defeating Millwall in the semi-final and Norwich City on penalties in the final.

In East London, West Ham United supporters had reason to be optimistic about the season ahead. Glenn Roeder’s side finished seventh the previous season with the strike partnership of the languid Frédéric Kanouté and academy graduate Jermain Defoe combining for 25 goals.

The Hammers, still reeling from the loss of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard to Leeds and Chelsea respectively, had managed to keep hold of their star assets, although the evergreen Cameroon centre-back Rigobert Song left on a free transfer to join Lens.

The summer transfer window saw few major arrivals at the Boleyn Ground. French striker Youssef Sofiane joined from the Auxerre academy that previously produced Djibril Cissé, Eric Cantona and Philippe Mexès. Raimond van der Gouw joined on a free transfer from Manchester United as understudy to David James, while experienced Irish centre-back Gary Breen – fresh from a superb showing at the World Cup – arrived on a free from Coventry to add depth in defence.

Two midfielders arrived on loan, with French under-21 star Édouard Cissé joining from Paris Saint-Germain and Trinidad and Tobago’s Brent Rahim arriving from Levski Sofia.


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The reason for the lack of transfer activity was that West Ham’s squad already contained a substantial amount of class, with a blend of experience and youth. The poster boy for the Hammers’ academy was mercurial 20-year-old Joe Cole, who had recently made his England debut against Mexico after a series of mesmeric displays. Everything Cole did on the pitch had a touch of youthful genius about it, and the midfielder was already being compared with Paul Gascoigne.

Cole was looking to forge an understanding with Defoe, who had made an encouraging start to his West Ham career after being promoted from the youth squad. With the 19-year-old’s pace and Cole’s ability to find space in between the lines, they were a potentially lethal combination.

The two other precocious English youngsters in the squad were 20-year-old midfielder Michael Carrick and 17-year-old right-back Glen Johnson. Carrick arrived from the acclaimed Wallsend Boys Club in 1997, comprising part of the squad that won the FA Youth Cup in 1999 alongside Cole. He was an established member of the senior squad after making his debut in July 1999, and was also in the England under-21 squad. Johnson was yet to make his debut, despite rave reviews with the reserve side, and would join Millwall on loan before making his first West Ham appearance around Christmas time.

Roeder could also rely on a vast amount of experience to help guide his young talent in the Premier League, not least enigmatic Italian forward Paolo Di Canio who, at the age of 33, was entering the twilight of his career. His status as a club legend was further enhanced when he turned down Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer to join Manchester United the previous season.

Di Canio was joined by 31-year-old duo David James and Don Hutchinson, 35-year-old John Moncur, Nigel Winterburn, 38, and 39-year-old van der Gouw.

Kanouté provided the team with a languid sense of class and composure, now trademarked by Dimitar Berbatov, while Trevor Sinclair played four times for England at the 2002 World Cup and was one of the most underrated Englishmen in the league.

The Hammers’ season started terribly and it took Roeder’s team seven games to get a win under their belt, when Di Canio’s late goal sealed a victory against London rivals Chelsea. After two successive away wins, against Sunderland and Fulham, the East Londoners took another 15 games to claim three points – their first at home – when a last minute Defoe strike beat Blackburn Rovers on 11 February.

The West Ham squad had been supplemented by the arrivals of Les Ferdinand and Rufus Brevett from Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham, while Lee Bowyer also joined in a £100,000 move from Leeds. The new arrivals steadied the ship slightly, with West Ham winning three and drawing three of their next eight games before, on 17 April, Roeder was forced to step down with the side in 18th place after surgery on a brain tumour.

Paolo Di Canio

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An improvement in form, with West Ham unbeaten in nine out of 10 games heading into the final game of the season, gave the supporters hope that relegation could be avoided, especially after the arrival of Sir Trevor Brooking for the final three games of the season.

West Ham headed to Birmingham needing to better Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers result in order to stay up. However, Bolton’s 2-1 win against Middlesbrough meant that the Hammers result, a 2-2 draw, was futile.

The close season saw West Ham’s squad picked apart ahead of a return to the First Division with almost £40 million brought in through transfer fees and the likes of Jobi McAnuff, Marlon Harewood and Nigel Reo-Coker signing.

Defoe and Kanouté joined Tottenham for a combined fee of around £14 million, while Cole and Johnson, who had only made his first-team debut in January, moved to Chelsea for a combined £16 million. Sinclair and James left London to join Manchester City for a combined £6 million and Ferdinand, Bowyer and Breen departed on free transfers to Leicester City, Newcastle United and Sunderland, respectively.

Di Canio’s time as a West Ham player ended bitterly, publicly falling out with Roeder resulting in being dropped from the first-team, before leaving for Charlton Athletic on a free.

Carrick was one of the few players to stay at the Boleyn Ground, although he left to join Defoe and Kanouté at White Hart Lane after West Ham lost the First Division playoff final 1-0 against Crystal Palace in 2004. James, Defoe, Cole, Johnson and Carrick would go on to become important players for England, with the latter trio winning the Premier League among other honours with Chelsea and Manchester United.

Kanouté also went on to have a prolific seven years in Spain with Sevilla, lifting two UEFA Cups, two Copa del Reys, a UEFA Super Cup and a Spanish Super Cup, along with scooping the African Footballer of the Year in 2007.

And yet West Ham’s 2002-03 season shows that no matter how confident managers, players and supporters are, football has a strange ability to punish complacency.

By James Robinson. Follow @JvmesJournalist


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