LEICESTER SNATCHED victory, and with it a fourth-round trip to Arsenal, from the jaws of embarrassment in last night's FA Cup third-round replay trailing to Paul Fewings goal for Hereford from late in the first half until Matt Elliott equalised in the 78th minute, the side lying sixth in the Premiership finally squeezed past opponents from half-way down the Nationwide Conference by virtue of Muzzy Izzet's goal 14 minutes into extra time.
To compound the disappointment of Hereford's chairman-manager, Graham Turner, Leicester's winner followed a poorly executed corner by his own team. Robbie Savage pounced on the loose ball, leading a three-on-one counter- attack, before feeding Tony Cottee on the right. His cross was met by a downward header from Izzet, which shot through the legs of Hereford's farmer-goalkeeper Mark Jones.
Jones, who had been indebted to Chris Lane for a goal-line clearance moments earlier, kept Leicester at bay until Elliott stroked his first goal of the season. Before then, Fewings, the former Hull striker, had looked set to join Ronnie Radford in the pantheon of Hereford's Cup heroes - hardly what Leicester can have expected after the resolution of their behind-the-scenes strife.
Leicester were not helped by a lengthy casualty list. Frank Sinclair, Emile Heskey, Steve Guppy, Neil Lennon and Tim Flowers were all injured, while Darren Eadie was cup-tied. Faced with a makeshift side, Hereford opened as if they believed they could make light of a 98-place disparity in League positions.
The non-Leaguers had the ball in the net as early as the 12th minute, but the referee had blown for offside even before Fewings shot. There was a further scare for Leicester following Paul Gilchrist's weak clearing header midway through the first half. John Snape, the Birmingham electrician who is one of only three part-timers in Hereford's squad, volleyed wide as Pegguy Arphexad scrambled across his goal-line.
When Steve Walsh, O'Neill's emergency striker, finally struck Leicester's first shot in earnest after 25 minutes, the ball threatened the executive- box windows more than Jones' goal. Another centre-half, Hereford's Ian Wright, came rather closer to scoring, heading over from Paul Parry's corner.
So Hereford were not flattered by their 40th-minute lead. Parry beat Savage before crossing and Fewings, taking advantage of a deflection which sent the ball looping into the air, beat Arphexad with a back-header by the near post.
The Hereford contingent crowed: "Are you watching, Arsenal?" Leicester's response was to replace Walsh with Andrew Impey and push Arnar Gunnlaugsson up front in a 4-4-2 formation. An overdue sense of urgency invaded their play, and Elliott and Gerry Taggart both had efforts cleared off the line by Mark Taylor and Robin Elmes following Stefan Oakes' 47th-minute corner.
As the pressure intensified, Hereford struggled to escape their own half. Tony Cottee was allowed a free header, which Jones watched drift past the upright, and sent another volley thudding into Taylor's back.
Izzet also embarked on a surge at the heart of the visitors' back line, whereupon Chris Lane halted him with a textbook tackle.
Hereford's centre-backs, Wright and Tony James, bore the brunt of Leicester's siege, which was supplemented by Elliott's height and bulk with barely a third of the second half played. The towering defender's appearance in attack also had the effect, however, of tempting the home side into launching hopeful high balls rather than trying to play their way through a massed rearguard.
Jones' resistance at last ended with 12 minutes remaining when Leicester were down to 10 men after an injury to Impey. Oakes' centre from the left prompted a diving header by Graham Fenton, one of the substitutes, which Jones pushed aside with an outstretched palm. The ball ran kindly for Elliott, who had only to sidefoot it past the prostrate keeper from two yards.
Leicester City (3-4-1-2) Arphexad; Taggart, Elliott, Gilchrist; Savage, Zagorakis (Campbell, 60), Izzet, Oakes; Gunnlaugsson (Fenton, 69); Walsh (Impey, h-t), Cottee. Substitutes not used: Thomas, Hodges (gk).
Hereford United: (4-4-2) Jones; Lane, Wright, James, Sturgess; Williams, Taylor, Snape, Parry; Elmes, Fewings (Rodgerson, 70). Substitutes not used: Wall, Clarke, May, Ruddal (gk).
Referee: M Dean (Eastham).
FA Cup results, page 23