Two seasons, 17 years apart. The 2002/03 season and the currently postponed 2019/20 campaign bare striking similarities for fans of West Ham United. In the interceding years, there have been ten managers, three (failed) European campaigns, two relegations, one stadium move and a change of ownership. It has been a period characterised by upheaval not stability. Yet it would seem the more things change in East London, the more they stay the same.
Heading into the season optimism was high amongst supporters. On the back of a 7th placed finish in 2001/02, West Ham were widely tipped to compete in the top half of the Premier League again. As it turned out, this would only foster overconfidence and provide Terry Brown with the excuse to invest the bare minimum over the summer of 2002. The highest profile recruitment was Gary Breen – who arrived on a free – and left 12 months after a disastrous spell with the club. Fast forward to 2019 and another Bosman transfer, Roberto would prove even worse by single-handedly dropping points during an eight-game Premier League winless spell covering Lukas Fabianski. Unlike 2002, however, there were two big-money acquisitions in the shape of Pablo Fornals and Sebastian Haller; both of whom joined on the back of impressive seasons with Villarreal and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively. The signing of the latter was a particular coup, but was somewhat offset by the decision to get rid of the club’s entire strike force. This transfer policy left the current squad with a strong core albeit one significantly lacking in depth for a club with the injury lucky of West Ham. Nevertheless, many had tipped the Hammers to compete with Leicester City and Wolves for European football based on the quality of the squad and the top ten finish under Manuel Pellegrini last time out.
‘Too good to go down’
Aside from the new recruits, the two squads possessed a good mix of experience and youth. In 2002/03, the likes of Joe Cole and Michael Carrick were already established in the squad with the former even captaining the team on several occasions. Similarly to the latter, Declan Rice would take the armband for the first time in 2020 and appeared on course to repeat Joe Cole’s ‘Hammer of the Year’ feat in 2003. Most glaringly, however, January 2003 and 2020 would see the emergence of two 19 year old right-backs in the form of Glen Johnson and Jeremy Ngakia. In seasons devoid of much celebration, their respective breakthrough gave fans of the ‘Academy of Football’ something to take pride in.
At the other end of the age spectrum were Paolo Di Canio and Mark Noble; 33 and 32 years old entering the twilight of their careers at a club where their legendary status was already confirmed. Joining them were Trevor Sinclair, Frederic Kanoute, David James and Jermain Defoe in 2002/03 and Michail Antonio, Manuel Lanzini, Lukas Fabianski and Felipe Anderson in 2019/20. On paper, these were two squads with international-calibre players in their ranks, so where did it all go so wrong?
Chaos from the top down
Things are never straightforward at West Ham and no seasons better epitomise that than the two in question. With results on the pitch failing to paper over the cracks, a clear division between the club and its fans became increasingly apparent. For many, the trigger in 2019 was the return of David Moyes, but in truth tensions had been boiling over since the stadium move and organised mass protests followed. Calls for the triumvirate of David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady to get ‘out’ had never been so prominent.
Central to this breakdown of trust was a mishandling of criticism by the board whether that was banning fans, blurring out protest t-shirts from match photos or ill-thought radio interviews. Likewise in 02/03, Terry Brown’s decision to respond directly to fans was badly received. Like the GSB trio, a stubbornness to do things on the cheap would effectively hamstring performances on the pitch. Moreover, Brown’s later explanation that it was ‘our turn to be relegated’ did little to appease bemused fans in the wake of relegation in 2003. Despite assurances to the contrary, the club was raided by Premier League soon after and this prompted fans to create their own ‘Whistle’ protest in response. In 2020, rumours are already circulating about the fire sale of the team’s top talent despite – once again – assurances that those days were behind us in the age of a post-Upton Park West Ham. Miscommunication, false promises and an arrogant disregard for the fans remains as unpopular in 2020 as it did in 2003.
‘Winning is what I do’
The infamous line uttered by David Moyes on his re-appointment in December 2019 would have carried weight had it come from someone whose win percent last time out was not barely over 29%. To put that into perspective, that is a record less impressive than arguably the club’s two worst managers in the Premier League era; Avram Grant (31.9%) and Roeder himself (31.4%). Neither Moyes or Roeder inspired confidence nor did they succeed in making a meaningful connection with the fan base. Both were notable downgrades from what came after and before respectively. Trevor Brooking’s all-too-brief spell as caretaker manager immediately brought about results with his 64.3% record solidifying him as the best manager West Ham never had. Pellegrini too, for all his shortcomings that season, was a high-profile manager deemed to be the ‘next level’ from his predecessor, Moyes. The re-appointment of Moyes following Pellegrini’s sacking was understandably greeted with despair by fans who just eighteen months earlier rejoiced at the appointment of the latter over the former.
The insistence of those above to stick with an unpopular and cost-effective option was another source of contention for fans and, just like it did in 2003, it is a gamble with the club’s top flight status that is likely to backfire. Whereas Moyes appears popular with the dressing room, the same cannot be said for Roeder where his treatment of Di Canio became a sideshow of its own. In refusing to play the outspoken Italian, Roeder sought to win a personal battle over a relegation battle. Needless to say Di Canio eventually played a crucial role under Brooking in the the club’s near escape. Even the cup competitions failed to offer any respite for fans with humiliating defeats to Oldham Athletic and Oxford United in the League Cup 3rd round and spineless 4th round FA Cup exits to Manchester United and West Brom.
Too little too late
Remarkably, the club’s record at the same stage of the season in 02/03 was even worse than 19/20. With only 23 points from 29 games, it was the perfect recipe for relegation; a leaky defence and misfiring albeit talented offence. 19/20 is no different in that regard with only a marginally better goal difference and 27 points. A disastrous first half to the season forced the owners to reluctantly spend in January with the recently Liverpool-bound Lee Bowyer and proven Les Ferdinand joining with respectable results in 2003 and Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen immediately lifting the team in 2020. The latter’s arrival coincided with an improvement in performances that could have lead to a similar upturn in results as that overseen by Trevor Brooking. Then however, it proved too little to late with the now infamously ‘too good to go down’ West Ham relegated with a Premier League record 42 points. Would the current crop of Hammers had the same misfortune? Perhaps not, but they have somewhat been spared with the suspension of the 19/20 season. Even then, it is clear that the only thing that remains consistent at West Ham is the disappointment.