West Ham's 2003 relegation was one of football's biggest missed opportunities

Michael Lee

A sliding doors moment is a popular term defined as a ‘tiny, seemingly inconsequential moment that can alter the trajectory of future events’. A 2019 survey claimed that 80% of British people have experienced one, although its very nature means we can only recognise one in hindsight.

For example, most of our friendships are made through circumstances out of our control, however much we would claim otherwise. Arrive at a destination five minutes before or after you intended and opportunities that seem pre-ordained would not exist. This would seemingly prove that human experience is fragile and largely reliant upon chance.

This applies equally to football, a sport overflowing with ‘what-if’ moments. What if Eric Cantona rejected a move to Manchester United to stay at Leeds? What if Harry Kane had squared to an unmarked Raheem Sterling against Croatia? What if Arsene Wenger had signed a fraction of the players he has subsequently claimed he was interested in?

Supporters of every club cling onto snapshots of time that insulate them against cold hearted reality. Better to believe that your team were a fraction away from glory than never in the running at all.

For supporters of West Ham United one season encapsulates the phenomenon. In 2002/03, the club were relegated from the Premier League with 42 points – a tally that has never since been matched by a relegated side in England’s top flight. The previous year an editorial in the magazine When Saturday Comes lamented the lack of ‘eyebrow-raising relegations’ in the first decade of the Premier League – West Ham's relegation saw numerous pairs of eyebrows requiring planning permission in a different postcode.

The Telegraph claimed that 42 points gave a team a 98.4% chance of survival, meaning West Ham's relegation was a two-in-one-hundred occurrence. This statistical anomaly saw one of the most talented squads in the club's history sold piece-by-piece, mostly to local rivals Chelsea and Tottenham.

The club has arguably never fully recovered and only fleetingly demonstrated the potential of this collection of players. This was a relegation more regrettable than scrolling through the Twitter account of Richard Keys.

However, warning signs first appeared with the sale of Rio Ferdinand to Leeds United in November 2000. Ferdinand had expressed no desire to leave but club chairman Terrance Brown, in the process of redeveloping Upton Park, felt unable to turn down Leeds’s £18 million offer.

Ferdinand’s transfer fee was then squandered by manager Harry Redknapp on a collection of inferior players and the club had slipped to 15th place by May 2001. When Redknapp met with Brown to ask for more transfer funds, he was told his services would no longer be required. One month later, Frank Lampard was sold to Chelsea for £11 million – a fee widely described as overpriced at the time.

West Ham’s shortlist for a new manager included highly tipped British prospects such as Steve McLaren, Alan Curbishley and Alex McLeish, a description that seems scarcely believable now. Instead, the club opted for youth coach Glenn Roeder to take over.

Castigated as a cost-cutting measure, the difference between Redknapp and Roeder was stark. Redknapp had built a team in his own boisterous image, full of enigmatic individuals, inconsistent defending and enough talent to beat anybody on their day. Roeder, while a respected coach, came across so wooden in comparison you would feel inclined to touch him for luck.

Nevertheless, Roeder managed to finish 7th in his first year in charge and expectations were high going into the 2002/03 season. Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier tipped West Ham as an outside bet to qualify for the Champions League. The BBC predicted a repeat of the previous season’s position.

The starting line-up contained three members of England’s 2002 World Cup squad (David James, Joe Cole and Trevor Sinclair) while Jermaine Defoe and Michael Carrick were tipped as future England starters. Stalwarts such as Freddie Kanoute and Paolo Di Canio were highly coveted by other teams – Di Canio had rejected a move to Manchester United in January 2002.

While the signing of Gary Breen, who had impressed at the World Cup for Ireland, later became a portent of doom there was no real sense of what was to come.

In many ways, the first home game set the tone for the season. Champions Arsenal were undefeated in 2002, but after sixty minutes classy goals from Cole and Kanoute had put West Ham 2-0 ahead. Clive Tyldesley, commentating on the match for ITV highlights programme The Premiership, exclaimed that West Ham were playing ‘scintillating football’, outplaying the previous season’s double winners.

Despite Thierry Henry pulling a spectacular goal back for Arsenal, West Ham were quickly awarded a penalty after Joe Cole was tripped by namesake Ashley. Kanoute’s effort was hit with the power of a heavy smoker attempting to inflate a party balloon and was easily saved by David Seaman. The game finished 2-2 and West Ham did not win a league match at home until late January.

All the hallmarks of a relegation season soon became apparent. A miserable start despite a promising run of fixtures saw only three league wins before Christmas. The team conceded numerous decisive late goals alongside several hammerings. A lack of team spirit was evident, as was the constant inability to defend. Several players were accused of acting like ‘prima donnas’, none more so than Di Canio who publicly argued with Roeder when substituted at West Brom in February and was subsequently exiled from the squad.

The club were badly affected by the newly introduced transfer window which saw them left with no fit strikers throughout the Christmas period. Roeder’s solution was to move centre back Ian Pearce up front – while Pearce scored two goals, West Ham conceded ten throughout a winless December.

The only consistency West Ham showed was effortlessly transporting their league form into a miserable 6-0 defeat at Manchester United in the FA Cup. Breen, the sole summer signing, played a starring role in the defeat at Old Trafford and became a byword for haplessness.

