The Championship play-offs never seize to amaze, and it was the case again as Birmingham nearly pulled off one of the great end-of-season comebacks against the exciting exuberance of Blackpool. Leading 1-0 from the first leg, goals from Stephen Dobbie and Matt Phillips just before and after half-time had looked to have put the tie beyond doubt for Ian Holloway's team. However, goals from Nikola Zigic and Curtis Davies made for a nerve-jangling final half hour.
"I'm lost for words. It looked like we'd seen it through but what a fightback. If they'd scored a third one, I couldn't see us living with it," Holloway said. "I'm delighted, because we knew it would be tough. I'm very proud and pleased for everybody at the club, to come here and withstand that onslaught and just hang on in the end."
The spirit and attacking flair of the Seasiders never wavered, but without the nerves that marred their first-leg defeat the Blues were keen to exert pressure from the off in a seesaw tussle. They threw men forward, looking for that all-important lead. David Murphy whipped in a wonderful cross, picking out Marlon King. With the goal at his mercy, the striker's effort hit the turf before clipping the bar.
Those early ventures opened up the game. Heavy rain left the pitch sodden, making for greasy conditions. Alex Baptiste's slip saw Zigic ping a shot goalwards that Matt Gilks was equal to. The conditions were the eventual undoing of City. Colin Doyle skidded to pick up a routine throughball but his momentum took him out of the area, forcing him to concede a throw-in. From that, Phillips won a corner and the resulting set play yielded the opening goal. The delivery wasn't dealt with properly and Baptiste's overhead kick was blocked, leaving Dobbie to skim a shot in from the tightest of angles.
Blackpool looked to have put the tie beyond any doubt three minutes after the restart. Phillips made a superb darting run in between defenders to get on the end of Stephen Crainey's lofted pass before coolly guiding the ball off a post and in for a seemingly unassailable three-goal lead.
Not so, because on 63 minutes City salvaged some hope, Zigic finally getting in behind the resolute away back four. With a hint of offside, he gave Gilks the eyes and drove into the net.
The intensity of the opening moments of the first half were back, the crowd baying for blood. Their team responded and Blackpool were all at sea, failing to defend a corner and allowing Davies to thunder home a header. The place erupted, and Holloway must have been regretting bringing Keith Southern on for Thomas Ince earlier in the half – his team had lost the initiative.
He tried to rectify it by introducing the rapid Nouha Dicko as an outlet, but Birmingham still poured forward. A miraculous last-ditch tackle from Stephen Crainey prevented King bearing down on goal, which could have taken the tie to extra-time.
Wembley will be invaded by Tangerines next Saturday, as their team once again compete for a place in the Premier League.
Chris Hughton, though beaten, was typically dignified. "Over the two legs they were the better team, but we showed a lot of character," said the Birmingham manager. "I was so pleased with the comeback. The crowd pushing to get that third goal makes me feel proud of these players. We're all hurting now, but the next couple of days will give the players time to reflect. They will remember tonight. With the atmosphere, it was something very special to be involved in."
As for Blackpool, expectation levels are greater thantwo years ago. But Sam Allardyce and his Hammers stand in the way of their being top-flight entertainers come August. Holloway said: "We're going to get home and then try and take on someone who has finished 11 points above us and beat us 8-1 over the two legs this season. You don't get a bigger test than that."
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Doyle; Ramage, Ibañez, Davies, Murphy; Burke, Mutch, Spector (N'Daw, 44), Townsend (Redmond, 62); Zigic, King. Substitutes not used Butland, Elliott, Rooney.
Blackpool (4-2-3-1): Gilks; Eardley, Baptiste, Evatt, Crainey; Ferguson, Martinez; M Phillips (K Phillips, 85), Dobbie (Dicko, 76), Ince (Southern, 69); Taylor-Fletcher. Substitutes not used Halstead, Cathcart.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside).
Hammers form guide
Blackpool will have to upset the form book at Wembley next week if they are to return to the Premier League, having been well beaten by Sam Allardyce's West Ham twice in the regular season.
15 Oct 2011: West Ham 4-0 Blackpool
John Carew's early header had the hosts in front at the break, before three further goals – two from Sam Baldock – in eight minutes confirmed the points for the Hammers.
21 Feb 2012: Blackpool 1-4 West Ham
Leading 2-1, West Ham were forced to field Henri Lansbury in goal after Rob Green was dismissed. Blackpool were unable to take advantage, with the London side sealing the win.