Mighty Huth has Stoke heading on rare outing to semi-finals

Stoke City 2 West Ham United 1
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The Independent Online

The reaction of Stoke's supporters as the semi-final draw kept them apart from Manchester United told its own story. In the concourses and carparks they hugged and whooped. No one in the Potteries expects Bolton to be swept aside, but two years before the 150th anniversary of Stoke's formation, a first FA Cup final appearance is long overdue.

For the time being, after a hard-fought victory over West Ham in a tie replete with drama, controversy, exciting football and a missed penalty, Stoke and their cacophonous followers will happily settle for a first semi-final since 1972, when Tony Waddington's team lost to Arsenal at that stage for a second year running. The fact that the game will be at Wembley, where Stoke have won on all three visits, adds to the lustre.

In the end it was a case of 'what goes around comes around'. Stoke, seething over what manager Tony Pulis called a "stonewall handball" by Frederic Piquionne seconds before West Ham cancelled out Robert Huth's early goal, owed their winner to referee Mike Jones ruling that Carlton Cole used an arm to block the ball as the defensive wall jumped to try to keep out Jermaine Pennant's free-kick.

From the follow-up free-kick, journeyman defender Danny Higginbotham drilled his first ever FA Cup goal, which crept in via Robert Green's outstretched hand and the inside of the goalpost. Forty years of hurt were exorcised at a stroke.

Pulis dismissed the idea that Bolton gave them an easier route to the final. "It would be disrespectful to them to say it was the draw we wanted," the Stoke manager said. "Whoever we got, we would treat them with total respect. Bolton have been an established Premier League side a lot longer than us."

His West Ham counterpart, Avram Grant, complained that Jones had sought to assuage Stoke's indignation over Piquionne's goal by pointing to the spot when Scott Parker challenged Matty Etherington 13 seconds into the second half. "The referee started the second half very strangely," he said. "Maybe he felt a bit guilty."

Robert Green leapt to his left to beat aside the penalty by Etherington, a former West Ham colleague. However, Grant was baffled as to why the official did not award another spot-kick after Jon Walters wrestled James Tomkins to the turf seven minutes from time. "It was more Bushido [a martial art] than a penalty," he said with sledgehammer sarcasm.

Informed of Grant's grievance, Pulis said: "We've copped quite a few [decisions] in the league." He preferred to dwell on the positives, such as Stoke's unlikely match-winner.

"It's Danny's first Cup goal and he's played about 600 games. It was a long time coming but well worth waiting for."

Nor was Pulis about to apologise for Huth adding to Stoke's bulging catalogue of goals from Rory Delap's extraordinary throw-ins. He revelled in goals from set-plays because they represented a "reward for hard work on the training ground".

Huth's header was his eighth goal of the season – making the German defender Stoke's top scorer – and gave Stoke the goal their furious early tempo merited. Piquionne levelled after appearing to control Thomas Hitzlsperger's sumptuous long pass with his upper arm, but suffered an ankle injury as he followed the ball into the net and was soon replaced.

Stoke probed immediately after half-time, and if Etherington's fall was theatrical, Green's fingertips ensured justice. Pulis felt a lesser side would have reacted badly to such a setback, but when the hosts pressed again, Mr Oliver's lynx-eyed intervention gave Higginbotham, a journeyman def-ender brought back to Stoke from Sunderland, his shot at glory.

West Ham were not done yet, though. Thomas Sorensen, now a Premier League reserve, made three fine saves in the closing stages, while Matthew Upson headed against the bar four minutes from time. Stoke, though, were not to be denied, and in Pulis' view, their success is richly deserved.

"In the two-and-a-half years since promotion, we've reached three quarter-finals, two in the FA Cup and once in the Carling Cup, and now a semi-final. Everybody wrote us off but we haven't done badly."

Match facts

Subs: Stoke Whitehead (Pennant, 81), Fuller (Jones, 90), Collins (Etherington, 90). Unused Nash (gk), Pugh, Diao, Wilkinson.

West Ham Spector 6 (Piquionne, 35), Keane 6 (Obinna 68), Hines (Noble, 81). Unused Boffin (gk), Gabbidon, Boa Morte, Jacobsen.

Booked: Stoke Shawcross, Fuller. West Ham Obinna, Da Costa.

Man of match Hitzlsperger Match rating 8/10.

Possession Stoke 42% West Ham 58%.

Attempts on target Stoke 6 West Ham 5.

Referee M Jones (Cheshire) Att 24,550.



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