Foster's howler hands West Ham and Grant relief from the gloom

West Ham United 2 Birmingham City 1
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The Independent Football

Birmingham City and England goalkeeper Ben Foster made a monumental blunder to give West Ham United a narrow advantage in the Carling Cup semi-final, but it still may not be enough to save Avram Grant from the sack.

The Israeli's players certainly performed for him, with the exception of Victor Obinna who was sent off early in the second half for kicking Sebastian Larsson in the privates. And with 10 men left on the pitch, and the first leg of this contest swinging towards their visitors, his team produced the move of the match to clinch victory with Carlton Cole's winner, although Foster committed a horrendous blunder to let the weak shot creep under his body and over the line.

Yet it may still not be enough to save Grant, whose future will be the main topic under discussion when the West Ham board meet today. The club's leading figures are said to be split on the matter of whether to sack or back the Israeli, with vice-chairman Karren Brady advising that now is the time to change manager, while co-owner David Gold is more inclined to favour giving Grant more time.

Last night's evidence will not have made the decision any clearer. West Ham were outstanding for the first 45 minutes, took the lead through Mark Noble's ferocious drive from a tight angle, and would have scored many more but for the excellence of Foster in the Birmingham goal.

However they were pegged back when Birmingham upped their game after the interval, lost discipline when Obinna lashed out in frustration, and but for Foster's howler with 12 minutes to go, would have come out with a draw.

It will be in Grant's favour when the board meet today that the victory gives the club a record of four wins from their last seven games. But on the debit side is the fact that West Ham still prop up the Premier League, and they do not play well consistently well for long enough.

Much like Grant's Portsmouth side of a year ago who were relegated but reached the FA Cup final, West Ham are showing in cup competitions the potential within the side, but failing to translate that form regularly enough into the Premier League, and ultimately that may decide Grant's fate.

Not a bad way to go, though, if this does prove to have been his final game. It was a thrilling cup tie from start to finish, and is nicely poised for the second leg at St Andrews in two weeks' time.

Grant was non-committal about his future afterwards. "I'm not the man that you need to ask," he said. "If I don't want to be here, I will go to the owner and say. The other decision is not mine. I lived with rumours, I think, since day one.

"For me, it doesn't matter. I'm doing my job. If everything was more quiet, I think it would help the players more.

"But even with this, you saw the spirit of the players today. I think everybody needs to respect this spirit. I don't spend much time on this [speculation]. I spend a lot of time dealing with the problems in the team. Don't worry about me. I will be fine in any case. Why do you need to ask me about something that is not in my control?

"You can ask me why I picked this player and not the other one because this is my responsibility. You can ask me if I want to stay or not ... no, no. Don't ask me this."

West Ham began the match picking up where they left off in the last round of the Carling Cup, when they beat Manchester United 4-0. A flat atmosphere inside Upton Park was lifted by a barnstorming salvo from Grant's side. Freddie Sears and Matthew Upson, playing an unfamiliar role at left back, both went close before Mark Noble put West Ham ahead after 13 minutes. Noble surged from midfield and from his cross Victor Obinna's header was cleared off the line by Birmingham's Liam Ridgewell. Jonathan Spector hooked the ball back out to the right flank to Noble, who dispatched it with ferocity inside the near post of Foster who was unsighted by team-mate Scott Dann standing right in front of him.

Birmingham were a different side after a half-time dressing down from manager Alex McLeish, although they lost defender Scott Dann to a torn hamstring. Liam Ridgewell pulled them level with a header from Sebastian Larsson's corner, and they were desperately unluckly not to have a penalty when Upson barged into Barry Ferguson, "a stonewaller" according to McLeish.

West Ham were reduced to 10 men when Obinna flicked up his heel to connect with the groin of Larsson standing behind him. It was an ugly act, spotted by linesman Simon Long.

After half an hour on the rack, West Ham produced the move of the game to take the lead, thanks to a horrible error from Foster. Parker passed to Spector, who centred to Carlton Cole. His low shot was poorly struck, but just had enough momentum to trickle over the line as Foster lost his balance and let the ball creep between his legs for the softest of goals.

McLeish said: "The goal was a monstrosity but Ben is a big man and will take it on the chin. He doesn't hide and apologised to the players. He's saved us many times in the past and will save us many times in the future."

West Ham United (4-1-4-1): Green; Faubert, Tomkins, Reid, Upson; Parker; Sears (Hines, 74), Spector, Noble (Kovac, 90), Obinna; Piquionne (Cole, 73). Substitutes not used Boffin (gk), Spence, Nouble, Boa Morte. Sent off Obinna (59).

Birmingham City (4-5-1): Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann (Murphy, h-t), Ridgewell; Larsson (Zigic, 87), Gardner, Ferguson, Fahey, Hleb (Beausejour, 83); Jerome. Substitutes not used Taylor (gk), Jiranek, Mutch, Derbyshire.

Man of the match Noble.

Match rating 8/10.

Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Attendance 34,754.