Nigel Adkins received a standing ovation in injury time during Southampton's first victory of the season, a fitting way to end a week in which his position as manager had come into question, despite guiding the club from League One to the Premier League in just two years. With 35 minutes remaining against Aston Villa, such a reception seemed unlikely, but a courageous turnaround – inspired by Rickie Lambert – earned Adkins's team three deserved and much-needed points.

Four defeats from four may not have been how Saints envisaged their return to the top flight, but as the autumnal equinox fell over the south coast, this win could also change the momentum of their season. The miasma created from conceding 14 goals in four matches, the worst record since Swindon's in 1993, was lifted when Darren Bent's first-half strike was cancelled out by Lambert after 58 minutes, before a strike from Nathaniel Clyne, a Ciaran Clark own goal and a Lambert penalty completed an unlikely comeback.

About the reception, Adkins said: "It's very nice because it demonstrates we're together as one here at Southampton. Everyone's working very, very hard, from the chairman down, we all share the same goal. We know it's going to be a challenge in the Premier League and we're working very hard for each other.

"There's a lot of belief here. That was demonstrated again today, I thought the supporters were yet again outstanding, getting behind everybody. We've just had two back-to-back promotions, we're in the Premier League now and we know it's going to be challenging."

This was a far from perfect performance. Southampton's problems at the back re-emerged when Bent broke the deadlock nine minutes before half-time. Playing alongside Christian Benteke, who started his first league game, Bent leapt highest to win a cross from the left and, although he could not make decisive contact, the clearance from José Fonte only reached Stephen Ireland, whose scuffed shot from the edge of the area was driven into the ground and back into the path of Bent, who poked the ball home from close range.

Daniel Fox paid for his idleness by being withdrawn at half-time by Adkins, who demonstrated he is not afraid to make big decisions by dropping the goalkeeper Kelvin Davis and replacing him with 20-year-old Paulo Gazzaniga after the 6-1 drubbing at Arsenal last week.

"I have to make decisions, that's what managers do," Adkins said. "I had a good conversation with him [Davis] on Thursday, told him what I intended to do; he took it exactly how I expected him to, in a professional manner." The club have also signed the former Celtic keeper Artur Boruc, who was a free agent after leaving Fiorentina in the summer.

Gastón Ramírez and Maya Yoshida were also handed their first league starts but it was a familiar face, Lambert, who sparked their revival. The striker was played in from the right, shifted the ball out of his feet with calm expertise and fired low past Brad Guzan from the edge of the area.

Southampton were suddenly in the ascendancy and proceeded to go 3-1 up. The marauding left-back Clyne cut the ball inside to Lambert, who played it into Ramírez, whose delicate touch found the onrushing Clyne, who slotted under Guzan.

Having twice squandered a 2-1 lead this term, against Manchester City and United, there was a sense that Southampton required a third to kill off the game. It arrived in the 72nd minute when Jason Puncheon's shot from a tight angle deflected in off Clark. A fourth goal arrived in injury time, Lambert rocketing a penalty into the bottom corner after Guzan had bundled over the substitute Emmanuel Mayuka.

Ireland left St Mary's with his arm in a sling and his withdrawal at half-time was key to Villa's demise. "The last half an hour or 40 minutes, I don't defend that," said their manager, Paul Lambert. "I won't blame anyone; we win together, we lose together."

It is that same spirit that could see Southampton safe this season.