West Ham were given a helping hand into the FA Cup fifth round as referee Lee Mason’s penalty howler gifted the Premier League club a 2-0 win at League One (third division) Hartlepool on Saturday.
Gianfranco Zola’s team had just taken a barely deserved lead through Valon Behrami when Mason intervened on the stroke of half-time at Victoria Park.
Mason ruled that Hartlepool defender Michael Nelson handled in the penalty area even though television replays showed the offence was clearly outside the box.
Mark Noble scored the spot-kick and, with Hartlepool’s morale shattered, the visitors were able to avoid the embarrassment that Stoke suffered here in the previous round.
West Ham were almost gifted an early lead when Nelson’s headed clearance drifted towards his own goal and keeper Arran Lee-Barrett was forced to tip over for a corner.
Noble went close for the visitors with six minutes gone when he curled a shot just wide of the far post from the edge of the penalty area.
Hartlepool gradually conquered their early nerves and almost went in front when striker Michael Mackay met Matt Robson’s corner with a goalbound header that Scott Parker had to clear off the line.
Sensing that Hartlepool were beginning to fancy their chances, West Ham moved up a gear. When Carlton Cole’s shot was blocked to Noble it took a brave block from Ritchie Humphreys to keep the score level.
The Hammers took the lead in the 44th minute when young midfielder Jack Collison picked out Behrami on the edge of the area and the Swiss international’s low shot flew past Lee-Barrett into the far corner.
Zola’s side would have been happy enough with that but a shocking decision by Mason turned the tie firmly in their favour. Mason adjudged that Nelson had handled Cole’s flick-on inside the penalty area but replays indicated he was a yard outside the box.
Noble took full advantage as he converted the spot-kick to double West Ham’s lead.
West Ham went for the kill after half-time and Behrami fired in a cross-shot which Lee-Barrett gratefully turned away for a corner.
The hosts had one final fling and it took a fine save from Robert Green to protect West Ham’s two-goal advantage when Gary Liddle powered a header towards goal from Robson’s cross, only for the keeper to palm it away.
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