The latest of strikes from the 20-year-old Zavon Hines, brought on after Carlton Cole limped off with a hamstring injury after half an hour, won West Ham their first match in 10 last night and lifted them out of the bottom three.
It was a deserved win too, though Villa must have thought they had escaped with a point after Ashley Young had reminded the watching England manager Fabio Capello of his ability to produce the unexpected.
While it might take a certain generosity of mind to suggest the curling long-range effort with which the young winger brought Villa level shortly after missing a penalty was unquestionably deliberate, Young's readiness to simply have a go gave Martin O'Neill's otherwise slightly pedestrian and at times out-played side another dimension. Even so, O'Neill must be painfully aware that on this evidence, of the three pretenders to Liverpool's crown – if occupancy of the fourth Champions League position can be so designated – the Villans' case may prove the most suspect.
West Ham began with real purpose, and must have been disappointed Jack Collison's smart footwork in the Villa penalty area did not result in him testing Brad Friedel. Mark Noble was more direct, shooting hard and low to force the big American goalkeeper to save, but it was Stiliyan Petrov who went closest to opening the scoring in the first half hour. The Bulgarian's 24-yard volley from a half-cleared corner was not only struck wonderfully crisply, it also took a slight deflection, but West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green still pulled off a fine one handed save.
The uneasy atmosphere reflected the sense that the visitors were getting on top, but the half could not have ended more productively, or, frankly, unexpectedly for the Hammers. Hines, running on to Scott Parker's though ball, may or may not have been offside, but Habib Beye's tackle appeared to touch the ball away from the England under-21 international. The crowd's howl for a penalty was hopeful, but referee Steve Bennett obliged, and Noble scored from the spot.
The second half had barely begun when the official was pointing to the same spot, almost equally controversially. This time he took issue with the way in which Manuel Da Costa, mistiming his leap for a header, flattened James Collins, but the crowd was cheering again when Green got down well to save Young's low penalty.
Villa's travelling fans must have feared the worst, but moments later Young redeemed himself. Picking up the ball wide on the left he cut inside and curled a long range effort beyond Green's desperate dive. In terms of incident, if not quality, the encounter could hardly be faulted before deep into injury-time, Hines shot beyond Friedel to send the crowd into raptures. "The players got the reward they deserved," said a delighted West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola.
"I'm disappointed, because I thought we did enough to get something out of the game," said O'Neill, who pointedly refused to comment on any refereeing decisions.
West Ham (4-4-2): Green; Faubert, Da Costa, Upson, Ilunga (Spector 7); Behrami, Noble, Parker, Collison; Franco (Jimenez 89), Cole (Hines 31). Substitutes not used: Diamanti, Kurucz (gk), Tomkins, Stanislas.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Beye, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Sidwell, Petrov, Heskey (Reo-Coker 45); Agbonlahor, Carew (L Young 85). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Delph, Shorey, Delfouneso, Albrighton.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Bookings: Villa: Collins, Young, Petrov, Beye. West Ham: Parker, Franco. Sending-off: Villa: Beye.
Man of the match: Green.