One of the most stereotypically male traits, alongside leaving the toilet seat up and the inclination towards ‘banter’ as a means of demonstrating affection, is the desire to list things. This may explain the conspicuous lack of female train-spotters. While life is essentially many different shades of grey, rankings are often used by people attempting to order the subjective and have formed the basis of countless pub conversations. Scores of Top 10 lists, under the guise of provoking debate, proliferate the internet in a manner that screams content filler.
Many football outlets have resorted to this ubiquitous technique in order to compensate for the absence of any live action to discuss. For example, the BBC recently asked voters to select the most miraculous escape from relegation in the Premier League era. Options ranged from Portsmouth’s survival in 2006 under Harry Redknapp to Sunderland’s late surge in 2014 inspired by Connor Wickham’s heartbreakingly brief transformation into the Mackem Aguero.
There was one glaring omission. In March 2007, West Ham United were rooted to the bottom of the league and ten points from safety with nine games remaining. Just over two months later, the team had won seven matches and completed a miraculous escape by winning at newly-crowned champions Manchester United. Most incredibly of all, they achieved the impossible and made millions of neutrals sympathise with Dave Whelan and Neil Warnock.
For this was perhaps the maddest season in the history of the club, with twists and turns that would have been rejected as too outlandish by Hollywood scriptwriters. It involved the most left-field double transfer in recent history, an Icelandic takeover, unprecedented legal challenges, turmoil within the changing room and staggering incompetence on the pitch before the unexpectedly dramatic season finale. At times, it seemed the whole country wished to see them relegated. Their eventual survival proved incredibly controversial.
As ever pride came before the fall. Led by Alan Pardew, the club had managed an eye-catching return to top-flight football finishing ninth in the league and playing some attractive football. Alongside this, West Ham were minutes away from winning the FA Cup and were incredibly unlucky to lose the final to Liverpool. With a young squad packed full of exciting players such as Matthew Etherington, Yossi Benayoun and Dean Ashton, optimism was high that the team could push on the following season.
However, cracks were beginning to appear beneath the surface. In retrospect, the heartbreaking nature of the Cup Final defeat took an emotional toll on the group. The club signed numerous players in the summer of 2006 but only goalkeeper Robert Green seemed ready-made for the first-team.
Most galling of all was losing Ashton, a revelation since his January move from Norwich. Days before his England debut, a heavy tackle by Shaun Wright-Phillips in training injured the striker’s ankle and he would subsequently miss the entire season. Despite the club possessing numerous strikers, his absence would be keenly felt.
These developments were soon overshadowed by a remarkable double transfer, setting the tone for a chaotic season. When asked about the prospect of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano joining West Ham, Pardew replied ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s never going to happen’.
So he might. The idea of two of South America’s hottest talents, who had starred for Argentina in that year’s World Cup, plying their trade in East London seemed remote. By the end of August, Pardew was stood introducing the two players with the same disbelieving air of a Tudor king discovering the internet.
The deal was shrouded in mystery. It eventually turned out that the rights to Tevez and Mascherano were owned by four companies representing Kia Joorabchian. Premier League rules prohibited third-party ownership and a sense that the deal was more than a little shady began to permeate discussions surrounding the Argentine pair. The old adage that something too good to be true probably is rang true.
Results capitulated. The Hammers failed to score a goal in seven successive games and slid towards the bottom of the league. The club’s first European campaign in seven years ended in the First Round and they were ignominiously dumped out of the League Cup by Chesterfield. The feeling grew that a culture of complacency pervaded throughout the club.
Rumours circulated that the arrival of Tevez and Mascherano had put noses out of joint. The dependable Hayden Mullins was replaced in the team by Mascherano, while Bobby Zamora made way for Tevez despite starting the season in hot form. Both Argentinians struggled with the pace of English football. After his substitution during a home win over Sheffield United, Tevez stormed out of Upton Park and Pardew decided to leave his punishment up to the rest of the squad. They made him train wearing a Brazil shirt.
Alongside the on-field slump, the club had a change of ownership in November. Surprisingly, the new owner was not the expected Joorabchian but Icelandic billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who installed Eggert Magnusson as chairman.
Possessing the world’s shiniest head, Magnusson immediately gave his support to Pardew. However, a miserable run of defeats that culminated in a televised surrender to Bolton Wanderers in December was the final straw. Pardew was sacked.
There is an argument that Pardew was hard done by. He had built the squad that had rescued the club from Championship purgatory and had done an impressive job the season before. On the other hand, there were claims that the manager was too soft on his players and discipline had suffered accordingly. His sacking was probably justified.
He was replaced by ex-Charlton manager Alan Curbishley who was also a former West Ham player. The change had an immediate effect – the team managed an improbable home win over Manchester United but this proved a mirage. The club would not win another league game until mid-March.
The period would be marked by a succession of embarrassing defeats. West Ham managed to lose twice at home to bottom club Watford – once in the league and once in the FA Cup. New Year’s Day saw a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Reading. There was also a 4-0 defeat at fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic, now managed by Pardew. Chants of ‘You’re Not Fit to Wear The Shirt’ reverberated amongst the support.
