Football Features

The ‘best’ Premier League team ever relegated were West Ham in 2003

By Ben Green

Published: 16:55, 14 June 2020

“It was almost impossible for that West Ham team to get relegated”, reflected Frederic Kanoute nearly two decades after the Hammers dropped out of the Premier League on a record points total.

Seventeen years on and West Ham face a similar scenario. When the Premier League restarts next week the club’s go-to escapologist, David Moyes, will be gearing his men up for a tense scrap to avoid the drop. As it stands, his side are just outside the bottom three on goal difference.

With the likes of Felipe Anderson, Sebastien Haller and Declan Rice on the books, many would argue that this is a side too good to go down. But, in 2003 a similar argument was pitched, and yet, the capital club lost their Premier League status, despite boasting a glut of quality and finishing on 42 points.

In the aftermath, that stellar West Ham squad was picked apart by covetous rivals and a major rebuild job ensued to stabilise the club. Fans will be hoping history doesn’t repeat itself in the coming weeks, but this is one of English football’s ultimate Jekyll and Hyde clubs, so don’t rule anything out.

The turning point all those years ago was the departure of Harry Redknapp and subsequent appointment of Glenn Roeder. The Woodford-born coach had an embarrassment of riches at his disposal but was unable to cultivate a winning mentality in his second season. It was a squad good enough to challenge for the top four, but for one reason of another things just didn’t work out…

Goalkeeper: David James

  • Age: 49
  • Appearances for West Ham: 102

Part of the England squad for the 2002 World Cup, James joined West Ham in 2001 with elite pedigree and a dearth of experience, having competently protected the goalmouth for Watford, Liverpool and Aston Villa.

At 31, the towering gloveman was in the prime years of his goalkeeping career. A serious knee injury kept him sidelined for several months during his maiden season, but upon his return he kept 10 clean sheets in 29 appearances to mark a glittering 2001/02 campaign in which the club won more home matches than any other Premier League side and finished seventh.

Such a promising campaign threatened to alert the league’s big wigs, who had already snapped up prized pupils Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard in recent windows, but the club managed to stave off interest and held on to their key players.

With the dressing room coming through the summer window unscathed the club were tipped to unsettle the established order, but fortune abandoned West Ham that season and relegation unexpectedly followed. James stayed on in the second tier for the first half of the campaign before moving to Manchester City in January 2004 to replace David Seaman.  

Right-back: Glen Johnson

  • Age: 35
  • Appearances for West Ham: 16

Part of the famous ‘Academy of Football’ alumnus, Johnson appeared just 16 times for West Ham before leaving for Chelsea to herald the start of the Roman Abramovich era. But, before rich Russian oligarchs came calling, the buccaneering full-back was honing his craft in east London and making quite the impression at Upton Park.

Johnson spent the first half of the campaign on loan at bitter rivals Millwall, making eight appearances for the Lions, but upon his return, he tussled with notorious hatchet-man Tomas Repka for the right-back berth. The Czech Republican was all muscle, but lacked the elegance of a modern-day full-back. Johnson had those qualities in abundance and exuded an aura of suavity.

Unfortunately even his performances weren’t enough to keep West Ham afloat and he was subsequently part of the fire sale that ensued following relegation. 

Johnson went on to enjoy an illustrious career with the Blues, Liverpool and England, while his right-back competitor that season, Repka, remained with the club until 2006, winning the Football League Championship play-offs in 2005. 

Repka was convicted of fraud in his native Czech Republic in 2019 and sentenced to 15 months in jail. The Prague district court ruled that he sold a luxury motor vehicle despite not owning the car. 

Centre-back: Christian Dailly

  • Age: 46
  • Appearances for West Ham: 191

Dailly remains something of a curly-haired cult hero to West Ham fans. The Scotsman joined the club in 2001 and remained with them despite relegation, helping them to return to the Premier League and to the 2006 FA Cup final.

The Scot’s magnificent barnet left such an impression on West Ham fans that he’s been immortalised in club folklore, with fans still chanting his name to this day. One of the more popular songs among Hammers faithful makes direct reference to Dailly’s trademark trim. No matter where you sat at Upton Park during Dailly’s tenure, a curly-haired wig could be spotted in the distance.

The former defender has previously spoken of his amusement at the chant and even revealed his acclaimed curls run in the family. “I can’t remember when it was [when I first heard the song], but I do remember thinking ‘Is that my name?!’,” Dailly said.

“It’s quite funny but my family don’t sing it back to me as it’s too rude!

“I’m not being funny, my son is a caricature of me! He’s got an unbelievable barnet! It’s actually at a different level to me! My Dad had a huge curly barnet and one of my brothers is the same.”

