The decisive strike came amid controversy, as the referee Mike Dean allowed the goal to stand despite his assistant flagging for offside. Dean correctly adjudged that Mark Noble's free-kick reached Ricardo Vaz Tê via the head of Ciaran Clark rather than James Collins and the defender had thus played the Portuguese onside. Vaz Tê cut the ball back to Nolan, who shunted it into the net from close range.
The goal was extravagant reward for a first half in which Sam Allardyce's team grew into the game after being outplayed in the opening quarter. Lambert's first mission as Villa manager is to banish the disturbing memory of Alex McLeish's grim reign and the nifty interplay his team showed earned the approval of the travelling fans, whose relieved chants of "We're Aston Villa and we're passing the ball" brought levity that temporarily atoned for the lack of goalmouth action. Karim El Ahmadi, one of four summer recruits making debuts, showed himself to be a particularly tidy passer but for all their nimble play, Villa looked lightweight and one-paced going forward and Darren Bent was starved of service.
West Ham fielded three summer signings. While neither Jussi Jaaskelainen nor Collins were over-exerted in the first half, Mohamed Diamé's muscle in the middle helped to turn play in West Ham's favour. Carlton Cole's aerial power, meanwhile, tormented Villa's new centre-back, Ron Vlaar. Still, until the goal, Shay Given had not had a shot to save.
Stephen Ireland forced a humdrum stop from Jaaskelainen within 40 seconds of the resumption but Villa, despite enjoying the majority of possession, did not trouble him again until the 76th minute, when the Finn dived to claim a long-range shot by Vlaar. Before that the Dutch defender had saved his team from falling two goals behind, blocking a Nolan shot after more good work by Vaz Tê. West Ham's new £4.5m striker, Modibo Maïga, was introduced for the last nine minutes and almost marked his debut with a goal, only for Matthew Lowton to clear his stoppage-time shot off the line after he had gone round Given.
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image: © Ben Sutherland