Sam Allardyce has sent West Ham down before. When they were relegated in 2003, the side that stayed up at their expense were Bolton Wanderers. Their battle for survival went to the final day and ended with Allardyce dancing with Jay Jay Okocha on the pitch at the Reebok Stadium after the home team's victory over Middlesbrough condemned West Ham to the Championship. For the Hammers it was a disaster.
It was no less disastrous than this season, though. Close to 11 years down the line, the prospect of relegation is staring West Ham in the face again, with Saturday's 3–3 home draw against West Bromwich Albion leaving them in 19th place, a point behind Crystal Palace in 17th and a point above Sunderland in 20th.
Yet there is one crucial difference between now and 2003. This time West Ham's players do not turn to the dugout and see Glenn Roeder. Nor do they see Avram Grant, who was in charge when they dropped in 2011. Instead they see Allardyce, although whether that provides supporters with much comfort is unlikely at the moment.
Many West Ham fans have wanted Allardyce out for a while, insistent that his pragmatic methods are at odds with their "academy of football". For those who oppose him, Allardyce was a necessary evil when David Sullivan and David Gold asked him to pick up the pieces left by Grant in 2011.
The club was on its knees and Allardyce dragged it back to its feet, winning promotion via the play-offs in his first season and finishing 10th in the Premier League last year, yet he still had his enemies. He was tolerated, never loved. Now Allardyce dares not lose Wednesday's six-pointer at Fulham, the last side to be beaten by West Ham. That was seven games ago.
Allardyce came with a cast-iron safety guarantee but that belief has been shaken by the side's dreadful form this season, during which they have averaged less than a point and a goal a game.
There are mitigating circumstances. Allardyce points to injuries, which is why the board is reluctant to panic. West Ham were missing James Collins, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Ravel Morrison, Winston Reid and Ricardo Vaz Tê against West Brom and James Tomkins's early injury meant they have no fit centre-backs left in the squad.
Since Reid's ankle injury at the start of November West Ham's previously solid defence – they have kept eight clean sheets in total this season – has conceded 20 goals in their past nine matches. Of the senior players that remain unharmed Kevin Nolan's poaching instincts have abandoned him and Mohamed Diamé has the look of a man playing for himself, not the team.
However, the Carroll excuse wore thin months ago. West Ham knew he had an injured heel when they signed him from Liverpool for £15m last summer but they still went into the season with one fit striker, Modibo Maïga, who has only recently started to find his feet.
Failing to sign another striker was an unacceptable mistake by Allardyce and the board, especially as its remaining funds went on signing Downing for £6m, also from Liverpool. Without Carroll Allardyce's Plan A fell apart. Plan B was the strikerless formation that was first seen in the 3-0 win at Tottenham in October but that fizzled out when Vaz Tê, whose mobility made it work, injured a shoulder.
At least Carroll is training with the first team again. "It is very good news but it is slow progress," Neil McDonald, Allardyce's assistant, said. "It is good that we have got him on the training field and he has joined in with the football with a select group we have brought in to train with him. He had a couple of training sessions and it [his injury] went again so we have got to be very careful with him."
McDonald was speaking on Monday because Allardyce was on the phone talking about transfer targets, with a new centre-back and a striker the priority. West Ham hope he signs someone as mercurial as Youri Djorkaeff, who helped rescue Bolton in their first season in the Premier League in 2002, after joining them in February.
The manager, who has never been relegated from the Premier League, has of course been in this situation before. Bolton were in trouble in 2002-03 after winning four of their first 25 matches. Allardyce found a way. With Okocha in magical form, Bolton won six of their final 13 matches and he also kept Blackburn up after replacing Paul Ince in 2008.
Perhaps that is why Sullivan and Gold have stuck by him. They have been burnt by their loyalty to managers before and have admitted that they should have sacked Grant long before they did, yet they believe that Allardyce will get West Ham out of this mess even if he did make it.