Putting their Premier League anxieties to one side, Birmingham and West Ham found the lure of a Carling Cup final enough to conspire in an exhilarating battle for a Wembley place against Arsenal that was settled only after a gutsy Birmingham fightback had taken last night's semi-final second leg into extra time.
West Ham, 2-1 up from the first leg, appeared to be cruising towards an all-London final when Carlton Cole put them in front after 31 minutes but Birmingham levelled the scores on the night through former West Ham player Lee Bowyer before Roger Johnson's header 11 minutes from time forced the tie into extra time.
It was a night to lift the spirits of manager Alex McLeish with pressure mounting in a difficult league campaign, the Birmingham players rallying to his cause with an heroic effort reflected in no player more vividly than the midfielder Craig Gardner, who twice hit the post in normal time and struck what turned out to be the winner four minutes into the additional period, booking Birmingham's place in the final 10 years after they were runners-up to Liverpool.
"To walk out at Wembley will be one of my proudest moments," he said. "It is a fantastic moment for this club."
Birmingham are one point outside the relegation places and McLeish acknowledges that his position has begun to look insecure following comments by acting chairman, Peter Pannu, that appeared to show dissatisfaction with the former Scotland manager's transfer spending. "I'm not invulnerable if results don't go my way," he said. "That's football. I have to get results and we got a good one tonight."
It was particularly gratifying, in the circumstances, that it should be Nikola Zigic, until now a major disappointment after his £6m arrival from Racing Santander, whose entrance as a half-time substitute proved a major factor in swinging the match Birmingham's way.
The 6ft 6in Serbian striker changed the focus of the match after West Ham had largely controlled the first half.
"We had to change the tactics and Zigic had his best game for the club," McLeish added. "But it needed the players to show some guts, too, because West Ham had been comfortable and it looked like we were going out."
Cole's strike, a superb effort from 25 yards, seemed to have set up Avram Grant for his fourth cup final in as many seasons only two weeks after it appeared his reign at Upton Park was about to end before the West Ham hierarchy, none of whom was present last night, reiterated their support for the former Chelsea manager.
Birmingham were a little lucky, none the less, not to be two goals behind at half-time after Zavon Hines hooked the ball against Ben Foster's left-hand post.
Zigic had an immediate impact after replacing Matt Derbyshire. Almost his first contribution was to nod the ball down for Gardner to launch a curling effort from 20 yards that had Rob Green beaten, only to hit an upright and rebound to safety.
Soon afterwards, after Green had pushed Liam Ridgewell's header round the post, Larsson delivered the ball a second time into the West Ham penalty area, targeting Zigic again. It dropped nicely for Bowyer, twice a West Ham player, who smashed a venomous, diagonal shot into the far corner.
The goal sparked an explosion of noise and inspired fresh belief in Birmingham, who drove forward with such purpose they were able to take the lead on the night and force the tie into extra time when Johnson forced Green to concede a corner with one header, tipped over the bar, then buried the next as Bowyer swung the ball in from the left.
Moments before Howard Webb's final whistle beckoned another 30 minutes, Gardner hit the post a second time, Green making a fine save as he galloped forward in search of winner.
As it happened, he provided it only four minutes into the supplementary period. Charging energetically through the middle as captain Stephen Carr broke down the right, he was perfectly placed to receive the full-back's square pass and his 20-yard shot had too much swerve for Green.
Cole and substitute Kieron Dyer might have snatched victory on away goals for West Ham but defeat for Birmingham would have been an injustice. "It was disappointing," Grant said. "We played well in the first half hour. Unfortunately we will not be at Wembley but the players are confident we can get out of trouble in the league."
Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Foster; Carr, Jiranek, Johnson, Ridgewell; Larsson (Beausejour, 101), Gardner (Murphy, 101), Ferguson, Bowyer; Jerome; Derbyshire (Zigic, h-t). Substitutes not used Taylor (gk), Phillips, Fahey, Hleb.
West Ham United (4-4-1-1): Green; Faubert, Upson, Collins, Bridge; Spector (McCarthy, 106), Noble, Parker, Boa Morte (O'Neill, 83); Hines (Dyer, 71); Cole. Substitutes not used Boffin (gk), Reid, Gabbidon, Sears.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire).Reuse content