West Ham 4 Pompey 3

David Norris, right, wields away to celebrate his goal as Benjani makes sure it crosses the line
David Norris, right, wields away to celebrate his goal as Benjani makes sure it crosses the line
Conor Chaplin. Picture: Joe Pepler

Fourth-change Conor etches himself into Pompey history

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The last time Benjani lined up at Upton Park, Pompey were in the midst of the Great Escape.

Some five-and-a-half years later, he was back starting for the Blues once more.

Only on this occasion, it was the Hammers marching to the famous tune.

Or perhaps Escape To Victory would be a rather more apt tag line to Saturday’s proceedings.

Promotion favourites Sam Allardyce’s men may be, yet they unquestionably got out of jail against the Blues.

The Hammers scrambled a 4-3 triumph to record their first win at Upton Park since February.

In contrast, Steve Cotterill’s troops were harshly left empty-handed having produced an impressive display.

The Blues boss has been criticised by some fans on occasions this season over his side’s glaring lack of creative edge and failure to score goals.

As 2,284 visiting fans will no doubt willingly testify, it was a Pompey side unrecognisable from such previous concerns.

Guts and tenacity have become a trademark of their make-up this season during a start the manager himself has described as ‘satisfactory’.

At Upton Park, they were accompanied by more than a dash of style and a large helping of attacking finesse.

Pompey had goals in them, they had plenty of width, they had defenders willing to surge into the opposition half.

At times, West Ham struggled to contain a revitalised Cotterill side finally suggesting they are gelling as a unit.

With Dave Kitson missing because of illness, the Blues also had the talismanic Benjani in the starting line-up for the first time since his second coming began.

What’s more, his desire to chase, harry and put himself about has clearly not diminished over time.

It really does seem like only yesterday he was doing precisely the same in March 2006 during a 4-2 win at Upton Park.

Benjani didn’t net on that occasion. Instead, Lomana Lualua, Pedro Mendes, Sean Davis and Svetoslav Todorov were the scorers.

Contrary to his celebrations, he also didn’t net on Saturday, the linesman having already indicated that Pompey’s second goal belonged to David Norris.

Not that the scoreline could possibly accurately reflect the day’s events.

After all, the decisive moments in the destination of the result centred on the match officials.

Norris’ effort had put Cotterill’s men back on level terms. It had also put them in the ascendancy as they strode purposely forward towards regaining the lead.

Then came the 67th-minute dismissal of Liam Lawrence.

The skipper had already received a booking for a challenge on Henri Lansbury during the first half.

On first reflection, it appeared harsh. On second viewing courtesy of a replay, Lawrence had gone over the ball and landed on the midfielder’s shin with his right foot.

The caution which sealed his sending off was entirely more cut and dried.

A desperate lunge as David Bentley sped away only succeeded in studding the back of the former England man’s ankle.

Having previously been booked, there could be no complaints as Lawrence was sent back towards the changing room.

Pompey had plenty of reasons to protest, though, five minutes later when West Ham were avoided a controversial penalty.

Jason Pearce was paying Lansbury close attention on the edge of the penalty area in a bid to block any potential route to goal.

The on-loan Arsenal midfielder attempted to loft the ball past the defender, yet succeeded only in striking his arm from point-blank range.

The linesman immediately indicated for a spot-kick, much to the disgust of the Blues players and management.

Mark Noble netted and, four minutes later, Carlton Cole’s towering header decided the outcome of the points.

Unquestionably, it was rough justice on the visitors, who much earlier in the match had taken an eighth-minute lead to shock the packed Boleyn Ground.

Lawrence drilled in a corner which was met with a first-time shot from Varney, only for the forward to crash it against Cole.

The Hammers striker wasn’t even standing in front of goal, yet the ball ricocheted off him and into the net for an indisputable own goal.

Within a minute, Allardyce’s side were on level terms, though.

Pearce was adjudged to have climbed over Cole and Matt Taylor curled the resulting free-kick home from 25 yards.

It was a sight Pompey fans had become all-too familiar with during the left-sided player’s lengthy Fratton Park tenure.

Pompey, though, continued to press and finished the first half far stronger.

Norris crashed a juggling shot over the bar, Pearce’s flying header was well held by Rob Green and the former England man had to keep Erik Huseklepp’s shot out with an outstretched leg at one point.

On 53 minutes, however, it was the hosts who took the lead.

The impressive Noble’s delivery from the left picked out Lansbury inside the box and his shot took two deflections off Pearce to wrong-foot Ashdown and trickle into the net.

Nonetheless, the visitors continued to build from the back in patient style, a stark contrast to that much-criticised opening 45 minutes against Cardiff two weeks earlier.

They were rewarded on the hour mark when Huseklepp produced a gem of a cross from the left and Norris headed home at the far post.

Winston Reid did his best to hack the ball off the line, but Benjani was on hand to head it into the net to make sure.

Both players celebrated but replays suggest Norris was the genuine scorer.

Suddenly, Pompey were on top once more, yet that progress was checked during a five-minute horror spell which saw Lawrence dismissed and the awarding of the controversial penalty.

On 76 minutes, the scoreline was 4-2 when Taylor clipped in a wonderful cross from the left and Cole headed home.

There was still late drama to come, though, with former Pompey striker Frederic Piquionne seeing red for pushing Greg Halford in the face.

At the other end, Tal Ben Haim won a penalty following an excellent surge into the box, which Halford duly converted.

It was the final kick and the last say in an entertaining, eventful Upton Park encounter – a fixture the Hammers will know they were fortunate to claim a victory out of.