Preston North End 1 West Ham 2

Within nine minutes of making his debut as a substitute, David Connolly struck the second half winner at Preston North End to secure a much needed 2-1 opening day victory for West Ham.

There was widespread relief among the 3,000 bleary-eyed Hammers followers, the millions watching the action live at home on Sky TV and, no doubt, on the West Ham bench and in the boardroom, too.

Relief, because the lunch-time Nationwide first division clash started so painfully for the visitors, who conceded a poor goal inside the first two minutes with the kind of diabolical defending that became a trademark of last season's relegation woes.

Relief, too, because Preston were denied one certain penalty when Tomas Repka, repeating his recklessness of last season, manhandled Preston's best player, Ricardo Fuller, in the box after Jermain Defoe had levelled for Hammers in the fifth minute.

And relief that, despite the absence of the injured Michael Carrick and Steve Lomas, as well as the suspended Ian Pearce, Hammers still had enough to win a difficult first game amid growing unrest among supporters furious at the summer departure of so many international stars.

Preston are not among the fancied promotion contenders so even with four players - Anton Ferdinand, Rob Lee, Neil Mellor and Matt Etherington - making their first league starts, plus two more from the bench, it was imperative that Glenn Roeder and his threadbare line-up got off to a good start. A point WAS the minimum requirement from Deepdale.

Preston were the better side in the first half and got off to the best possible start with the opening goal of the new season after just one minute and 34 seconds. Right-back Alexander's left-footed cross from the right was met by the head of left midfielder Eddie Lewis who stole in, unmarked, to head past David James.

Memories of last season's repeated defensive failings, particularly from crosses, came flooding back as Ferdinand - who looked accusingly at Don Hutchison - lost concentration as well as Lewis. Young Ferdinand will have to learn from this, just as his elder brother - watching from the stand - did after similar lapses of concenration early in his career at Upton Park.

But before the fans' depression deepened, Defoe showed exactly why he will be so badly missed if persistent rumours of a move to Manchester United become fact.

With five minutes gone, Etherington whipped in a left-footed volleyed cross, Hutchison moved in from the right to cushion a subtle header into the path of Defoe who, having dummied the original cross for Hutch, stabbed home first time from eight yards. A ruthless finish from a penalty box predator who showed his appetite for the game despite all the transfer talk.

Defoe set up new striker partner Neil Mellor, on loan from Liverpool, midway through the half but Preston keeper Jonathan Gould (son of former Hammer Bobby Gould) rushed off his line to smother the chance.

From then until half-time, Preston dominated possession and looked more like scoring the next goal. Fuller, big and powerful, was a constant threat as he ran at defenders in claret and blue. One incisive surge from deep took him past Repka, Dailly, Ferdinand and Lee before he blazed wide of the target.

Preston's two full-backs were more adventurous than their Hammers counterparts and left-back Edwards could have given his side the lead had he, too, not blasted a good chance well over the top.

The home team, backed by a sun-drenched capacity crowd, had two good penalty claims turned down. Referee Danson didn't see Hutchison shove Cresswell off the ball but he must have been blinded by the sun not to have given the award after Repka, recklessly and needlessly grabbed Fuller by the shoulder after the Jamaican had nutmegged the Czech inside the area.

Repka invited Fuller to turn and run at the defence by allowing him too much time and space in which to receive passes. It didn't need Sky's expert pundits, Alvin Martin and Tony Cottee, to highlight this problem, so why a defender of Repka's international experience should be so generous to his opponent is baffling.

Yet West Ham could still have gone into the break ahead. Hutchison, relishing the chance to take free-kicks following the departure of Di Canio, Cole and Bowyer, caused panic in the Preston defence when he fired one towards the far post, but Garcia, who struggled to make his mark at this level, failed to get his head to the ball and Gould was relieved to edge it for a corner.

Preston retained the initiative throughout the first 20 minutes of the second half, though, encouraged by some eccentric goalkeeping by David James, who inexplicably came rushing off his line to make an attempted clearance that ended up with Brevett having to scramble the ball away from danger.

Fuller didn't receive good service in the second half but he still wasted a great chance to put Preston in front again when he headed wide after Repka again gave him too much room inside the penalty area.

With Defoe and Mellor also lacking quality service from midfield, Roeder decided to change things midway through the half when he brought on David Connolly (for Mellor) and Yousef Sofiane (for Garcia) - and the switch soon paid off.

