One by one they walked off, the golden generation. Jermain Defoe shirtless; Joe Cole man of a match he would never wish to remember; Paolo Di Canio staring straight ahead, perhaps contemplating his pledge to commit suicide if West Ham were relegated. In the middle, eyes cast down, was Trevor Brooking, the man who epitomised all the grace and dignity of Upton Park, who had offered himself as manager after Glenn Roeder had collapsed in his office suffering from a brain tumour. They had taken 22 points from their last 11 matches and it was not enough.
Up in the stands at St Andrew's were David Gold and David Sullivan, who in 2003 were owners of Birmingham City but had been brought up West Ham fans; Gold amid what he called the "stench of poverty" of London's East End, Sullivan, further out in Hornchurch. Now they stand where Brooking once stood, at the helm of a West Ham side, perhaps not as glittering as that one, preparing for the electric chill of relegation.
Neither was at Manchester City a fortnight ago, nor was the vice-chairman Karren Brady. Gold and Brady had reasonable excuses, one was in hospital recovering from septicaemia, the other celebrating her daughter's 15th birthday. Sullivan might have travelled to Manchester but said it would have done no good as he could not "influence the result". He donated his travel costs to charity. Today there will be 34 coaches, paid for by the club, travelling to Wigan, full of supporters who will not be able to influence the result. Anything other than victory will see West Ham, already laden with £80m of debt, go down.
The PR of a struggling club is serene optimism. Jonathan Spector told West Ham United TV that he would be targeting "six points from six as West Ham seek to pull off perhaps the greatest escape in their history". He could hardly have targeted anything else but the sounds from the boardroom at Upton Park, which like the training ground at Chadwell Heath is owned by the banks, have been universally pessimistic.
When Birmingham were relegatedin 2008, Brady remarked that selling Emile Heskey might be sufficient to stave off the creditors, but now the mood has an apocalyptic feel to it. As early as 28 April, after their 3-0 defeatby Chelsea, Sullivan publicly rated their chances of survival at "between 25 and 30 per cent". He added: "This club is in a worse financial position than any other in the country", which seems an exaggeration when viewed from Plymouth, whose players have not been paid in months.
"All the club's debts are football-related and the bank debts are secured on the stadium and the training ground," he said. "There is no possibility of a way out through administration." Brady said that Gold and Sullivan had "dreams the size of whales" when they took over West Ham last year, acknowledging they were now tadpole-like.
Given that their final two fixtures see them play Wigan, who they have beaten in four of their last five meetings, and Sunderland, who have lost their last four matches at the Boleyn Ground, there are straws to cling to. However, before receiving his Footballer of the Year award on Thursday night, Scott Parker said: "I would be lying if I said we had a good opportunity of surviving."
Gold and Sullivan stated they would take full responsibility should West Ham fail. That responsibility runs very deep and starts with the appointment of Avram Grant. This time last year, Grant was preparing for an FA Cup final in the wake of relegation. He had managed a financially-ruined Portsmouth with dignity. He had come within one penalty kick of giving Roman Abramovich what he craved, a European Cup won in Moscow.
However, good managers do not relegate big clubs. Since the Premier League's inception there have been seven authentically big teams to have been relegated. Three – Nottingham Forest in 1993, West Ham in 2003 and Newcastle two years ago – were run by men afflicted by alcoholism or serious illness (Brian Clough, Roeder and Joe Kinnear). Two – Blackburn in 1999 and Leeds in 2004 – by men who had either never managed beforeor who had essentially retired from front-line football (Brian Kidd and Eddie Gray).
Where does that leave Grant? When removing Gianfranco Zola, whose campaign total of 35 points would have seen West Ham relegated, Gold and Sullivan were accused of a ruthless lack of sentiment, but with Grant, they have not been ruthless enough.
There are some West Ham fans who wonder if Mark Hughes would have been a better choice and there are many who wonder why they did not go through with their plan to appoint Martin O'Neill in January.
It was botched like an African military coup and, if Brady, Gold and Sullivan knew anything about O'Neill, it should have been that he has a low embarrassment threshold and likes total control. At Upton Park he would probably have got neither. It is almost certain that none of the clubs that changed managers mid-season will be relegated. Had they waited they might have got Roy Hodgson.
Eight years ago, the golden generation fled Upton Park – Michael Carrick to Tottenham, Di Canio to Charlton, David James to Manchester City, Cole to Chelsea. Defoe handed in a transfer request less than 24 hours after relegation, a piece of tactlessness for which he has not been forgiven in east London.
The names of Green, Hitzlsperger,Noble and Parker may soon be removed from West Ham shirts. They may not be a golden generation or even silver but they don't deserve to be the base metal they have become.
Today's other games
Arsenal v Aston Villa (4pm, Sky Sports 1)
The most significant moment at the Emirates this afternoon may come after the final whistle, when Cesc Fabregas waves to the crowd, whether he has played or not. Au revoir or cheerio for good? A home win would maintain pressure on Chelsea for second position, and keep Manchester City at bay for the automatic Champions' League group place. Villa supporters, meanwhile, head for their lowest finish for five years uncertain whether the incapacitated Gérard Houllier will still be the manager come August.
Birmingham City v Fulham (4pm)
Three defeats in four games have left Birmingham needing another victory to feel comfortable and Fulham, having only recently achieved their second away win of the season, may prove accommodating visitors. Mark Hughes's side have just conceded five goals to Liverpool – as Birmingham did three weeks ago – and the only remaining ambition is to finish in the top half of the table, which would still be a creditable effort.
Chelsea v Newcastle United (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
The title having disappeared, Chelsea supporters will be keen to know if Carlo Ancelotti inevitably follows. Like Fabregas at the Emirates, his wave to the crowd may give a clue, for it is widely assumed that he is on his way out after being beaten by Manchester United in the two most important competitions. But Alan Pardew can at least look forward to another season in charge after managing to keep Newcastle on a remarkably even keel.
Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur (4pm)
The chants of "Dalglish" will be more exuberant than ever following confirmation that canny Kenny has belatedly been confirmed as manager. Securing fifth place ahead of Spurs would follow a victory here, bringing the dubious prize of a place in the Europa League and prompting another Harry Redknapp speech about the need for a couple more top-class players to compete with all the teams above him.
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