On Sunday, West Ham will be officially relegated from the Premier League eight years after they last experienced the drop into the second tier, their fate was sealed last weekend in a 3-2 defeat to Wigan. The relegation in 2003 cost them some high profile players and broke up a golden era of young talent at the club, something they would struggle to recreate.
The phrase ''too good to go down'' is often heard at the end of a season but rarely falls upon a team that is truly worthy of its use. However, in 2002-03, a young, talented side finished the campaign on 42 points - still a record for a relegated team in a 20-strong league - yet were condemned to drop into the First Division.
West Ham had collected 22 points out of a possible 33 in an impressive final flurry - including three wins out of their last four Premiership games - but, as the Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter put it, ''the dark days of a brutal winter saw them collect only six points from a possible 42'' ultimately sealed their fate. "There's not disbelief today because we knew at Christmas we were in trouble," claimed interim boss Trevor Brooking after the final day draw with Birmingham that sent them down. "The team got in a rut, the confidence went and they didn't know when they were going to win again."
The relegation of one of England's most iconic teams - steeped in the history of Ron Greenwood, Bobby Moore, John Lyall and Billy Bonds - came as something of a shock, but the seeds had been sown in the preceding years.
The sale of Rio Ferdinand to Leeds United for a defender's world record fee of £18 million in 2000 had upset many Hammers fans, who saw it as indicative of the club's lack of ambition. Indeed, the following season saw high expectations crushed early on by West Ham's nosedive towards the relegation zone and the eventual departure of manager Harry Redknapp and his assistant Frank Lampard Snr after a disagreement with the board.
Redknapp's exit had a two-fold effect. Firstly, it saw the club's reserve-team coach - Glenn Roeder - take charge for the final match of the 2000-01 season and, secondly, it hastened the departure of talented young midfielder Frank Lampard Jnr, who left to join Chelsea for £11 million in the summer in solidarity over the treatment of his father.
After the club's failed attempt to bring Steve McClaren in, the fans' reaction to Roeder's appointment in the role full-time that summer was not good. They hankered after a more 'high profile' name with more experience than just Gillingham and Watford, and still lamented the exit of Lampard as a another sign of their dwindling power. Results, initially, did not improve relations as Roeder took six games to pick up his first win and then saw his side hammered by Blackburn (7-1) and Everton (5-0).
Reports suggested that West Ham's board were ready to drop the axe on Roeder if he did not produce a result in their next game against Southampton, but a 2-0 win saw him saved and Southampton boss Stuart Gray lost his job instead. The game proved to be a turning point in the Roeder's fortunes as defeats of Chelsea and Manchester United followed and he eventually led the club to seventh place at the end of the season, earning himself a new contract in the process.
But the board's decision to put their faith in Roeder would come back to haunt them as his inexperience was found out under the weight of expectation to repeat his first season success. The club's results took a turn for the worse in 2002-03; failure to win a home league game for the first five months of the season was compounded by a crushing 6-0 FA Cup Fourth Round defeat at Manchester United and confidence was at an all-time low as they stared relegation in the face.
Roeder was involved in a public spat with the talismanic, yet temperamental, Paolo di Canio in February after he substituted the striker in the 2-1 win over West Brom and ultimately dropped him from the first team. Di Canio claimed that Roeder did not speak to him for months but, somehow, the incident seemed to galvanise the Hammers.
Results began to turn their way and they beat Tottenham and Sunderland at home, while picking up a point in three consecutive away games. But then a must-win game at Bolton was lost and, after the nail-biting 1-0 win over McClaren's Middlesbrough in the following game, Roeder collapsed in the dressing room and was taken to hospital with chest pains.
Roeder was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was forced to miss the final three games of the season with Brooking, described as ''the most caring of caretaker managers'', taking control on a temporary basis. In the penultimate game, a 1-0 win over Chelsea (thanks to a strike from Di Canio) gave West Ham a lifeline and, with Sunderland and West Brom already long gone, they sat level on points with Bolton in 18th. Only in the drop zone on goal difference, a trip to Birmingham's St Andrew's was their last hope of salvation as the last day loomed.
However, the Hammers' hopes of final day salvation were effectively wiped out early on as goals from Per Frandsen and Jay-Jay Okocha inside 21 minutes putting Bolton in the driving seat against Middlesbrough.
At St Andrew's, West Ham ironically (given the nature of their season thus far), began well but ended poorly. After a goalless first half, Les Ferdinand broke the deadlock - moments after Boro striker Michael Ricketts had sparked hopes by getting one back against Bolton - and Freddie Kanoute hit a post amid groans of inevitability as radios brought the news of Franck Queudrue's dismissal for Middlesbrough.
The possibililty of Boro's ten-men forcing a draw became irrelevant when, with ten minutes remaining, Geoff Horsfield's charge forward ended with a deflected equaliser for Birmingham and Robbie Savage's cross found Stern John seven minutes later to sink a final nail into West Ham's Premiership coffin. Di Canio headed a leveller within 60 seconds as his last act at the club, but it was too little, too late.
"We always feared Bolton's home form would be enough for them,'' Brooking said after the game. ''The players are very despondent. They played extremely well and looked a Premiership side. For half an hour of the second half we pummelled them."
But the game was indicative of West Ham's entire campaign. A late rally could not stave off the relegation that would, of course, have ramifications on their playing squad. "I don't think we'll have the same squad at the start of next season," added Brooking. "Relegation will cost us £15 million and you're supposed to halve your wage-bill when you go down.''
Less than 24 hours after the Birmingham draw, Jermain Defoe would hand in transfer request to the dismay of everyone at the club - though he would not be allowed to leave. He insists he was badly advised.
However, the summer saw the departures of most of the rest of West Ham's youngsters; described by the Daily Mirror's Oliver Holt as ''a whole generation of talent squandered''. Joe Cole joined Chelsea for £6.6 million, along with £6 million defender Glen Johnson, and Trevor Sinclair (who had impressed so much for England at the 2002 World Cup) made the move to Manchester City for around £3 million. Lee Bowyer, Di Canio and Ferdinand were allowed to leave on free transfers, while Freddie Kanoute joined Tottenham and David James found his way to Man City six months later.
Ultimately, it marked the end of an era. The club had gone from European challengers with half the future England team and, in Redknapp, a manager who would go on to greater things, to playing Championship football with Brian Deane up front. While Alan Pardew would rebuild the side, the wave of optimism that had followed the youngsters before relegation would not be seen again at Upton Park again.
What happened next? Roeder recovered to return to work that summer, but was sacked on August 24, 2003 after defeat to Rotherham - just three games into the Championship campaign. It came after Roeder had also upset Rotherham by reportedly refusing to use Millmoor's out-dated facilities and took the team back to their hotel to prepare in a final act of defiance. After Roeder left, Trevor Brooking was appointed as interim manager, but Alan Pardew soon arrived to take full control of the club and reached the play-off final in successive years. Defoe and Michael Carrick were the last of the Hammers youth products to leave, joining Tottenham in 2004 (Defoe in January, Carrick in the summer), but Pardew finally sealed the club's return to the top flight with a much-changed side in 2005.