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Football: IRONS FAIL METAL TEST; WEST HAM........1 Connolly 19 PRESTON..........2 Fuller 64, Healy 67.

Byline: RICHARD GRIFFITHS

ALAN PARDEW questioned the bottle of his West Ham players after they slumped to a fourth home defeat since he became manager, in a manner that brought despair to the Upton Park crowd.

It would be easy to say West Ham snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But it was worse than that, as they handed promotion rivals Preston three points despite leading through a first-half strike from David Connolly.

With the visitors looking determined yet far from dangerous, the Hammers surrendered their lead in three minutes of sloppy second-half madness.

First, a harmless-looking cross from Graham Alexander was nodded down by Chris Lucketti, to allow Ricardo Fuller - surrounded by nothing but space - to head in a simple equaliser.

The Irons' defence was just as culpable when watching David Healy convert a corner from Alexander.

Pardew voiced his frustration afterwards as he slammed his players' inability to cope with the expectations of their fans.

He said: "It's as if we have two different sides. The one away look as though they can be promoted but the one at home are nervous.

"Once Preston equalised we looked a completely different team. I can't believe the turnaround from one period to the next. We have spoken about this inconsistency but only the players can solve it.

"The crowd started to have an effect on us. The fans are still turning up in droves and we are lucky to have them.

"At the moment they are coming here because of their own pride and tradition. But that isn't enough. We have got to stop the rot and I'm going to have to put players out there who can deal with the stage.

"This is a big job and I am under no illusions about it. Some players are either going to have to come with me on the journey or fall by the wayside.

"They have got to play on a stage which we have made hostile by our performances."

Pardew conceded that he might have to sacrifice star striker Jermain Defoe to fund a rebuilding exercise.

"We have not had a bid for Jermain," he said. "But every West Ham fan who has been here for the four defeats under my stewardship would suggest it might be an option."

Pardew's side closed the game in a desperate panic, with four strikers on the pitch. David James even came up for a corner - and ended up volleying thin air.

It had all been so different. West Ham's opening salvo was a masterclass in hitting teams on the break, which started when James hurled a long, quick throw to Matthew Etherington on the left, he raced down the wing, and set up Connolly for his ninth goal of the season.MAN OF THE MATCH GRAHAM ALEXANDER

Set pieces helped secure shock win.

WEST HAM: James 5, Hutchison 6 (Deane 6), Carrick 6, Dailly 5, Connolly 7, Harewood 5, Etherington 7, Quinn 6 (Ferdinand 6), Mullins 6, Pearce 5, Stockdale 5 (Mellor 6).

PRESTON: Gould 6, ALEXANDER 7, Lucketti 7, Davis 5 (Etuhu 6), McKenna 6, Keane 5 (Koumantarakis 6), Healy 7, Cresswell 7, Fuller 7, Mears 5, O'Neil 6.

MANAGER RATINGS: Pardew 5, Brown 8.

REFEREE: M Warren 7.

CAPTION(S):

HAM ROLLED OVER: Michael Carrick comes off second best against Preston scorer Ricardo Fuller
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Title Annotation:The PREM
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 11, 2004
Words:555
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