Kuqi lifeline helps Royle accentuate the positive

West Ham United 2 - Ipswich Town 2
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The Independent Football

The urgency of the play-offs puts a real strain on the language of urgency. Is it a "big game" or just an "important game" or, heaven help us, a "must game"? Where others fear to tread, now comes a lion-hearted connoisseur and committed opponent of the system to put things into perspective.

Leaving aside Joe Royle's smilingly cynical aside - "it will never replace football" - and the harsh fact that Ipswich finished the regular season 12 points ahead of West Ham, this was a game that put both managers through the ringer and almost had them at each others' throats, exchanging all manner of unpleasantries during the first leg of a semi-final that leaves Ipswich favourites to progress on Wednesday.

Since Ipswich have lost four play-offs in eight seasons, including last season's semi-final against the same opponents, Royle's remarks were were as understandable as his concern that a free-scoring team would freeze on the day.

"I don't like play-offs," the Ipswich manager said, "but I am positive about them. 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 will be 0-0."

Having led the table for 10 weeks in the new year and been considered by their rivals as the best equipped of the promotion candidates, Ipswich still believe they are better qualified than the east Londoners, but it was not only the thoughts of neutrals that inevitably turned to what awaits either club in the Premiership, especially West Ham, who have a £30m debt to service.

The gulf grows ever wider, not simply between the super-rich at the top, but between the clubs who have been floundering at the relegation end, and those striving to replace them, only to face up to the reality of a struggle for survival if promotion is achieved.

For the supporters of West Ham, who have endured the departure of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, a spell in the Championship has not brought any real signs of regrouping.

And yet for 20 minutes on Saturday confidence soared as Ipswich reeled before West Ham's explosive start. In the seventh minute, Matthew Etherington sped down the left and drove in a low centre for Marlon Harewood to slot home his 22nd goal of the season.

West Ham extended their lead in the 13th minute when Jason De Vos could only head out Etherington's cross, and Bobby Zamora fired home. With 25 minutes played Royle considered changes that would eventually make Etherington less of a threat and leave him nursing some bruises.

Those changes were left until the interval and by then Ipswich had got themselves back into the game. In first-half injury time Tomas Repka compounded a needless foul on Shefki Kuqi by bad-mouthing the referee Uriah Rennie. As a result the ball was moved 10 yards forward, leaving Tommy Miller with an opportunity from the edge of the area. His deflected shot struck the foot of a post and bounced in off the goalkeeper's ankle. "It was a lifeline we needed," Royle said. "From being two down we were talking in the dressing-room about going on to win the game."

West Ham lost their momentum as Ipswich came into the game. The impression grew that the next team to score would be making the trip to Cardiff on 30 May. It was almost West Ham when Anton Ferdinand's downward header was brilliantly saved by Kelvin Davis. Then in the 74th minute a bizarre mix-up in West Ham's defence let in Kuqi for the equaliser.

Goals: Harewood (7) 1-0; Zamora (13) 2-0; Walker og (45) 2-1; Kuqi (74) 2-2.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Walker; Repka, Ferdinand, Ward, Powell; Newton (Rebrov, 85), Reo-Coker, Mullins, Etherington; Harewood, Zamora (Noble, 76). Substitutes not used: Bywater (gk), Fletcher, Dailly.

Ipswich Town (4-4-2): Davis; Wilnis, De Vos, Diallo (Currie, h-t), Naylor; Magilton, Miller, Horlock (Richards, h-t), Westlake; Bent, Kuqi. Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Counago, Bowditch.

Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire).

Man of the match: Magilton.

Attendance: 33,723.