By now, the toxicity of the dressing room was becoming apparent. After the humbling at Reading, Curbishley tore into his players and denounced the player’s penchant for fast cars and flashy lifestyles. They were instantly dubbed the ‘Baby Bentley brigade’ by a gleeful media enjoying rubber-necking at the enfolding car-crash.
No player epitomised this more than captain Nigel Reo-Coker. His impressive debut season in the Premier League led to his inclusion on the standby list for England’s World Cup squad. There were subsequent rumours of interest from Manchester United and Arsenal. Many sources within the club claimed that the midfielder’s head was turned and doubts began to surface about his attitude. He was central to a dressing room clique that also included Anton Ferdinand, Mullins, Zamora and Marlon Harewood. Curbishley was aghast.
There were also concerns about the gambling culture within the squad. Two members of the team, Etherington and Roy Carroll, undertook counselling and treatment for addiction problems and players were haemorrhaging vast amounts of money to each other during card games. According to The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson, figures were as high as £50,000 during one sitting. Attempts at eradicating these card schools were repeatedly unsuccessful. It was perhaps no wonder that the atmosphere in the dressing room was appalling.
Magnusson attempted to remedy the problem by embarking on a January spending spree that was unprecedented in West Ham’s history. The signings of Luis Boa Morte, Calum Davenport, Lucas Neill, Nigel Quashie, Kepa Blanco and Matthew Upson were aimed at creating a more professional culture within the club. Disheartened at the prospect of challenging Quashie for a midfield spot, Mascherano escaped to Liverpool. He had lost in every appearance he made for the club.
Despite this, the situation seemed hopeless. Resentment grew amongst senior players at the wages being paid to Upson and Neill. Neill had reportedly rejected a move to Anfield due to the more lucrative salary offered by West Ham and Upson only made two injury-curtailed appearances before the end of the season. Players, staff and directors were privately resigned to relegation.
These feelings intensified after an extraordinary match against Tottenham in early March. The team’s performance was notably more committed and Tevez scored his first goal for the club with a delicious free-kick. Leading 2-0 at half-time and 3-2 in the final minute, West Ham conspired to lose the game 4-3. Words cannot do justice to gut-wrenching nature of the defeat and a young Mark Noble wondered round the pitch in tears at the match’s conclusion. Relegation seemed certain.
Yet something had clicked. In their very next game, West Ham came from behind to win at Blackburn Rovers with a goal from Zamora that failed to cross the line. The revitalised team carried this piece of good fortune with them and wins followed over Middlesbrough and Arsenal, the latter a heist founded upon an outstanding performance by Green.
Tevez had finally come to life and his performances galvanized the team. However, this narrative overlooks the vital contribution of other players. Ferdinand formed a sturdy partnership with James Collins in defence. Noble belied his tender years with mature performances in midfield. Zamora contributed vital goals. Above all, the leadership of Neill proved invaluable.
In the background, the prospect of a points deduction loomed. However, despite an independent Premier League commission charged West Ham with breaking third-party ownership rules, the club instead received a record £5.5m fine. Even though, in the manner of The Producers, the defendants had been found ‘incredibly guilty’ there was still all to play for on the field. Fellow bottom-dwellers, particularly Wigan and Sheffield United, sharpened their knives.
The day after the commission’s announcement, West Ham won 3-0 away at Whelan’s Wigan. Following a Tevez-inspired win over Bolton, the club were out of the relegation zone for the first time in months. Going into the final game of the season, the Hammers only had to avoid defeat at Old Trafford to survive relegation. In another plot twist, Sheffield United hosted Wigan with the away team needing a win to stand any chance of survival.
West Ham were battered by Manchester United with the home crowd chanting ‘send them down’. Shots were cleared off the line and the defending became increasingly desperate. Nevertheless, United failed to score and on the stroke of half-time Tevez slotted home the decisive goal of the game. At Bramall Lane, David Unsworth’s penalty saved Wigan and relegated Sheffield United.
The Blades were apoplectic. Sir Alex Ferguson had rested Manchester United players with the following week’s FA Cup final in mind and manager Neil Warnock accused him of compromising the integrity of the competition. This declaration ignored the presence of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes on the pitch at the end of the game. It also conveniently overlooks how Sheffield United thrashed West Ham 3-0 in mid-April, Tevez included.
Eventually, Sheffield United had their day in court. In 2009, they agreed a settlement of £18.1m with West Ham paid in instalments that ended in 2013. In spite of this windfall, the Yorkshire club would spend another decade outside the top flight. By 2015, FIFA had globally outlawed third-party ownership.
Meanwhile, West Ham’s Icelandic owners saw their wealth wiped out by the global recession and sold up in 2010. West Ham were relegated a year later. It can also be argued the club’s reputation never fully recovered from the Tevez saga.
Tevez himself departed for Manchester United in 2007 having written himself into West Ham folklore with his performances. Having pulled off the Great Escape, Irons fans everywhere breathed a huge sigh of relief having somehow managed to survive.
It truly was the maddest and most surreal season in the history of the club.