Paolo Di Canio looks distraught after West Ham United are relegated from the Premier League at St Andrews, Birmingham, May 2003.

‘Too good to go down’: Unravelling the mystery of West Ham’s 2003 relegation

The 40-point mark – the magic number that is supposedly needed to guarantee Premier League survival – is nothing more than a myth. 

None of the relegated trio last season even managed 30 points and the average number of points needed to stay up over the last decade is a shade over 35.

Only one team has been relegated from the Premier League with more than 40 points – the West Ham side that amassed 42 in 2002-03.

The Telegraph claimed that 42 points should give a team a 98.4% chance of survival, meaning their relegation was a two-in-one-hundred occurrence. This statistical anomaly saw one of the most talented squads in the club’s history dismantled, sold mostly to local rivals Chelsea and Tottenham.

Even today, the names jump out at you; David James, Glen Johnson, the silky midfield of Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Trevor Sinclair, strikers like Frederic Kanoute, Jermain Defoe and Paolo Di Canio.

As midfielder Don Hutchison said in 2015: “That team should have been easily competing for top six, top seven. To this day it’s still a mystery how we went down.”

The root cause was the sale of Rio Ferdinand to Leeds in November 2000. Ferdinand had expressed no desire to leave but chairman Terrance Brown, in the process of redeveloping Upton Park, felt unable to turn down Leeds’ £18 million offer.

That money was wasted by Harry Redknapp, who was sacked in 2001 when he asked Brown for more transfer funds. “Leaving the club was the last thing on my mind when I went over this morning”, he said in the aftermath.

“I never dreamed it would happen. After meeting the chairman it all changed and I found myself out of work.”

His replacement was youth coach Glenn Roeder. Castigated as a cost-cutting measure, the difference between Roeder and his predecessor was stark. Redknapp had built a team in his own boisterous image, full of enigmatic individuals who had enough talent to beat anybody on their day.

Roeder, while a respected coach, came across as so wooden by comparison that you’d feel inclined to touch him for luck. Nevertheless, West Ham finished 7th in his first year in charge and expectations were high going into the 2002-03 season.

Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier tipped West Ham as an outside bet to qualify for the Champions League. But the club had already undermined their chances by failing to adequately strengthen the squad – Gary Breen was the only permanent outfield arrival that summer.

And the first home match against Arsenal proved to be an ominous portent of a luckless season ahead. The champions were undefeated in 2002, but goals from Cole and Kanoute put West Ham 2-0 in front.

Despite Thierry Henry pulling a goal back, West Ham were quickly awarded a penalty to restore their two-goal advantage.

But Kanoute’s effort was hit with the power of a heavy smoker attempting to inflate a party balloon and the game eventually finished 2-2. West Ham did not win a home league match until late January.

By then, all the hallmarks of a relegation season had emerged. A miserable start saw only three league wins before Christmas and the team conceded numerous late goals alongside several hammerings.

In an interview with FourFourTwo in 2017, Defoe said: “The first half of the season just wasn’t good enough – we didn’t perform and never recovered.”

Hutchison added: “It’s difficult to put your finger on it, maybe a little bit of complacency, maybe players weren’t playing at a certain level, maybe we had injuries and suspensions… We went through a period when we couldn’t get a result and confidence was low in the dressing room.”

Several players were accused of acting like prima donnas and the atmosphere at Upton Park quickly turned toxic.

As early as September, Roeder had to appeal to supporters to stop jeering Carrick while chairman Brown was the target of venomous protests during a home defeat to Southampton in December.

An email from Brown to a fan appeared in print: “I note your comments regarding our manager’s abilities, but I do not believe Glenn could have foreseen that David James and Trevor Sinclair would return from the World Cup with a loss of form.

“He could not have allowed for the injuries to Paolo Di Canio and Fredi Kanoute, nor would he have expected Christian Dailly and Tomas Repka to turn from one of the best centre-back partnerships to possibly one of the worst.”

By February, West Ham were rock bottom of the league but many still believed they were ‘too good to go down’. After a 3-0 home defeat against Liverpool, Guardian journalist Kevin McCarra wrote: “There is a seeming calmness at Upton Park that masquerades deep paralysis.”

Complacency had taken hold. If anything, the talent West Ham possessed blinded them to the jeopardy they faced until it was too late.

Nobody was more tempestuous than Di Canio, who had never rated Roeder as a boss. He publicly argued with his manager when substituted during a match at West Brom and, despite his side winning 2-1, made his displeasure known afterwards.

“Glenn is still a young manager and makes mistakes,” he said. “Just because we won doesn’t mean all his decisions were good ones.”

Di Canio was subsequently exiled from the squad and could only look on as West Ham belatedly began to get results.

Rufus Brevett and Les Ferdinand were signed during the first January transfer window and the side gradually began to rein in the likes of Bolton, Birmingham and Leeds above them.

After beating Middlesbrough on Easter Monday, Roeder collapsed in his office and was rushed to hospital suffering from a brain tumour.

Club legend Trevor Brooking took over for the remaining matches. Hutchison remembered: “Trevor came in and we tried to play for Glenn really. Trevor gave us some new ideas and a little bit of confidence and we went on a great run towards the end of the season.”

Kanoute bagged a late winner at Manchester City in Brooking’s first match at the helm, while an emotionally charged Di Canio lifted the roof off of Upton Park with the only goal against Chelsea to carry West Ham’s prospects of staying up into the final day.

But they could only draw 2-2 at Birmingham, and Bolton’s win over Middlesbrough saw the Hammers relegated after 10 successive seasons in the top flight. Speaking with a glass eye for the sensitivities of the supporters, Brown mused that it was simply the club’s ‘turn’ to go down.

“It was a surreal atmosphere,” Hutchison said. “I was on the bench at the time and it was a difficult watch.

“The lads didn’t look comfortable out there and confidence was low. It was all riding on one game.”

This was a team talented enough to amass 23 points from the final 11 games, demonstrating the Champions League form Houllier had predicted. But this was also a side that mustered six points from 14 games during the winter months.

All of West Ham’s stars were sold and it was a much-changed side that returned to the Premier League under Alan Pardew in 2005. They had a generation of homegrown talent to rival Manchester United’s Class of ’92, as proven by their subsequent successes elsewhere.

But relegation saw the squandering of these players and a priceless opportunity to challenge the elite had been thrown away.

“The run we had was incredible and going down with the record points total was ridiculous,” said Hutchison. “The team we had, how we took West Ham into the Championship at that time was ludicrous.”

BBC writer Tom Fordyce made a more astute observation: “West Ham’s was a relegation that should never have happened,” he wrote. “Perversely, it was also richly deserved.”

By Michael Lee

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