Armstrong finds the safety net

Crystal Palace1 Armstrong 50 West Ham United0 Attendance: 18,224
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The Independent Online
CHRIS Armstrong, one of several Crystal Palace players recently to have felt the sharp edge of manager Alan Smith's usually smooth tongue, yesterday made ample amends by scoring the goal that kept Palace's Premiership fate in their own hands. It also left West Ham in danger of needing to beat Manchester United on the last day of their season, when United themselves may need victory to take the championship.

Smith now has to inspire two similar performances at Leeds and Newcastle before he probably leaves or is told to leave Selhurst Park. "I love a fight," he said last night. "I love this club and I've done a long stint here. We've got a positive attitude now but we've got to kill off games like this."

Among his many breast-beating confessions in these difficult times, Smith had complained that when he saw the "lads" from the East End play Blackburn last weekend they had looked a lot tougher mentally and physically than had his stockbroker-belt squad for many a week. Whether such criticism was intended to sting Palace into this fighting finish or was just personal depression it was hard to say, but the club's chairman, Ron Noades, had no doubt that it was another example of Smith losing the sight of the need for unity. The pity of it all was that sometimes this season Palace have looked on the verge of becoming a better than mid-table side - though only sometimes. Yesterday was not one of those days, but how they scrapped.

West Ham's run of eight undefeated games had confirmed what Smith was saying and, when Eric Young miscued a third-minute back pass to the returning Palace goalkeeper Nigel Martyn, Jeroen Boere was only denied a goal because he dragged at Young to get at the ball. Having sweated that one out on this enervating day, Palace seemed to get the better of a lot of long- ball stuff that told of mutual worry.

It was in midfield that West Ham gradually threatened to consolidate, forcing Palace to defend deeper and depriving Armstrong and Iain Dowie of the possession they enjoyed early on.

Too many of Palace's attacks instigated by John Salako on the left ended aimlessly, too close to the long reach of Ludek Miklosko, whose quick and thoughtful clearances set up the majority of West Ham's better moves.

Tension increased but Palace responded well. A defence-deceiving one- two between Dean Gordon and Ray Houghton ended with Gordon's shot clipping the bar. That was the incentive Palace needed, and after 50 minutes Houghton was forcing his way into the West Ham penalty area. His shot appeared to be handled by Julian Dicks, but the appeals were unnecessary because he struck the rebound so fiercely that Miklosko could do no more than parry it and Armstrong hit in probably his most important goal for the club.

Palace felt strongly that they should have made the game completely safe when a drive from Dowie was goal-bound and Dicks seemed to block it with his arm. But the referee was well placed and refused the appeals.

Enormous effort by Houghton and Richard Shaw kept Palace marginally in control but the balance was so fine that the home crowd fell silent as Matthew Holmes turned and shot late in the game. Martyn dived and managed to flick the ball round the post, possibly to ensure Palace's safety.