Centre-back: Ian Pearce

  • Age: 46
  • Appearances for West Ham: 150

In 1993/94 Pearce netted his first league goal for Blackburn, which coincidentally came against West Ham, and ensured the Riversiders reached Europe for the first time in their history. The following season he formed an near-on impenetrable centre-back acquaintanceship with Colin Hendry as Blackburn famously clinched the Premier League title under Kenny Dalglish.

He was unable to replicate his performances from that season in the following years and subsequently moved to West Ham in 1997, where he re-established his scintillating form. Said form culminated in the 1999 Hammer of the Year award.

Injuries threatened to curtail Pearce’s career, but he proved a key figure for the club in 2002/03. Despite World Cup hero Gary Breen joining the club in the summer, with the Irishman shining for Mick McCarthy’s side in the 2002 finals, Pearce kept him out of the squad.

In fact, Breen was attracting interest from Barcelona and even failed a medical at Inter Milan before joining the Hammers. His signature was suppose to revolutionise the backline. Unfortunately Breen has gone down in West Ham lore as an unmitigated flop, while Pearce remains a fan favourite for his last-minute equaliser against Spurs at White Hart Lane.

Right out of the top drawer!

Left-back: Nigel Winterburn

  • Age: 56
  • Appearances for West Ham: 90

An Arsenal legend, Winterburn joined West Ham at the tale end of his career, linking up with the Hammers at the wrong end of 30, but with a wealth of experience and a mantelpiece full of silverware. Well, he certainly proved that age is no barrier as he formed an indispensable part of West Ham’s illustrious 2001/02 campaign.

The following season proved his last, however, and as the Hammers bowed out of the Premier League, Winterburn called time on his playing career after making over 700 appearances for Wimbledon, Arsenal and West Ham respectively.

Central midfield: Michael Carrick

  • Age: 38
  • Appearances for West Ham: 159

This is where the article you’re reading starts to hit home a bit more for West Ham fans. Carrick, as we know, went on to reach great heights for Tottenham and particularly Manchester United, where he won titles aplenty in 12 glittering years, including five Premier League titles and a Champions League. But before the highs of Moscow and Solna, this elegant midfield metronome was methodically setting the tempo at Upton Park.

Part of the club’s famous 1999/2000 season, in which Redknapp’s Hammers won the Intertoto Cup, with a side including Ferdinand and Lampard, Carrick went on to establish a prominent role for the club in the centre of the park. The Lampard-Carrick partnership was set to provide the club a world class midfield for years to come. Lamentably this now falls in the ‘what if’ category of West Ham’s annuls.

Carrick did remain at West Ham beyond relegation, and perhaps would have stayed on if the club bounced back straight away, but after missing out on promotion, the club needed the funds and a tug-of-war between Premier League clubs ensued.

The current Man Utd coach has since revealed he spoke to David Moyes about the possibility of moving to Everton, while Portsmouth — then managed by Redknapp — came calling. But, it was Arsenal who most appealed to the young midfielder. He even met Arsene Wenger in person to discuss a potential transfer.

However, the Frenchman was persuaded to withdraw interest after a teenage Cesc Fabregas impressed him so much in the Community Shield against Man Utd. The 17-year-old Spaniard cost Carrick his move, and he ultimately joined north London rivals Spurs.

Carrick recalled: “Within an hour I was sitting in the front room of Arsene Wenger’s house, pinching myself. Could this really be happening? Arsenal! Could I really be on the verge of signing for the Invincibles who’d just gone through the season unbeaten?

“On the Sunday, I settled down at home in Theydon Bois, Epping, to watch Arsenal, my team to be, in the Community Shield against Manchester United. I saw that a kid, Cesc Fabregas, only 17, started in Vieira’s place.

“Fabregas played a blinder but I didn’t think too much about the significance. I sat at home on Sunday night waiting for the call to arrange details of the next day. Arsenal! I couldn’t wait.

“But I waited, and waited, and that call never came.”

Central midfield: Joe Cole

  • Age: 38
  • Appearances for West Ham: 187

Despite being just 21 years of age academy jewel Cole was handed the captain’s armband by Roader for the season. The precocious midfielder was already making significant noise as one of England’s most promising young players and was even part of the 2002 World Cup squad. The Paddington-born trickster was always destined for greatness after reportedly being the subject of a £10m bid from Man Utd as a 16-year-old. Cole was likened to a certain Paul Gascoigne in terms of his playing style and was a fundamental part of the club’s famous 9-0 FA Youth Cup win against Coventry, producing this outrageous rabona pass in the final…

After relegation Cole joined Lampard and Johnson at Stamford Bridge and went on to enjoy a trophy-laden career before turning out for Liverpool, Lille and then returning for a swansong at West Ham. The 2003 Hammer of the Year is still cherished by those in claret and blue, but many believe he didn’t fulfil his potential, such was the greatness expected of him during his teenage years.

