Barnsley 0 Cardiff City 1: Hometown hero Ledley books Cardiff a return to Wembley

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It was an old-fashioned FA Cup fairytale for Cardiff City and their matchwinner Joe Ledley yesterday, an improbable story of heroism as timeless as the Cup itself. Yet as Cardiff City improbably won a place in the FA Cup final against Portsmouth next month the mind could only wander back to the game's most remarkable moment.

The flipside to every cup dream is the man who leaves the stadium haunted by the memory of what he lost. Sadly for the Barnsley striker Kayode Odejayi he will forever be remembered in FA Cup lore as the man who buried the ball in the side-netting of the Cardiff goal when it looked more difficult to miss than to score the equaliser. Somewhere between him springing the offside trap, on 66 minutes and running the 40 yards to goal, the nerve of the man who scored the winner against Chelsea in the previous round simply expired.

That was the moment, that had Sir Michael Parkinson, professional Barnsley fan, out of his seat. The cameras panned between Parkinson and the old gentleman from Cardiff, who attended their last FA Cup final appearance in 1927 in person, and seemed to watch most of this game – not just Odejayi's miss – in a state of stunned disbelief. For those of us not emotionally attached to either team it was hard to summon quite the same enthusiasm.

The Barnsley manager, Simon Davey, said that the quality of the game demonstrated that the gulf between the Premier League and the Championship was narrowing but, putting aside the undoubted commitment of both teams, that was a difficult theory with which to agree. It was a match that will be remembered most for a miss – and that is the kindest way of saying that it was not a classic.

Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day for Cardiff City fans who travelled east on an M4 dusted with snow and left celebrating in the April sunshine. Their winning goal was scored by a Welshman too and one who has spent most of his young life at his hometown club. Ledley, 21, did just enough to be the outstanding player in this game and he probably has a future at a bigger club than Cardiff – he was the subject of a bid from Everton last summer – once this Cup final is over.

It was a grand day for Dave Jones too, the Cardiff manager who once had to fight for his liberty and his reputation in court against unpleasant, unfounded rumours. A tough old Scouser, he is an uncompromising old-fashioned kind of football man who turned up at his press conference after the match apologising for not wearing a shirt and tie because he had just "taken a dunking". Dunked in what? He sniffed his sleeve and replied with a smile "champagne".

Jones has kept his team together through a crisis that almost claimed Cardiff's best players as they teetered on the brink of a £24m debt and the threat of administration. He in turn paid tribute to the club's chairman, Peter Ridsdale, a man whose chequered career as an administrator in English football has now taken another bizarre turn. Under his stewardship, Leeds United were briefly near the very top of English and European football but they never made it to an FA Cup final.

There is a possibility that Robbie Fowler will play a part in the 17 May final – he is fit again – 12 years since he was part of that Liverpool team in the white suits that lost to Manchester United in 1996. Cardiff would be the first team from outside the top flight to win the Cup since 1980. An English manager will win it for the first time since Joe Royle in 1996. There are plenty of personal stories that make this year's FA Cup final an absorbing occasion, even if Portsmouth against Cardiff fails to get the pulse racing.

For Barnsley, all that awaits is a bitter return to the fight against relegation from the Championship. They are 22nd in that league, one point from safety and have six games to save their status – yesterday they looked like the better of the two teams for long periods of the game. Their captain, Brian Howard, the goalscoring matchwinner against Liverpool, was the game's most accomplished player if not its most effective and Jamal Campbell-Ryce looked sporadically threatening on the right wing.

The team of Dickie Bird, Darren Gough and Arthur Scargill had plenty of Yorkshire grit but too little flair to break down Cardiff for whom the two centre-halves Glenn Loovens and Roger Johnson were excellent. On all but the one occasion when they attempted to play him offside, they dealt with the threat of Odejayi who had one effort kicked out of the goalmouth by Loovens in the 11th minute. Cardiff's goal came on nine minutes and they hung on grimly.

It began with a throw from Tony Capaldi on the left that was not properly cleared by Rob Kozluk and fell awkwardly to Ledley inside the area. The winger got himself into position quickly as the ball dropped steeply and he hit a left foot volley that was part shot, part lob over the head of Luke Steele. It could have opened the floodgates for Cardiff but Barnsley had the best of the rest of the first half.

However, there was just too much quality and experience in the Cardiff side, 12th in the Championship, to allow Barnsley to overrun them. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's legs may have gone but he is still a useful targetman. The former Aston Villa striker Peter Whittingham was impressive on the right and Stephen McPhail, another ex-Leeds player, gave them balance in midfield.

None of that was any use when they watched in horror as Odejayi broke through on 66 minutes, benefiting from an offside trap botched by Capaldi. The Nigerian-born striker, son of a Baptist minister, closed in so far on Peter Enckelman's goal that he could have comfortably put the ball either side of the former Aston Villa man. Instead he put it wide of the near post and buried his face in his hands. On the big screens at Wembley we could all see his grief up close and, for all the joy there can be in this competition, it was not a pretty sight.

Goal: Ledley (9) 0-1

Barnsley (4-4-2): Steele; Van Homoet, Foster, Souza, Kozluk (Butterfield, 86); Campbell-Ryce, Hassell, Howard, Devaney (Leon, 68); Odejayi, Ferenczi (Coulson, 66). Substitutes not used: Togwell, Letheren (gk).

Cardiff City (4-4-2): Enkelman; McNaughton (Ramsey, 48), Loovens, Johnson, Capaldi; Whittingham, Rae, McPhail, Ledley; Sinclair (Thompson, 62) Hasselbaink (Scimeca, 88). Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Purse.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Barnsley Kozluk, Campbell-Ryce. Cardiff Whittingham, McPhail

Man of the match: Ledley

Attendance: 82,752