Football: Beckham rides the storm

England's boo boy passes his Upton Park endurance test but United are thwarted by the Hammers
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The Independent Online
West Ham United 0

Manchester United 0

Attendance: 26,039

DAVID BECKHAM, newly announced father-to-be, knew that at Upton Park yesterday they would not be giving him congratulations cards. His first apearance for Manchester United on an away ground since his World Cup dismissal was no less bawdy than he anticipated, but in the end he and United quietly played out a match of much hype, little horror and one that said rather more about West Ham's pride than United's potential.

Pleas to give Beckham some respite from the continuing abuse for costing England dear through his petulance in the World Cup were never going to be taken seriously by an East-end crowd who pressed in hard on the edges of the pitch like ringsiders at some barbaric bare-knuckle fight. But he is a Leytonstone-born lad, well aware that Upton Park is not Glyndebourne.

As Paul Ince, the former West Ham player, has regularly discovered, there is a particularly unforgiving, embittered little group of Hammers fans who are never satisfied with the harmless baiting that, to varying degrees, has always been a part of football's vitality. Clearly they subscribe to one of the West Ham fanzines that yesterday had a red back cover with a Beckham "You are not forgiven" message.

A couple of seasons ago while playing at Old Trafford against West Ham, Beckham had been teased relentlessly about his relationship with Posh Spice, and last season at Upton Park the taunting went on. The incident in the World Cup merely added some justification for the crowd to up the ante. And they began that well before the game started yesterday, lining the roads to jeer the arriving Manchester United coach and packing the car park perimeter fence. The coach arrived with one damaged window following a small barrage of bottles and cans.

At the last moment before the match, West Ham had to stand down their new signing from Arsenal, Ian Wright, with a training injury which relieved the occasion of one possible cause of problems. His on-going confrontation with Peter Schmeichel would have added another flash point to Neil Ruddock's first game against Andy Cole since his tackle in a reserve match fractured Cole's leg. It was still a match with enough vendettas to satisfy a rank of Sicilian taxi drivers.

Of special importance to Manchester United was to see whether Dwight Yorke, bought from Aston Villa on Thursday for pounds 12.6 million (and relegating Paul Scholes to a substitute's role) would quickly settle in, allowing Ryan Giggs to persevere with a more central, playmaker's role. Alex Ferguson's summer spending had one aim: to build a deep squad for United's European future. Defeat by Arsenal in the Charity Shield and an injury-time equaliser by Beckham to rescue them against Leicester, had not suggested that they were rushing into form domestically.

Yorke's enthusiasm for an instant impression was almost rewarded as Giggs drifted in a fifth-minute centre, Yorke rushed into the goal area only for the ball to be brushed away by Ruddock's arm. The referee missed the contact but gave the corner. West Ham had to defend alertly, and did so getting John Hartson into a match he had not expected to play until Wright's late withdrawal. He had missed 10 days' training with an injury of his own.

Beckham's reception got no less loud. He was even jeered as he fell awkwardly and seemed for a moment to have sustained a neck injury. But it was a game that in spite of its build-up became comparatively thoughtful, with Ruddock and Rio Ferdinand diligent against Yorke and Cole and Stan Lazaridis taking the ball out of Roy Keane's iron tackles. The home crowd delighted in Beckham's shooting high over the bar but United's opportunities were the greater and Cole rattled the crossbar, albeit after an offside decision.

The alignment of Yorke and Cole together at the head of the United attack was not an immediate success. With Giggs also moving into their attacking zone, the impression was of an over-abundance of players looking for the same chance. Cole, though, was always the most likely to find a way out of the confusion of United's own making. Shortly before half-time he made enough space to force a fine deflecting save from Shaka Hislop whose intervention was just as important as a crucial block by Keane on Hartson as he bundled through the United guard.

In an effort to bring about the width upon which United traditionally rely, they altered Giggs's role in the second half, asking him to remain further left and to run at Andrew Impey. That depended on United's midfield winning sufficient possession, which they found difficult. Beckham was far from dominant, and Nicky Butt not at his most tenacious.

Doubts over the wisdom of West Ham obtaining Ruddock may only be answered in the longer term, but here he brought them a powerful extra defensive link. His superb interception of Yorke early in the second half was the stuff of experience and typical commitment.

United's answer to their inability to get their front men into seriously threatening situations was to replace Cole with Teddy Sheringham - height for dexterity, almost an admission of failure for a team intending to match the most skilful sides in Europe.

Deep into the second half, Ruddock continued to get an outstretched foot to all manner of dangers. That forced United into trying to overcome their problems with power rather than stealth, though the shots of Butt, Keane and Giggs were no more damaging. West Ham's breakaways became fewer although the introduction of Samassi Abou added some original thinking and inventive footwork.

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