A year ago this weekend, West Ham clambered off the bottom of the Premiership table with a first victory of the season, 3-0 at Coventry City, and squirreled away enough points on the subsequent run to survive their habitual post-Christmas collapse. Yesterday's equally emphatic win over Newcastle offered an immediate lift, in every sense, carrying them from 20th place to 15th and leaving Southampton to hold up the rest ahead of their home game with Aston Villa tonight.
Just as encouragingly, three players making their home debuts were among the team's very best performers: the Czech international Tomas Repka, a tough character hardened by four years of defending in Serie A, had no peers on either side; Don Hutchison, returning after five years away, scored the opening goal and provided much-needed drive in midfield; and Laurent Courtois, a stocky little Frenchman signed free from Toulouse, was more of a threat in the end than his opposite number and countryman, Laurent Robert, on Newcastle's left side.
For most of the first half, Robert's pace and dribbling skill had given the visitors as many opportunities as the home side, even though Alan Shearer was not in the sort of form to take advantage of them. Once Paolo di Canio added a typical individual goal soon after half-time, Robert's influence declined and, by holding out in the next quarter of an hour, the East Enders were able to ensure a happy ending. Frédéric Kanouté's goal six minutes from time made it an almost delirious one. Newcastle, although previously unbeaten, have not won in their last 26 matches in London, from Wembley to Leyton Orient. Their manager, Bobby Robson, admitted: "The better team won."
Hutchison's goal in the 18th minute was West Ham's first of any sort in more than seven hours' football and the first from open play since the final match of last season. Even then, it stemmed from a corner and gross negligence by the Newcastle defenders, who allowed Courtois to drift unmarked towards Di Canio, collect the kick and swing it in low across the six-yard area for Hutchison to head in.
The crop of chances on either side of that goal were evenly shared. Television replays suggested that Newcastle should have had an early penalty, for Christian Dailly's tackle on Robbie Elliott; Robert Lee, a boyhood West Ham fan, had to clear off the line from Trevor Sinclair just after Shearer headed one of Robert's tantalising crosses disappointingly high.
Warren Barton, not fully fit, declined to come off at half time, which proved expensive for his team. Six minutes into the second period, he was left one-on-one with Di Canio, who gained the half-yard necessary to create an opening and hit a perfect shot into the far corner. Even then, a goal conceded might have brought all of West Ham's wobbles back, but Courtois's clearance off the line from a header by Clarence Acuna prevented one, and that proved to be Newcastle's last chance.
Given, having saved well from Kanouté as the home team's football began to flow with some of its old ebullience, was unable to prevent the Frenchman adding a third goal after Hutchison shouldered Robert Lee off the ball. "It was just nice to get a first win, with a little bit of style," said West Ham's rookie manager, Glenn Roeder. "I think we can continue it if we keep the squad fit and healthy."
Goals: Hutchison (17) 1-0; Di Canio (53) 2-0, Kanouté (82) 3-0.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop 6; Schemmel 6, Repka 8, Dailly 4, Winterburn 6; Sinclair 5, Carrick 5, Hutchison 6, Courtois 7 (Moncur, 86); Kanoute 6 (Defoe, 83), Di Canio 7. Substitutes not used: Forrest (gk), Soma, Byrne.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 6; Barton 3 (Distain, 58, 4) Dabizas 5, O'Brien 4, Elliott 5; Solano 4 (Ameobi, 76), Lee 6, Acuna 6, Robert 7; Bellamy 6, Shearer 4. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Bassedas, Lualua.
Referee: P Jones (Leicester) 6.
Bookings: West Ham Winterburn, Schemmel, Moncur.
Man of the match: Repka.
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