Walsall 1 - 1 West Ham

Hammers were left cursing their luck after a brave and spirited display earned them only a point against fortunate Walsall at the Bescot Stadium.


Alan Pardew's team were forced to play 84 minutes of this hard-fought encounter with 10 men after Jermain Defoe had been controversially sent off early on - his third red card in the space of just three months.


However, the gutsy Londoners responded with a magnificent performance that would have secured an important three points had Marlon Harewood's opener not been cancelled out by Jorge Leitao's 69th minute strike.


It was a harsh outcome for the Hammers, who made light work of their one-man disadvantage and should really have put the result beyond doubt before the hosts struck their equaliser. What did please the 2,000 or so loyal travelling fans was the fact that Hammers again showed that they have the stomach and desire for a fight when the chips are down following last weekend's memorable comeback against Sunderland.


Pardew had been forced to make one change to the team that came from 2-0 down to beat the Black Cats seven days ago. With Christian Dailly ruled out after going down with pleurisy in midweek, a reshuffle saw Tomas Repka switch to centre-half and Hayden Mullins fill in at right-back, meaning that Michael Carrick's return from injury was a welcome sight in midfield.


A not so welcome sight was the dismissal of Defoe just six minutes in that left almost everyone inside the Bescot Stadium absolutely stunned, not least Defoe himself. Angry at not seeing his marker penalised for a strong challenge, the young striker appeared to lash out at thin air in frustration but didn't see Darren Wrack jogging across his path and, when the Walsall midfielder crashed to the ground in agony, referee Scott Mathieson instantly brandished the red card.


As Defoe's team-mates surrounded the official to voice their appeals and claim it was simply an accident, even the Walsall players appeared to be bemused by the decision. Mathieson then consulted his linesman - a strange move considering he had already acted on his initial belief - but the pleas fell on deaf ears and Defoe was left to ruefully reflect on his third red card of the season.


It seems likely that the club will lodge an appeal against the decision but, if that is unsuccessful, he will face another five match ban - three for the straight red card and two extra for his previous dismissals this campaign. That would mean that the youngster will have missed 12 matches through suspension once the ban is completed - a fact that could have serious implications for Hammers' automatic promotion hopes.


However, it didn't take long for Pardew's men to prove that they can indeed score goals and impress without their star striker. Just four minutes after they had been reduced to 10 men, Hammers took the lead with a finely worked goal. Matthew Etherington - causing all sorts of problems on the left - dispossessed Paul Merson and raced into the area before cutting back a low cross that missed out the defence and fell nicely into the path of Harewood, who blasted home a shot from 12 yards out.


Merson almost made amends for his error a few minutes later when his delightful low cross was touched just wide by striker Gary Birch at the far post but it was Hammers who were by far the stronger side for the rest of the half and, indeed, at times it looked as though it was the visitors who had the extra man.


Chief orchestrator was Etherington, who ran full-back Darren Bazeley ragged and created several outstanding chances before the break. On 25 minutes his dangerous low cross was collected by David Connolly, who turned well but saw his left-foot shot well saved by keeper Walker.


Etherington then superbly outpaced Bazeley before cutting the ball back for Kevin Horlock to fire just wide, while the winger's inch-perfect cross was unfortunately mis-hit on the volley by Connolly. With Harewood providing power and determination wide on the right, Hammers' extra quality on the flanks was making all the difference and, with Carrick and Horlock covering every blade of grass to cover a solid back-four, everything looked rosy as the half-time whistle blew.


As expected, the hosts came out in more determined mood for the second half, and should really have drawn level just three minutes after the restart. Ian Pearce's misjudged header dropped to the feet of Merson 12 yards out but, with just his former Aston Villa colleague David James (captain in the absence of Dailly) to beat, the veteran playmaker somehow screwed his effort wide.


A few minutes later, the tormented Bazeley was booked for a desperate tug on Etherington's shirt as he showed him another clean pair of heels and, when striker Birch was denied an equaliser by the linesman's raised flag moments later, Pardew must have been thinking it was going to be his day after all.


In the 66th minute, Hammers had a glorious chance to double their tally and put the game beyond doubt when Connolly raced away on the counter-attack. However, as the speedy Etherington caught him up to offer an irrefusable option, the Irish striker delayed his pass a few seconds too long, allowing a defender to get back and block the winger's shot.


The wasted opportunity was to prove vital as, just three minutes later, the hosts grabbed the equaliser out of nothing. Vinny Samways' deep cross from the right was nodded down by Darren Wrack and, with the Hammers defence for once not alert, Leitao pounced to divert the ball past James.


It was a harsh blow for Hammers who, for the fourth time in their last five away matches, were forced to watch their opponents come from behind to snatch a 1-1 draw. To their credit, though, Pardew's team again refused to let the disappointment turn into something worse and fought back against Walsall's resurgence.


Substitute Don Hutchison had a blistering free-kick superbly turned round the post by Walker with 12 minutes remaining while there were vain shouts for a penalty when a Walsall defender appeared to handle the ball in the dying moments.


In the end, though, Hammers were forced to settle for yet another point on their travels - a seventh successive draw away from home. However, the fact that the 10 men came off the pitch somewhat disappointed with their lot is enough to suggest that the improvement and progress Alan Pardew strives for is still on course.


With a Boxing Day clash against Ipswich Town at Upton Park to come next and a trip to Nottingham Forest just two days later, the Hammers boss will be hoping to see in the New Year hot on the tails of the Division One leaders.


By Danny Francis