Football: Black spot for bright Kitson

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The Independent Online
West Ham United 2

Kitson 10, 32

Everton 2

Branch 78, Ferguson 90

Attendance: 24,525

West Ham slipped back into the relegation zone, their talent for self-destruction never more apparent than in this failure to win a match they dominated for so long.

Ludek Miklosko will take his share of the blame for turning victory into a draw that might not be enough, in the final analysis, to save their Premiership skins. Two minutes into injury time, the goalkeeper came out to take Nicky Barmby's long free-kick, flapped at it ineffectually and then watched in horror as Duncan Ferguson side-footed the equaliser.

All that can be said in Miklosko's defence is that it should never have come to that and, if Paul Kitson had completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot early in the second half, it never would have.

Hugo Porfirio, whose performance in a free-roving role was one of the highlights of West Ham's display in the first half, was brought down by Richard Dunne, and Kitson, with two fine goals already to his credit, was the sentimental, if reluctant, choice to take the kick. His effort was neither firm enough nor well enough placed to beat Neville Southall and the chance to kill off Everton was gone.

A combination of that escape and the arrival at half-time of the enigmatic Barmby had a revitalising effect on visitors who had seemed drained by their midweek efforts in the Merseyside derby. It was Barmby's cross, nodded down by Ferguson, that brought a goal for Michael Branch 14 minutes from time and with that panic set in.

Everton had an appeal for a penalty turned down when Branch went over after Richard Hall's challenge, but, just as it looked as though the Hammers would survive, an unnecessary foul by their substitute, Marc Rieper, allowed Barmby to set up what might be the fatal blow to their survival ambitions.

The West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp, was less vitriolic about Miklosko's blunder than he was about the circumstances surrounding the penalty. "If we had scored it, the game's over," he said. "But we've given it to a boy who isn't interested in taking penalties. What is it? A testimonial match? We're in a relegation battle."

In the absence of the injured Julian Dicks, John Hartson was West Ham's designated penalty taker and Redknapp was plainly furious at the heart- rules-head decision to foist the task on to Kitson. "That was the killer for us. I can't believe the unprofessionalism of it," he railed.

And yet Kitson, up to that point, was having the sort of game in which anyone would have backed him to put away the spot-kick with ease. His failure to do so could prove monumentally costly at the end of the season, which is a harsh judgement on a player who had looked a world beater in that first half.