West Ham United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2
TO HEAR Billy Bonds talking after his team had put nine points between themselves and Leicester you would have been forgiven for thinking that West Ham, like Miss Whiplash resurfacing as a whipless frump, had undergone some sort of identity transplant.
They had 'grafted three points . . . worked very hard . . . defended well . . . rolled their sleeves up and compensated for the injured lads'. Any resemblance to the indolent purists everyone knows and loves to beat was, in other words, coincidental.
In fact, West Ham's deserved victory contained rather more of the club's traditional values than Bonds let on. Against a Leicester side who remain in the play-off frame, their passing was more precise and their control on a cut-up pitch superior.
West Ham finished bottom of the top section last season. Whereas Luton and Notts County, who also went down, occupy the last two places in the 'new' First Division, they are well placed to follow Newcastle up. Whether this team would fare significantly better than their predecessors must, however, be doubtful.
As the manager reiterated, confirming that there had been no offers for a transfer-listed quintet led by Tony Gale, there is little money available. And recruitment there would have to be, for West Ham are ill-equipped physically for the highest level. 'We're not a big side,' Bonds said, making the obvious exceptions of Gale and Ludek Miklosko. Yet the main characteristic of the Premier League is the emphasis on power.
The static state of the transfer market was reflected by the fact that even with Clive Allen, Martin, Foster and Dicks unavailable, West Ham fielded only three players not relegated with them. Mark Robson, Peter Butler and Matty Holmes are all slightly built, but the ex-Tottenham winger Robson, in particular, has a refreshing lightness of touch in tight situations.
He also has an eye for the main chance. With Leicester leading by a David Lowe volley straight out of the Mark Hughes manual, Robson tried a shot from 18 yards. When the ball came back off the thick blue line, he was lying on his side but still managed to hook the equaliser past Russell Hoult.
The 20-year-old keeper later left his line to gather Kevin Keen's free-kick, but failed to assert himself in the manner of Miklosko, watching mortified as Gale's header flew into an unguarded net.
Brian Little, the losing manager, believes West Ham are a vastly different proposition to the leaders. 'They're very patient,' he said, 'and that's one thing Newcastle aren't' He also feels they are better defensively; Lowe's goal was the first Miklosko had conceded in five League matches.
But how, Bonds was asked, did results like December's 5-2 trouncing at Tranmere and last week's 4-1 FA Cup capitulation at Barnsley square with this new resolve? 'That's West Ham,' he said, summing up in three words, a smile and a shrug of the shoulders, why they continue to be at once exasperating and endearing.
Goals: Lowe (7) 1-0; Robson (19) 1-1; Gale (53) 1-2.
Leicester City: Hoult; Mills, Gibson, Smith, Walsh, Hill (James, 69), Oldfield, Thompson, Joachim (Gee, 65), Lowe, Philpott.
West Ham United: Miklosko; Breacker, Brown, Potts, Gale, M Allen, Robson (Parris, 71), Butler, Morley, Holmes, Keen (Jones, 89).
Referee: K Redfern (Whitley Bay).