Kuqi gives Royle a chance to cure the old heartache

West Ham United 2 - Ipswich Town 2
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The Independent Football

West Ham United and Ipswich Town have often been a credit to the higher echelons of the English game with their standards and quality of football, and, for all their current reduced circumstances, both would be welcome back again. After a lively 90 minutes yesterday lunchtime, it is Suffolk's representatives who seem slightly the more likely to make it back to the top flight than East London's.

West Ham United and Ipswich Town have often been a credit to the higher echelons of the English game with their standards and quality of football, and, for all their current reduced circumstances, both would be welcome back again. After a lively 90 minutes yesterday lunchtime, it is Suffolk's representatives who seem slightly the more likely to make it back to the top flight than East London's.

Away goals may no longer count in these games - the Football League seem to make up their rules as they go along - but home advantage generally does. Against that, West Ham can point to a 2-0 victory at Portman Road on New Year's Day, as well as the neurosis that tends to grip Ipswich in the play-offs, four of which they have lost in eight seasons - including last year's semi-final against the same opponents.

Further heartache seemed in prospect for Joe Royle's team when they fell 2-0 behind in 13 minutes here. But, benefiting from a scrappy goal just before the interval, they improved in the second half, an equaliser from the powerful Kosovan Shefki Kuqi earning a deserved draw.

It was no surprise whatever that a defensive mix-up should bring that about. These, after all, were teams who had conceded 56 goals apiece in the regular season; and even more than usual with Championship teams, thoughts inevitably turned to what some of the Premiership's hot-shots might do to them. The more pessimistic - or realistic? - West Ham followers believe their side would do better with one more season below stairs before making the huge step up to a League whose three newest recruits could all be relegated this afternoon. Ipswich, having led the table for 10 weeks in the New Year, scored 85 goals and finished 12 points ahead of yesterday's opponents, consider themselves better qualified for elevation, and unfortunate not to have secured it already.

"I don't like the play-offs but I'm positive about them," Royle said. "It was a strange game but if anyone was going to get a winner it was us. A night game at Portman Road can be pretty exciting. And I don't think it'll be 0-0."

There was never much danger of that yesterday either, though the explosive start was beyond even Alan Pardew's hopes. In the seventh minute, Matthew Etherington scooted down the left past the deputy right-back Drissa Diallo and crossed for Marlon Harewood to tap in his 22nd goal of the season. Ipswich's complaint that the striker had pushed over his marker went unheard by Uriah Rennie, an even-handed referee: as ever, he managed to upset both sides in equal measure.

Diallo, brought in for David Unsworth because of the obscure rule that loan players have to return to their own club before the play-offs, had a torrid first half before being replaced. In the 13th minute he was exposed again by Etherington's dribbling, and when Jason De Vos could only head out the winger's cross, Bobby Zamora doubled the home side's lead. Six thousand visiting supporters were largely silent until their side began to exert some pressure towards half-time, scoring a critical goal in controversial circumstances.

Tomas Repka conceded a free-kick 25 yards out, which was then moved forward to the edge of the penalty area because of his stupidity in arguing so volubly about the decision. Rennie pushed the defensive wall a long way back, allowing Tommy Miller to strike a shot that deflected off Repka, on to a post and rather apologetically into the net off the foot of the West Ham goalkeeper Jimmy Walker.

Royle had already decided to make two changes at the interval, removing Diallo and Kevin Horlock and bringing on the more attacking midfielder Darren Currie. Ipswich looked better balanced thereafter, though the feeling as the second half wore on at 2-1 was that the next team to score would end up in Cardiff on 30 May. It looked more like West Ham in a good spell on either side of the hour-mark. After Hayden Mullins had a shot deflected wide, Shaun Newton's cross was met by Anton Ferdinand - looking more like his big brother each week - whose downward header brought a fine reactive save from Kelvin Davis.

But defensive fallibility would undermine them again. Seventeen minutes from the end, Darren Bent's shot flew into the air off Chris Powell, Ferdinand and Walker managed to impede each other and the former's weak header was hooked in by Kuqi.

Pardew, who has never quite won over the locals, astonished them by taking off Zamora for the young midfielder Mark Noble, then throwing on Sergei Rebrov with only five minutes left. There was only one further moment of hope, Harewood spinning cleverly on to Powell's cross and shooting wide.

"We didn't get any breaks today," the West Ham manager claimed. He will need one or two, as well as some more solid defending, to prevail at Portman Road on Wednesday.

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