Alongside this was the belief, widely held throughout football, that the club had too much talent to be relegated – that West Ham were ‘too good to go down’. After a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool in February, Guardian journalist Kevin McCarra noted that ‘there is a seeming calmness at Upton Park that masquerades deep paralysis’ as complacency took hold.

While other teams around them such as Bolton and West Brom were portrayed as limited scrappers, it still seemed scarcely believable that West Ham’s squad was struggling so badly. Therefore, the club failed to realise the jeopardy they were in. Home defeats to West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and Southampton were moments where Roeder would have been sacked in 2020. However, the board failed to take decisive action and publicly backed their manager. This decision would prove fatal.

Against the odds, West Ham found form in the final months of the season. January signings Les Ferdinand and Rufus Brevett plugged gaping holes in attack and defence, a teenage Glen Johnson emerged as a talented right back while underperforming players such as Sinclair and Kanoute finally performed to their abilities. The less said about the impact of another January addition, Lee Bowyer, the better.

The team went undefeated until a pivotal 1-0 defeat at relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers in mid-April – had West Ham managed to avoid defeat that day, Bolton would have been relegated in their place. Showing some of the fighting spirit painfully lacking earlier in the season, Cole ‘mistook the final whistle as the first bell of a boxing encounter’, invoking a mental image of a Cockney Scrappy Doo.

However, this was not the full story. After a home win over Middlesbrough on Easter Monday, Roeder collapsed in his office and was rushed to hospital. It later transpired that he had suffered a minor stroke and would be unable to manage the team for their final few matches. Suddenly, the pressures of a relegation battle were put into firm perspective. Club legend Trevor Brooking took over for the final matches of the season, with survival looking improbable.

Dramatically, Brooking came within an ace of achieving just that. Late winners away at Manchester City and at home to pre-Abramovich Chelsea meant West Ham went into the final match level on points with Bolton, albeit with a much worse goal difference. This meant that while the Hammers drew 2-2 at Birmingham, Bolton’s win over Middlesbrough ensured relegation after ten years in the top flight.

This was a team talented enough to amass 23 points from the final 11 games – demonstrating the Champions League form Houllier had envisaged. Alternatively, this was also a team that mustered 6 points from 14 games during the winter, evidence of a capacity to perform well within their abilities.

With a typically glass eye for the sensitives of the supporters, chairman Brown mused that it was simply the club’s ‘turn’ to go down. Rubbing salt into already gaping wounds, ex-manager Redknapp was promoted to the Premiership with his new club Portsmouth.

The squad was quickly decimated. Defoe, who insists he was ill-advised by his agent, submitted a transfer request the day after relegation. While this was turned down, Defoe eventually left the following January for Tottenham after receiving three red cards in his half-season in Division One.

Johnson and Cole were sold to newly rich Chelsea, following Kanoute, Di Canio and Sinclair out of Upton Park. Within the next twelve months, James and Carrick had also departed. Through carelessness, mismanagement and incompetence West Ham had managed to sell off the ‘family silver’ – something Brown had promised would not happen. Never again has the playing squad had quite as much potential.

While all these players demonstrated their potential throughout the Premier League, amassing numerous honours, West Ham struggled in the second tier. Promotion was eventually achieved under Alan Pardew in 2005 with an almost entirely different squad, but the feeling of a lost opportunity permeated the club for years.

Future plans also had to be revised. West Ham had a verbal agreement with a striker from French club Guingamp to join in the event of the club’s survival. Instead, he chose to join Chelsea the following year. His name? Didier Drogba.

Alongside this, the club had to shelve plans to complete the redevelopment of Upton Park. Ambitions to rebuild the East Stand to create 42,000-seater stadium were abandoned due to the financial cost of relegation. If completed, it would have been the biggest club stadium in London at the time. Looking ahead, it could have ensured the club would never have moved to the Olympic Stadium in 2016.

Something else less tangible was also lost in 2003. Throughout the season, match reports were laced with praise for what West Ham stood for as an institution. McCarra praised the club’s ‘tasteful restraint and footballing ideals’. After an FA Cup win against Nottingham Forest, Guardian journalist Paul Weaver argued that ‘most football folk have a soft spot for West Ham, a palpably decent club with noble traditions’.

However, this also created a culture of indulgence towards the club. During the relegation run-in, rivals Bolton were infuriated by media coverage that implied neutral supporters would prefer West Ham to survive in their place.

Before the final game of the season, numerous articles emphasised West Ham's history and traditions, coming across as simpering sentimentality. It should be noted that Bolton also demonstrated Champions League form in the run-in and deserved to survive.

In future years, in the wake of the Tevez saga, Gold and Sullivan’s ownership and the Olympic Stadium, West Ham are no longer respected by neutral supporters but widely seen as a laughing stock. In some ways, relegation saw the death of this image of West Ham United in wider footballing circles.

Ultimately, the old myth that the final table never lies holds true. While the squad had evident potential, they horrendously underperformed until it was too late. The team was underpinned by a generation of homegrown talent to rival Manchester United’s Class of ’92, as proven by their subsequent successes elsewhere. Relegation saw the squandering of these players, as well as shelved plans to redevelop Upton Park and the loss of West Ham’s idealistic reputation.

BBC writer Tom Fordyce said it best; ‘West Ham's was a relegation that should never have happened. Perversely, it was also richly deserved’. There is no other conclusion than that the mismanagement of the club proceeded to throw away a priceless opportunity to challenge the elite.