The last time West Ham went down, in 2003, they did so with a raft of England players in their ranks. Aston Villa arrived at Upton Park at risk of suffering a similar fate this season but after sparkling performances by their internationals they departed relatively worry free and pushed West Ham closer to a return to the Championship.
The hosts hired a local brass band to blare Land of Hope and Glory before kick-off and their players suggested they were eager to get into that spirit by opening the scoring in the second minute. Villa's Ashley Young played his part too, dawdling as the visiting defence rushed out after half-clearing a Mark Noble corner and thereby leaving Robbie Keane onside to collect Thomas Hitzlsperger's header over the top. The Irishman swivelled sharply and slammed the ball into the net from close range. But that was the end of West Ham's glory. Hope just about lingers.
By the 20th minute, West Ham, who had started without their injured talisman, Scott Parker, had lost centre-back Manuel da Costa following an awkward challenge by Darren Bent. The Villa striker had cause to groan too, when his seemingly legitimate goal in the 24th minute was disallowed for a supposed foul on West Ham right-back Lars Jacobsen.
Never mind: 12 minutes later he scored one that counted. As with Keane's strike, the goal was punishment for dithering by a midfielder, Mark Noble being caught in possession in the box by Emile Heskey before Luke Young delivered a cross that Bent nodded in expertly from eight yards.
Villa dominated after that as Bent and Ashley Young excelled and the effect of Parker's absence became apparent on West Ham, who looked irreparably fragmented. "It was a very crucial match and the players knew it and they were a little bit nervous, especially without Parker," said Avram Grant, who knows that, with Parker's ankle injury possibly sidelining him for another two weeks, his team cannot afford to carry on like this.
Green had to thwart Bent from close range at the start of the second half after Matthew Upson misread a bounce, and from the resulting corner Cole booted a James Collins header off the line. Bent's ability to continually find space was making a mockery of the home defence but in the 72nd minute he reprieved them by missing his easiest chance of the game, scuffing a shot from six yards after a fine run and cross by Kyle Walker.
Ashley Young again went close in the 76th minute before Cole squandered an opportunity to score against the run of play. After a mighty punt by Green, the striker beat Richard Dunne and Brad Friedel to the ball but lobbed wide from 15 yards. A home winner would have been unjust, indeed even a draw would have been undeserved and in stoppage time they were denied that dividend.
Inevitably, Ashley Young created the goal, tricking his way down the right before crossing for substitute Gabriel Agbonlahor to nod in from six yards.
"I told the players before the game that this could be a turning point and we couldn't miss it," said Gerard Houllier, the much-maligned manager whose own position may not yet be quite as comfortable as that of his team, who now sit ninth. "When you're in danger you can't have egos in the team and you can't have grudges. You've got to be man enough to work for each other. I thought we did that. The season is going into the home straight and we are well placed."
Sunday Indo Sport