United appeared taken aback in a first half by a West Ham side who looked only distant cousins to the porous outfits who traditionally fade and die north of Watford. Indeed, it came as little surprise when John Hartson, with his fourth goal of the season and the first United had conceded in the Premiership, put West Ham ahead.
Gradually United clawed their way back with the inspirational Roy Keane finding a fortuitous equaliser and, eventually, Paul Scholes heading home a cross by David Beckham as he had done for England against Moldova in midweek. Complacency returning to United, West Ham might even then have salvaged a point.
"I'm really disappointed," said the West Ham manager Harry Redknapp. "We have been playing well away from home but keep passing up chances. Still, we are much improved." "Good result, reasonable performance," said Alex Ferguson.
West Ham, the United manager conceded, had given his team a hard game. Redknapp's questionable dabbling in the foreign transfer market of a year ago is but a memory and their better balance and greater resilience was apparent.
In the under-rated Ludek Miklosko, they possess one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership, while up front Hartson and Paul Kitson, though the latter was profligate yesterday, have shown themselves a promising pair. The loss of Marc Rieper from their defence to Celtic for pounds 1.4 million last week was a blow but the time for them really to worry will be when they have to sell Rio Ferdinand, composed throughout yesterday as he responded well to being left out by England as a result of his drink-driving conviction.
Ferdinand was one of six young players on view who had been with the England squad in the previous week, and all five of United's found places in the starting line-up yesterday. Perhaps it was those exertions, or memories of the way West Ham used to be, but they began the match lethargically.
Indeed, with Eyal Berkovitch at his liveliest in support of Hartson and Kitson - a position United's central midfield players of Keane and Nicky Butt were having trouble dealing with John Moncur and Steve Lomas - West Ham began carving huge holes in the United defence.
One neat move between Berkovitch and Hartson, which freed Kitson for a low shot which Peter Schmeichel had to dive to save, seemed to shake United from their torpor and Keane strode upfield to rattle West Ham's crossbar with a thumping 25-yard shot.
All of a sudden, though, United found themselves a goal down. From Miklosko's drop kick, Gary Pallister sought to turn the ball back to Schmeichel but his pass was underhit and in stole Hartson to round the goalkeeper and tap home. Old Trafford was stunned.
Moments later, they should have been two down. The livewire Berkovitch once more caught United's defence square near the half-way line and slipped Kitson into a swathe of space. Schmeichel, typically, rescued his team again, however, with crucial save, even if the shot was too close to him.
Now United stirred themselves. Keane, leading forcefully, got round the back of the West Ham defence on the right but from his low cross, Andy Cole missed his kick. Then Miklosko saved well from Scholes's shot.
When the equaliser came, it did so fortuitously. Gary Neville found Ryan Giggs on the edge of the penalty area but his attempted flick through the defence broke only to Keane some 20 yards out. The Irishman drove in a shot, a deflection taking it over Miklosko.
Lashing rain gave way again to sunshine but West Ham still had some work to do to weather the storm and reach the break level, deservedly so. A neat cross from Beckham, hitherto subdued, found Cole for a header from close range that Miklosko did well to turn aside.
It did seem after the break that West Ham might cling on to the draw when Beckham's curling shot hit the bar, Ryan Giggs almost turned home Beckham's low cross and Scholes sidefooted wide Phil Neville's pass. Ferguson claimed later that he knew a winning goal would come. "We keep the momentum going and our passing stretches teams," he said. Duly, Beckham clipped in a piercing ball from the right and Scholes glanced it wide of Miklosko.
Sent through by Hartson, Kitson put another chance wide and a too-casual Schmeichel almost let a long-range shot by David Unsworth drop over his goal-line for an West Ham equaliser. United were back in sloppy mode. How daunting must it be, then, that they can still win and move clear at the top while their sights are more focused on Europe rather than any early-season jockeying for position.Reuse content