Recovered optimism was snatched away from West Ham yesterday when Preston, who had enjoyed early domination, fell behind yet finished much more positive and determined. West Ham departed with jeers in their ears.
Before Christmas their struggling new manager, Alan Pardew, had been forced to admit that expectancy levels at Upton Park were even higher than he had anticipated. Relief arrived with a victory over Nottingham Forest and last weekend's FA Cup defeat of Wigan. Pardew interpreted these results as - he hoped - the turning point of his team's season. The only problem was that it also marked the beginning of a five-match ban for Jermain Defoe, who is the club's best hope of scoring enough goals to secure promotion. He was badly missed yesterday.
David Connolly and Marlon Harewood have been left to compensate for Defoe's absence. Yesterday, their principal midfield support, Michael Carrick, had a second-minute shot saved by Jonathan Gould. However, it was Preston who quickly compiled a succession of attacks, David James deflecting a drive from David Healy with his feet, that gave no hint of their falling behind after 19 minutes.
In only the Hammers' second meaningful attack, Matthew Etherington played an inviting pass for Connolly to run on to and, in the goalmouth, he swept the ball underneath Gould's dive. Preston were right to feel it was a goal against the run of play.
After the break, however, where there had been poor finishing from the visitors they discovered precision. A free-kick fired across the goal to the far post by Graham Alexander in the 64th minute was headed back by Chris Lucketti and Ricardo Fuller headed in.
Three minutes later, Alexander played a short corner, Healy found himself unmarked on the corner of the six-yard box and his low shot put Preston ahead. Not only that, James was subsequently twice relieved to see shots from Richard Cresswell hit the crossbar and a post.
West Ham made three changes but could not alter the fact that in retreat they had become even more vulnerable. In addition, they relinquished possession too easily in midfield, while, up front, Connolly's fancy footwork could not make up for the fact that he was overwhelmed physically by the bigger, yet inexperienced, Preston central defenders.
The home crowd's critical reaction to the overall display from their team led Pardew to the honest conclusion: "We've made this stage hostile by our performances. We are two different sides - one away, looking like promotion and the other at home, nervous and indecisive."
West Ham United 1
Preston North End 2
Fuller 64, Healy 67
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 28,777
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