Bristol City vs West Ham United match report: Late Diafra Sakho header snatches glory for the Hammers

Bristol City 0 West Ham 1

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The Independent Online

A "power problem" apparently prevented West Ham United bringing their bubbles machine to Ashton Gate, but it was hosts Bristol City whose dreams faded and died. On the 21st anniversary of the fabled FA Cup win at Anfield that cost Graeme Souness his job Bristol City sought another scalp, but it was not to be. Having required a brace of goalline clearances to reach half-time on level terms the Premier League side pinched victory through substitute Diafra Sakho’s late goal.

The striker should be in west Africa rather than the west country but a back injury ruled him out of African Cup of Nations duty. His absence from Equatorial Guinea prompted Senegal Football Federation president Augustin Senghor to accuse West Ham of a ‘lack of respect’ and threaten to prevent Sakho playing for Hammers until the tournament finishes next month. In the event Sakho was allowed to make his first appearance since New Year’s Day and, said City manager Steve Cotterill, proved the difference between the teams.  

“We were never at our very best, but we had that bit of quality,” said Sam Allardyce. The West Ham manager, during four decades in the game, has never reached the FA Cup final. The closest was in 2000 when his Bolton Wanderers side followed a goalless semi-final with Aston Villa by losing the penalty shoot-out 4-1.

However, this year represents a real opportunity with West Ham able to focus on the competition being safe from relegation, but unlikely to reach the top four. Allardyce accordingly named his strongest available side including Winston Reid making his first start after a long absence with an ankle injury. City do have other commitments, but Cotterill also picked a strong XI.  

There was a real big-game atmosphere around Ashton Gate, and the sense of a club on the up. City are well-placed for an automatic return to the Championship, and on the brink of reaching Wembley in the Johnstone Paint Trophy - they take a two-goal first-leg lead into Thursday’s home semi-final against Gillingham.

There is progress off the pitch too. Opposite the Atyeo Stand iron girders rise from a building site where a new stand is going up, the first stage of a development which will eventually make Ashton Gate a 29,000 all-seat stadium.  

sakho-goal.jpg
Sakho heads in the 80th-minute winner

A three-sided ground can sometimes lack for atmosphere but the absence of fans at one end was hardly noticed as the Cider Army - all bedecked in free red-and-white scarves - bellowed out their anthems. City, buoyed by a run of six wins and a draw in seven matches, immediately took the game to the Hammers.

With former Arsenal pair Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Luke Freeman both dropping into pockets of space behind Matt Smith City were able to pull West Ham’s defence around. However, their best chances came from set-pieces with Matt Smith twice foiled by goalline clearances.

Smith rose to fame with Oldham Athletic in this competition two years ago when his goals put Liverpool out and took Everton to a replay. That earned him a big-money move to Leeds United, and a subsequent switch to Fulham, but he prospered at neither. Since moving west on loan, however, his career has revived.

Five minutes in Luke Freeman’s corner caused problems and Smith headed goalwards only for Mark Noble to clear off the line. Eighteen minutes later he was denied again. Freeman took the corner short, Emmanuel-Thomas crossed, and Smith again beat Adrian only for his header to be acrobatically headed clear by Carroll.

 

“With the size they have in the team we protected ourselves by putting two players on the posts,” said Allardyce. “I knew somewhere along the line they would head at our goal.”

In between Joe Bryan flashed a shot wide after a neat one-two with Emmanuel-Thomas and Reid just prevented Smith turning in a Bryan cut-back. The wing-back was released by Freeman, once  who was at this stage the dominant creative force. The midfielder has FA Cup history - in 2007 he became the youngest player to grace the competition when he played for Gillingham at 15. That earned a £200,000 move to Arsenal but four years on he left without playing a match. His ability and schooling was evident though in his play and Alex Song, Hammers’ holding midfielder, struggled to cope with him.

Behind Song, however, was a resolute back four and as City’s chances dried up West Ham began to create opportunities of their own. Frank Fielding cleared a Carroll header then denied the striker at close range from Carl Jenkinson’s cross.

“We needed to score in that half-hour,” said Cotterill. “We had chances we could have done better with but that is why we are in League One.”

After Allardyce replaced the ineffective Song and Enner Valencia Hammers took control. Stewart Downing shot over after a one-two with Mark Noble, Aden Flint blocked a Sakho shot, then the Senegalese struck the bar.

City had one last chance to strike first, Bryan sending a cross deep to the far post only for Luke Ayling to head over. Two minutes later Downing and Noble released Carroll who held off Derrick Williams before crossing from a tight angle. With Scott Wagstaff ball-watching Sakho was able to run unchallenged and head in off the underside of the bar.

“We pushed them all the way, we just couldn’t get that finishing touch,” said Cotterill.  Allardyce, alluding to Saturday’s giant-killing, said he told his players: "don’t be another casualty, make sure you are professional, don’t join the teams crying".

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