Glenn Roeder may have delayed his widely predicted departure as manager from Upton Park with this much-needed victory but he simultaneously plunged his counterpart, Stuart Gray, into greater difficulties. It took a performance of less-than-memorable style and skill to beat a Southampton side that had offered the briefest of opposition and, once a goal behind, seemed without the heart or ability to fight back.
Having been hammered 7-1 by Blackburn Rovers after a 5-0 battering at Everton, the Hammers had almost turned Southampton's embarrassment of not being able to win at their brand-new ground into a minor difficulty by comparison. If Gray was not entirely sure that he would still be in the same job come next month, Roeder was clearly as aware as any of us that another defeat for his team yesterday would leave the fans spending their homeward journey waiting to hear whether he had resigned or been pushed.
The irony of West Ham's situation as they went into yesterday's match was that while their captain, Paolo Di Canio, among others, had sounded off about some players only giving 70 per cent, there was a feeling that, despite the horrendous shipping of goals under Roeder, the ship itself had become more professional than it was when navigated by the easy-going Harry Redknapp. The difference was that, while Harry's happy team sometimes sailed too close to the wind, Roeder had taken them on to the rocks – one off the bottom of the Premiership – but he said that before going into yesteray's game, "We had some good old-fashioned Eaast end dressing room language. The result proves the game's universal."
In spite of the worrying circumstances, both sides had more sights at goal in the first 10 minutes than they had in the entire duration of their last games. In fact, Southampton in their match against Arsenal on the previous Saturday had not managed a shot on target in the entire 90 minutes. Yesterday, though, Rory Delap, returning after injury had kept him out of the Southampton side for three weeks, quickly had West Ham's defence troubled with a short cross that the defence had the good fortune to miss as badly as anyone in the Southampton attack.
West Ham composed themselves well, and after a useful snap-shot by Frédéric Kanouté that Paul Jones had to turn away for a corner, Di Canio regularly showed that he was prepared to be an inspiration as well as a critic. His persistence in midfield, admittedly interspersed with some sloppy passes, allowed his side to gain the edge. Laurent Courtois forced Jones to concede another corner, but there was a lurking danger at the other end.
Every time Southampton raised the ball high into the air over the home penalty area, there was a sense of vulnerability. Delap's long throws were only occasionally cleared with any degree of confidence and, more often than not, ought to have led to goals. Shaka Hislop seemed unsure whether to trust his defenders or ignore them and take responsibility for everything in the air. The uncertainty allowed Southampton to regain the ascendancy without achieving real control of a match that deteriorated through common poor control.
It took the experience, determination and refreshingly interesting footwork of Nigel Winterburn, who had missed West Ham's embarrassment of the previous weekend, to bring about their 53rd-minute advantage. Neatly riding over a challenge from Jason Dodd after latching on to a quickly taken free-kick, Winterburn then despatched a deep, damaging ball into the centre that Kanouté met with a powerful header from within the goal area. Gray called it an unforgivabe "free header." That gave Kanoute faint praise for creating his own freedom."
To their credit the West Ham defence had a tighter, more organised look than when goals had flowed past them in earlier games. That was in some measure the result of Winterburn's return, but equally a reflection of Southampton's ineffective finishing. Their away record may not be all that bad, but here the impression was that if they allowed West Ham to take a second goal they would be highly unlikely to respond.
Once Beattie had spurned Southampton's best opportunity by slicing a shot wide of goal after being left unmarked following some rare useful building work by Mark Draper and Delap, the chances of a recovery were lost. The 80th minute saw the Southampton defence collapse. Trevor Sinclair, who had not exactly scorched a path down the right side, suddenly got his opportunity and centred quickly for Di Canio to hit the bar. The ball rebounded and Kanouté was ideally placed in front of goal to head in his second and leave Southampton looking forlorn.
West Ham United 2 Southampton 0
Kanoute 53, 81
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 25,842