PL25: West Ham 2002/03 – The greatest team to be relegated from the Premier League

Over a 38-game season, there is little room for excuses. Playing each club twice is a more than satisfactory sample to weed out any anomalies like controversial refereeing decisions and provide a true litmus test of a team’s quality compared to the rest of the division. As the old adage goes, the table doesn’t lie; wherever you end up by the close of May – regardless of a title triumph, a relegation or something in between – is exactly where you deserve to be.

Yet, when stretched over the Premier League’s 25-year history, there is perhaps one exception to the rule – the West Ham side that plummeted out of the top flight in 2002/03 with 42 points, the most of any team to be relegated since the Premier League switched from a 42-game to a 38-game campaign.

But that unrivalled haul is much more than simply an unwanted record for the Hammers. It’s two points more than any club has gained whilst finishing in 18th place, two points more than the traditional theory of 40-point safety and six points more than the 18th-placed average of 36 throughout the Premier League era.

The seasons before and after, 42 points would have seen West Ham finish in 16th, and The Telegraph even claim 42 points gives a team a 98.4% chance of staying up – meaning West Ham going down was a less than two-in-one-hundred occurrence.

In a nutshell, in any other Premier League season, and if the Premier League went on for another 75 years, the laws of probably suggest no side would go down with 42 points. In fact, that return would have seen West Ham finish in 14th last season. It was an incredible statistical anomaly, a once-in-a-life-time misfortune, that resulted in two years in the second tier and squandered the most promising raft of young players the club has produced since the 1960s.

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It’s not merely a question of the numbers contrasting with the rest of Premier League history. When looking at the quality West Ham had in their ranks that season and knowing they eventually went down, recording the highest points haul of any relegated side is no great surprise – the Irons’ 2002/03 squad has a pretty strong case for being the best Premier League team ever not to avoid the drop.

Indeed, that West Ham squad included nine players who either did play or went onto play for England, amassing a staggering 286 caps in total. Amongst that rabble were Les Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe, two members of the Premier League’s 100-club, an England No.1 in David James, a Champions League winner in Michael Carrick and a runner up in Joe Cole – undoubtedly one of the greatest, most natural England talents of his generation.

And then there’s the small matter of the rest of West Ham’s strike-force; in addition to Ferdinand and Defoe, the Irons’ attacking options included Freddie Kanoute, who later went onto score a staggering amount of goals for Sevilla, Titi Camara following a cult-hero spell at Liverpool and of course, Paolo Di Canio – a true icon of the early Premier League era and one of the most talented players in the division.

Make no mistake, not every West Ham player was up to the required standard. Winterburn, Ferdinand and Camara were well into their twilight years, whilst the likes of Christian Dailly, Tomas Repka and Ian Pearce – the Irons’ three most-used defenders that season – certainly won’t be remembered in that company. Loan signing Edouard Cisse, Rufus Brevett, Scott Minto and Lee Bowyer weren’t up to much that season either.

Yet, the squad still has that mix of youth and experience, promise and proven ability, true quality and industriousness that should have seen then rival their seventh-place finish the season previous rather than find themselves bottom at Christmas, winning just three of their first 24 Premier League fixtures.

From then on, results picked up drastically; the Irons picked up seven wins from their final 14 games, averaging 2.2 points per match, as the quality of the side truly began to tell. But it proved to be too little too late and West Ham fell victim to a typical relegation curse – an away game on the final day of the season. Statistically, at least in 2015, only 42% of sides on the road for final game relegation deciders manage to survive – West Ham, enduring a 2-2 draw with Birmingham, unfortunately did not.

And thus, West Ham took their unique place in Premier League history at St. Andrew’s, becoming the greatest and statistically most unfortunate side to drop out of the division since the switch to the 38-game season.

Over a decade may have passed and West Ham may have suffered a more embarrassing relegation since then, finishing the 2010/11 campaign in bottom place, but that place in the Premier League annals won’t be particularly comforting for West Ham fansl their relegation saw an exodus of incredible English talent to the Premier League’s top clubs – namely Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson – and players like Kanoute and Di Canio eventually move on before the club returned to the top flight.

Likewise, whilst the previous season had seen the east Londoners reach seventh place – nowadays, Europa League territory – they wouldn’t hit those heights again for over a decade. Before 2002/03 had started, it felt like West Ham were on the cusp of greatness; by the end years of progress had been undone.

In any other Premier League season, however, the Hammers would have got away with it. It just so happened in 2002/03 that the footballing gods decided to play a particularly cruel hand.