There seemed no hint of what was to follow as Etherington received the ball midway in his own half in the 70th minute, but his early ball released the diminutive Connolly from halfway. The Republic of Ireland striker won the race to gain possession but still had much to do, cutting inside before calmly placing his right-foot shot inside the near post for his first goal following his summer move from Wimbledon. A clinical finish from a player who underlined his proven first division calibre with other neat touches.

Connolly's well-taken goal knocked the heart out of Preston, who had no response to a Hammers side gaining increasing control in the last quarter of the match.

The only scare for West Ham was another self-inflicted one, Lee's careless pass being intercepted before Fuller - under pressure from captain Christian Dailly, who was the pick of the back four - blasted another fine chance over the bar with just four minutes remaining.

Preston were worthy of a point, which is why no-one at West Ham will be kidding themselves that this is nothing more than a good start with a weakened team that has to be strengthened if promotion is to become a reality 45 games from now.

By Tony McDonald


2 - GOAL. A disastrous start to life in the Nationwide first division for West Ham, as a seemingly harmless cross from the right isn't dealt with by the Hammers defence, allowing left-winger Eddie Lewis to ghost past Ferdinand and head past James from six yards out. Preston North End 1 West Ham United 0.

5 - GOAL! The perfect response, as Hammers draw level almost immediately with their first attack of the match. A first-time, volleyed cross from Etherington on the left is cleverly dummied by Defoe, who then latches on to a neat flick-on from Hutchison and instantly stabs the ball past Preston keeper Jonathan Gould from eight yards out. Preston North End 1 West Ham United 1.

9 - In an amazing opening 10 minutes, Preston almost restore their lead, as Fuller picks up the ball 40 yards out and skips three desperate challenges before firing a left-foot shot just wide of the target from an acute angle.

20 - A neat exchange between Mellor and Defoe sees the ball richochet kindly for the debut striker on the edge of the penalty area but, after seeing his first effort blocked, Mellor is denied again as Gould reaches out to grab the loose ball.

24 - A fierce low shot from David Healy is well gathered by James.

27 - Preston go close again, as Rob Edwards collects a return pass in the penalty area and fires a left-foot volley just over the bar.

34 - Dailly rises at the far post to meet a Hutchison free-kick, but the ball bounces up off the turf and eludes Defoe.

45 - After Defoe is fouled on the left-hand corner of the penalty area, Hutchison's free-kick reaches Garcia in the six-yard box, but his deft header is somehow turned round the post by Gould.

Added time: 2 minutes.

Half-time: Preston North End 1 West Ham United 1.

Second Half:

46 - Preston almost begin the second half as they started the first, as James races out of his goal to deny Fuller, only to see the ball roll to Lewis, who lobs a shot towards the empty net. Thankfully, Brevett races back to hack off the line and James collects the loose ball.

49 - Further chaos in the Hammers defence, as Fuller is released again with Repka and Ferdinand at sixes and sevens. The Jamaican striker's effort loops wide, but Etuhu beats James to the ball before it runs out of play and crosses to the far post, where Fuller climbs above Brevett but directs his header just wide of the gaping goal.

60 - Substitution for West Ham, Connolly replaces Mellor.

63 - Substitution for West Ham, Sofiane replaces Garcia.

67 - Substitution for Preston, Skora replaces Etuhu.

69 - GOAL! Substitute Connolly becomes an instant hero as he nets with almost his first touch since coming on. Etherington's clever pass releases the striker on the left before he cuts inside Alexander and fires the ball low past Gould from 12 yards out. Preston North End 1 West Ham United 2.

69 - Connolly booked for over-exuberant celebrations.

72 - Ferdinand booked for foul on Healy.

76 - Defoe releases Sofiane on the right and the young Frenchman crosses low for Connolly, but the Hammers striker fails to add a second as the ball slips between his legs and is cleared.

81 - Defoe's low left-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area is comfortably saved by Gould.

86 - A sloppy pass from Lee lets Fuller in, but thankfully the striker fires over after racing clear into the area.

89 - Connolly gets another chance to claim a brace, as Defoe plays an inviting pass into his path on the edge of the penalty area, but Gould palms his low effort away.

Added time: 3 minutes.

90 - Brevett booked for dissent.

Full-time: Preston North End 1 West Ham United 2.