Di Canio lifts the Pearce gloom

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The Independent Football

By Norman Fox

By Norman Fox

West Ham United 1 Watford 0Di Canio 48

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 25,310

12 September 1999

STUART PEARCE, who at 37 years old was one of England's limited number of effective players against Poland last week, is unlikely to extend his long international career after breaking his left leg at Upton Park yesterday. The old warrior was injured in a typically brave, fierce tackle with Watford's Micah Hyde.

West Ham's manager Harry Redknapp said: "I knew as soon as I saw the tackle that it was a break. I heard it. He'll be out for months but after half time he still wanted to get back out and play."

Because of other injuries West Ham were already severely restricted in their choice of defenders, which gave Watford the slightest hope. Ironically, they were also hoping that Pearce's remarkable international Indian summer had cost him some of his energy. They would not have wished that this could become his last match even at club level.

At least Watford, who now face Chelsea, Arsenal, Leeds and Manchester United in successive matches, had their Wembley play-off goal scorers of last season, Allan Smart and Nick Wright back in the side. They certainly needed them as Marc Keller almost flattened Alec Chamberlain's fingers with an introductory volley that the goalkeeper pushed against the post.

Certainly Smart and Wright's active response to the early pressure allowed Watford to counter attack with a measure of efficiency to keep Igor Stimac, who was making his West Ham debut, wonder whether this was to be the comfortable arrival he had expected. Smart twice escaped him within the first half hour but was denied by Shaka Hislop's diligence. But quite how Watford avoided going behind after 36 minutes was probably a mystery even to them.

Paolo Di Canio's corner was headed against the bar by Paulo Wanchope. Pearce had a shot blocked and his second also hit the bar before Di Canio tried another which Peter Kennedy stopped on the line. All of that within 15 seconds.

Seeing Pearce injured just before the interval might have given Watford a cruel but psychological lift, but instead after 48 minutes they were deflated by witnessing Paul Robinson handle on the edge of the penalty area and Di Canio drive a breathtaking free kick between Chamberlain and the near post. The goalkeeper, playing his first match since Wembley, was at fault but the defensive wall was more like a flimsy fence.

Chamberlain made apologies by one handedly saving on the line from Wanchope's close in header, and Hislop emulated him by doing the same from Mark Williams following Hyde's free kick. West Ham could hardly claim to have a grip but Chamberlain was always the keeper with the most to handle.

Negligent finishing by West Ham, particularly from Wanchope, cost them the chance of destroying Watford's declining hopes of recovery. And even when Wanchope did have a near-range shot on target, Watford survived because the referee refused to accept that Kennedy had stopped the ball after it crossed the line. Watford rode that piece of luck, quickly countering, but after a block by Hislop from Des Lyttle, Tommy Mooney hit a hurried shot over the bar. In view of their approaching programme, doubtless that will be something that they will live to regret.