It was only the first weekend of August but to West Ham fans it must have felt like bleak midwinter. Squally rain showers fell over Upton Park yesterday as Cardiff City dampened what enthusiasm the home supporters may have brought to their team's opening match of the season.
Following relegation from the Premier League, West Ham have been installed as one of the favourites for promotion but this was a sharp reminder to Sam Allardyce, their new manager, of how tough the Championship can be. Without ever taking full control of the match, his team had more than enough chances to win but were punished when Kenny Miller scored the winner in the first minute of stoppage time.
If there was anguish for Allardyce, the result brought a warm glow to Malky Mackay, who took over as Cardiff manager in the summer. Expectations are high in south Wales, Dave Jones having been dismissed despite reaching the play-offs two seasons in a row, and a good start was important for Mackay, especially after the departures of Jay Bothroyd and Michael Chopra, Cardiff's main marksmen last season.
Mackay, hired on the basis of his fine debut in management with Watford, went for experience in rebuilding his forward line. Although Miller and Robert Earnshaw were quiet for much of the match, the former made no mistake when given his opportunity at the end.
Credit must also go to Rudy Gestede, a 22-year-old striker recruited from Metz on a free transfer. The Frenchman, a 67th-minute substitute for Earnshaw, made an immediate impact. His harrying of Herita Ilunga and subsequent cross set up the opportunity for Miller, whose shot on the turn from 10 yards slipped through Rob Green's hands.
West Ham have lost several big-name players over the summer but they still have one of the most powerful squads in the division. Scott Parker seems likely to leave before the closure of the transfer window, but remains for the moment a West Ham player. Parker and Green are both in the England squad, while Allardyce named a bench that included four full internationals in Carlton Cole (England), Jack Collison (Wales), Pablo Barrera (Mexico) and Abdoulaye Faye (Senegal).
In the opening stages, it seemed only a matter of time before West Ham would score, but Parker showed too much of the ball to Anthony Gerrard when breaking through the middle and Freddie Sears shot wastefully over the bar after Joey O'Brien's fine run.
Three more chances came in the space of three minutes early in the second half. Matt Taylor, a growing influence in midfield, forced Marshall into a diving stop with a rasping left-foot shot and Frédéric Piquionne was denied firstly by Mark Hudson's late block and then by the woodwork following a splendid cross by Taylor.
The home team's best chance came 11 minutes from time but Kevin Nolan, two yards out, failed to make proper contact with James Tomkins' header and Peter Whittingham cleared off the line.
Cardiff, with Gerrard and Hudson solid in defence, made a slow start in both halves but finished strongly. Gestede's physical presence started to unsettle the home defence in the final 20 minutes and chances were soon created. Miller scorned a good opportunity on 73 minutes, shooting over the bar from 12 yards after being set up by Craig Conway, but the Scotland striker was not to be denied.
"We've lost a game we really should have won," Allardyce said afterward. "We've mastered the game, created numerous chances and today was one of those days when we were not clinical enough to punish the opposition."
Mackay described the win as "a dream start" and added: "It was hard work at times. They threw everything at us. Our defence was outstanding and we got a reward in the end."
West Ham United: (4-5-1) Green; O'Brien, Tomkins, Reid, Ilunga; Sears (Barrera, 82), Parker, Noble (Collison, 74), Nolan, M Taylor; Piquionne (Cole, 75). Substitutes not used Boffin (gk), Faye.
Cardiff City: (4-4-2) Marshall; McNaughton, Hudson, Gerrard, A Taylor; Cowie, Gunnarsson, Whittingham, Conway (Mason, 75); Earnshaw (Gestede, 67), Miller. Substitutes not used Heaton (gk), Quinn, Parkin.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).