West Ham United started 2005 with a win over the Championship leaders Ipswich that suggests this may finally be the year the Upton Park club shake off their inconsistency and force their way back into the top flight.
Alan Pardew, the West Ham manager, saw first- and last-minute goals from Marlon Harewood and Matthew Etherington earn a deserved win at Portman Road. But, given the number of false dawns at West Ham in recent times, Pardew remained cautiously optimistic. Victory over Ipswich will mean little unless his side also claim a win at home to Sheffield United today.
"This is a new year now and we have to try to be the best team for the second half of the season," he said. "Ipswich were the best team in the first half and they are top because they have been a great side. They will take some catching. But we go back home now to play Sheffield United and we'll be hoping to catch them as well. There is great expectation on us, but if we stay clear of injuries we have a great chance."
West Ham may have won but Joe Royle, the Ipswich manager, seemed less worried than his counterpart despite tasting defeat at home in the league for the first time this season.
Royle rightly observed that his side had performed poorly and looked jaded after a gruelling series of festive fixtures. He was also magnanimous enough to admit that his side had been fortunate not to come away with an even bigger beating, with Etherington's late strike from close range no more than West Ham deserved.
"Now and again you hold your hands up and say the other team were better than us on the day," Royle said. "But that doesn't alter the fact that at this stage in the season we are the best team in the division and that is why we are where we are." Should Ipswich win at Plymouth today, this New Year's Day defeat will be put down as a blip.
There is arguably more pressure on West Ham. Pardew's position has already come under scrutiny this season, despite the club's rise to fifth in the Championship - just seven points behind Ipswich.
This performance showed West Ham have the talent to top the division. Now Pardew must prove that he has the managerial nous to guide them there.
Goals: Harewood (1) 0-1, Etherington (90) 0-2.
Ipswich Town (4-4-2): Davis; Wilnis, De Vos, Naylor, Richards; Miller, Magilton, Westlake, Currie; Kuqi, Bent (Bowditch, 65). Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Counago, Horlock, Karbassiyoon.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Bywater; Mullins, Repka, Mackay, Powell; Reo-Coker (Ferdinand, 85), Fletcher, Williams, Etherington (McClenahan, 90); Zamora (Rebrov, 72), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Burch (gk), Melville.
Referee: P Taylor (Hertfordshire).
Booked: Ipswich Kuqi, De Vos; West Ham Zamora, Mullins.
Man of the match: Harewood.
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