Right midfield: Paolo Di Canio

  • Age: 51
  • Appearances for West Ham: 141

Mr. West Ham himself. The Italian forward joined the club with his reputation in dire straits following that infamous push on referee Paul Alcock, but under Redknapp he flourished and rediscovered his swagger, culminating in the 2000 Hammer of the Year, the BBC Goal of the Season for that volley and even the FIFA Fair Play Award in 2001.

Such was his seat-raising performances that Sir Alex Ferguson even tried to prise Di Canio away from Upton Park and make him his latest project. The Scot had a penchant for the eccentric (just look at Eric Cantona) but the Italian passed on the opportunity of a lifetime to give back to the club that put their faith in him following his darkest hours in Sheffield.

Di Canio recalled a phonecall he receieved on Christmas Day in 2001: “‘It’s a person called Alex Ferguson.’ I thought it was a joke. I thought it was my friend from Italy.

“My stomach went a bit because it makes you think you have underestimated yourself, that you are bigger than what you thought. Man United call you, try to persuade you to move because they want you. For a couple of minutes you feel big and strong.

“It was strange for me to say no to Sir Alex. I said ‘thanks, 1000 times thanks, but I can’t. West Ham are the family that warmed to me in the worst moment in my life, I’m the skipper, I can’t.’

“He told me, ‘Paolo, respect for this, I love people that think in this way. You are the man that I thought you were’.

“I moved to West Ham not in a normal way, in the worst moment of my life.

“In the end I remained at West Ham and I don’t have regrets about it, even if United became the best, won the Champions League, winning the leagues. I would never change winning those leagues for the four and a half years I wore the West Ham shirt.”

Left midfield: Trevor Sinclair

  • Age: 47
  • Appearances for West Ham: 206

Another member of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England squad for the 2002 World Cup, Sinclair was the Hammers’ dynamite winger, an incisive inside forward with an eye for the spectacular and a confidence to take on any full-back. Signed from QPR in ’98, with Iain Dowie and Keith Rowland going the other way, Sinclair quickly endeared himself to the West Ham faithful and became an important member in Redknapp’s XI.

Sinclair was not just a great goalscorer for a winger but also a scorer of great goals. His highlight reels are like a Who’s Who of Puskas Award entrants. This volley against Sunderland is a particular favourite for many…

Striker: Jermain Defoe

  • Age: 37
  • Appearances for West Ham: 105

Nearly two decades have come and gone but the wounds still run deep and feel fresh for some West Ham fans after Defoe left the Hammers for arch-rivals Spurs in 2004. The fledgling forward was an obvious talent and a future England star during his claret and blue days. He had firmly cemented his pace in the first team and was gaining valuable experience from the likes of Davor Suker, Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand behind the scenes, but again, not even his prolific goalscoring exploits could save the club.

Defoe stayed at West Ham beyond relegation, but like James left midway through the campaign in the second tier. Many West Ham fans feel that had Defoe stuck around, they would have bounced back straight away, instead losing to Crystal Palace in the play-off final. It wasn’t so much that Defoe decided to seek a new challenge that grated West Ham fans, but rather the manner in which he left, forcing a move and handing in a transfer request. The Rangers forward has since spoken of his regret over the decision.

“The manner in which I left West Ham I would change. My agent, at the time, said I had to hand in a transfer request,” Defoe told Sky Sports.

“When I was young, I didn’t really understand transfer requests, I had never come across one before and my agent told me it was the right thing to do.

“I trusted my agent and I thought this must be the process – hand in a transfer request and when you do that, you would be the first out the door, that’s what he said to me.

“The club had been relegated and obviously being ambitious, having scored goals in the Premier League and wanting to play for England, I knew I had to be playing in the Premier League.”

Striker: Frederic Kanoute

  • Age: 42
  • Appearances for West Ham: 92

A competent goalscorer during his West Ham days, Kanoute joined from Lyon in 2000 and proved the perfect foil to Di Canio up top. The season prior to 2002/03 the former Mali international had amassed consecutive double digit tallies, but in that fateful season he mustered just five and featured only 17 times. He too left in the summer, joining Spurs, before going on to shine in La Liga with Sevilla, winning two UEFA Cups and two Copa del Reys.

Speaking to FourFourTwo, Kanoute revealed that relegation with West Ham still haunts him to this day: “It was almost impossible for that team to get relegated, but football is like this sometimes. When a season starts badly, it keeps getting worse and you can’t seem to turn the tables.”

Honourable mentions: Les Ferdinand, Lee Bowyer, Steve Lomas, Edouard Cisse