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FA Carling Premiership, 11/9/99
West Ham United
All the luck
By Ian Grant

Disappointing, of course. But don't dwell on it. Forget it, move on, Chelsea in a week. Post-mortems are for the summer.

There's no arguing with the result, unless you're a West Ham fan. Equally, though, there's no debating the fact that we have to take anything we can get from this monstrous five game sequence and then get on with beating our true competitors. It's not worth dwelling on a defeat at Upton Park in the way that we might if we lost at home to one of our relegation rivals. We haven't won there in fifteen years. We're in the process of playing the top five teams in the country, there is no tougher challenge around the corner.

Besides, the margin between success and failure remains small enough to be a cause of frustration rather than despair. No matter how utterly outclassed we were by the glitzy, occasionally breathtaking creative play of our opponents, one goal decided the destination of the points. As at Leicester, a sharper cutting edge may well have enabled us to steal something from a game in which we were clearly inferior - and a last minute equaliser would've sent us home delirious. If the opposition is generous enough not to go for the kill, we have to punish them.

For half an hour, we were quite splendid. Judging by Di Canio's increasingly entertaining body language - gently simmering away as the passes went astray, Basil Fawlty dubbed into Italian - our attempts to stifle West Ham's creative urges were working well. After an early scare - Keller volleying Sinclair's cross into the side netting, lunatic official Dermot Gallagher awarding a corner to the disbelief of the entire stadium - we were thoroughly solid.

Indeed, with Nick Wright and Allan Smart returning to add some badly needed control to our attacking efforts, our play in the final third was also encouraging. Encouraging, in that we actually had some shots at goal, and that's more than we managed at Leicester. After five minutes, fine vision from Micah Hyde played in Smart for a bobbling shot that was well saved by Neil Hislop at the foot of his post, Peter Kennedy unable to squeeze the rebound past the keeper from a narrow angle. Hislop gathered another Smart effort with greater ease a quarter of an hour later.

All looking good, then. Neither Wanchope nor Di Canio getting much change from Robert Page and Mark Williams, so strong as ever. The excellent, improving Paul Robinson sending Sinclair down dead-ends. West Ham heads were just starting to drop, especially when an endless passing move spread the ball all around the pitch and yet still found no way past relentless Watford pressing, huge jeers and cheers from the away section as the play finally concluded with an aimless, desperate punt over the touchline. Never dominating but certainly in control, more than holding our own, the home support virtually silent.

Perhaps we relaxed just a little. Perhaps we allowed ourselves to lose concentration, fatal against a forward line as unpredictable as West Ham's. Whatever, it all went very wrong, very suddenly.

The peace was shattered by penalty area bedlam after thirty-six minutes, moments of sheer madness that changed the pattern of the game permanently. It was insane - Di Canio's corner headed onto the bar by the unmarked Wanchope; Pearce pouncing on the rebound, blocked once by a desperate and brave lunge from Williams, then curling a shot back onto the still-rattling woodwork; the panic only ending when Wanchope's overhead was booted from the goalline by Robinson with Chamberlain beaten. The home fans returned to their seats, having risen in premature celebration, the away section exploded with laughter as much as relief.

Our luck didn't run out either. For the remainder of the half, West Ham's approach play was as scintillating as their finishing was shameful. We couldn't live with them. Lampard slashed wildly wide from the penalty spot; Wanchope slammed a shot into the advertising hoardings after a lethal Di Canio break and then hit the side netting a minute later. One way traffic. Watford hearts sank as Lomas broke through and was given time to pick his spot, his spot just happening to be a foot wide of the post; Chamberlain did enough to stop Lampard as he leapt forward onto Wanchope's flick. On the ropes, saved by the half-time whistle.

So, our survival was fortunate. Nonetheless, we did survive. Hope for the future can be found in the fact that these Premiership high flyers aren't quite as ruthless as their hype suggests. We were fortunate...but surely none of us seriously imagined that we wouldn't have to trust in luck at times this season?

The second half was played in a curious atmosphere. As if West Ham had actually taken their chances and gone in with a hefty interval lead, the home fans appeared satisfied while the away support grew slightly weary and disheartened. The Hammers always had something in reserve and, even with Pearce departed after fracturing his leg in a fifty-fifty challenge with Hyde, our ponderous attacking forays rarely carried a real threat. The gap in class was painfully evident.

Yet we should still be annoyed at having lost. From a West Ham point of view, the only goal was a masterpiece of quick thinking from Di Canio, whipping a right wing free kick past Chamberlain at the near post as everyone expected a cross. From our point of view, it was a painful lesson - the days of playing against predictable, send-your-central-defenders-forward-and-lob-the-ball-into-the-box set pieces are over, at least for now. Having lived through that manic ten minutes at the end of the first half, it seemed a little like surviving a game of Russian Roulette, only to accidentally shoot yourself in the foot while unloading the gun....

Di Canio began to turn on the style, further goals appeared inevitable, only heroics prevented them. Lyttle threw himself in front of Lampard to block after a superb move down the right wing involving Di Canio and Sinclair; Chamberlain announced his return to the side with an astounding save to push away Wanchope's free header, the Italian maestro again the supplier.

With half an hour remaining, there was no question about which side deserved to take all three points. Yet there was also no denying the scoreline, the prospect of a glorious injustice still very much in sight for Watford fans as long as Di Canio's goal was all that divided the sides. Suddenly, there was Mark Williams on the end of a typically vicious Kennedy free kick, all on his own at the far post, heading strongly goalwards, only Hislop's agility preventing the equaliser. That awoke Upton Park from its comfortable slumber....

And West Ham were all over us again. Awful defending at a corner allowed Keller a free shot at goal from the edge of the box, half the Watford players seemingly unaware that the ball was even in play - again, we have to get out of the habit of expecting predictable set pieces. Chamberlain saved us that time, but was rescued by goalline clearances on two other occasions as Watford clung grimly on to the one-goal deficit. Substitute Carrick fired over in the final minutes, after some truly dazzling trickery by Di Canio and Sinclair down by the corner flag.

So, despite everything, West Ham finished with just one goal. And, also despite everything, we can feel a little frustration that we didn't also finish with one goal and the delirium that I mentioned earlier. Huffing and puffing, with substitutions bringing fresh legs and mixed fortunes (while Michel Ngonge appears a different player, Johann Gudmundsson looks plainly out of his depth) and referee Gallagher doing his best to rid the game of any physical contact, we refused to accept defeat or our obvious limitations. One more moment to dwell on - Lyttle's awkward half-volley from outside the box, Hislop unable to deal with it convincingly, Mooney onto it....

....In my mind's eye, he hooks it back across goal and there's Ngonge diving in among a tangle of bodies in the six yard box to power a header into the net. And it all goes bonkers. And then I wake up, and remember that Tommy pretty much managed to clear the stand with his ambitious attempt at smashing the ball past Hislop from a narrow angle. Oh well.

A game that we should've lost by a bigger margin, then. And a game that we could've drawn. Apart from truly legendary Anfield-style performances, when you travel to the country's top teams you're going to need large slices of luck to come away with any kind of result. The disappointment of Saturday was that we had that luck and we didn't take advantage of it.