They moved the ball quickly and gracefully, the three kids at the heart of West Ham’s midfield. There was no hint of any fear, no sign of Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard shrinking.
They took the ball in difficult areas and it was impossible not to admire how they determined they were to seize the moment against Manchester United, who would exit the FA Cup after Fabien Barthez’s foolhardy decision to impersonate a man hailing a cab allowed Paolo Di Canio to steal a famous win.
The abiding image from that day at Old Trafford is of Barthez standing with his right arm aloft in an attempt to kid Di Canio into thinking he was offside after being played through by Freddie Kanouté in the 76th minute.
West Ham’s captain was far too wily to fall for the con. He kept his composure as he advanced and to the disbelief of the 9,000 travelling West Ham fans stabbed the ball past Barthez with his right foot. I was incredulous. Could it really be happening? Were West Ham really on their way to knocking United out of the Cup? Were they really 1-0 up at Old Trafford?
The mind drifted back to West Ham taking an early lead in a league game at the Theatre of Dreams a year earlier and United exacting brutal vengeance, scoring seven in reply. There were 14 minutes left. It felt too long to hold out. Surely United were going to score. To channel Clive Tyldesley, United always scored.
In that context we had not travelled with much hope. Harry Redknapp’s entertaining but unreliable side had lost 3-1 against United in the league three weeks earlier and tended to be pretty useless when they visited the big sides. United, well on their way to collecting a third consecutive Premier League title, were expected to cruise into the fifth round.
Sir Alex Ferguson picked his strongest possible team. Paul Scholes was unavailable but Jaap Stam was in central defence, Nicky Butt partnered Roy Keane in midfield, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were on the flanks and Andy Cole partnered Teddy Sheringham up front. There were threats to West Ham everywhere and United dominated the first half, creating several chances, especially when Giggs found room to dribble down the left.
It hardly helped West Ham that their goalkeeper, Shaka Hislop, was struggling with a knee injury. Early on Hislop sliced at a backpass and sent it spinning towards his own goal, only for Hannu Tihinen to race back and clear before Giggs could score. My dad and I were in agreement: this was going to be a long afternoon.
Yet United kept missing chances – Tihinen cleared off the line and Sheringham missed an open goal at the start of the second half – and West Ham gradually grew in confidence, thanks in no small part to the bravery and ability of Carrick, Cole and Lampard on the ball. Carrick was particularly impressive, pulling the strings from a deep position, and Cole caused countless problems with his trickery.
Ultimately it was a glimpse of what might have been. Two months had passed since West Ham sold Rio Ferdinand to Leeds for £18m. That was the beginning of the end, the first sign West Ham were incapable of holding on to the talent emerging from their academy. Lampard joined Chelsea at the end of the season and West Ham were relegated two years later, going down with a record 42 points.
If there is one moment that sums up that lost opportunity, it is Cole, Carrick and Lampard playing their way out of trouble on the edge of their own area and sparking the move that led to Di Canio’s winner. There was no doubting their ability; the problem was they would go on to win all their medals elsewhere.