Manager finally samples the sweet taste of success

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The Independent Football

"Remember this feeling," Alan Pardew had told his players in the bitter aftermath of defeat in last year's Championship play-off final. "Remember this taste, and make sure you never experience it again." They duly did, and now they - and the 35,000 supporters who travelled once again in hope down the Great Western Line and the M4 - have a new feeling and a new taste to remember. Both sweet.

"Remember this feeling," Alan Pardew had told his players in the bitter aftermath of defeat in last year's Championship play-off final. "Remember this taste, and make sure you never experience it again." They duly did, and now they - and the 35,000 supporters who travelled once again in hope down the Great Western Line and the M4 - have a new feeling and a new taste to remember. Both sweet.

As the final whistle blew on a season of excruciation and criticism for the wiry, black-tracksuited West Ham manager, he stood on the edge of his technical area, spread both arms out and looked up to the overcast Cardiff skies.

Asked afterwards to sum up his feelings, Pardew's response was to the point: "Job done." He accepted it had been a crucial victory, and that it was fair enough he had borne the brunt of increasing unrest from supporters as his team struggled for consistent form.

"It's been a cycle of misery, but we've broken that today," Pardew said. "People have been coming up to us and saying 'You have to win, you have got to win.' But you never have to win. You have to accept what you get sometimes, and learn, and further your career.

"I got beat in the play-offs with Reading, and then got promoted, and I've done the same here. We are back where we belong. We'll add a couple to the team but we'll do ourselves justice."

Pardew revealed that, before the match, he had written down the reasons why his players needed to win this match - "some publishable, some not". The unpublishable material might have included a reference to Preston's manager Billy Davies, who was involved in angry touchline scenes with Pardew during West Ham's home League defeat by his team earlier this year.

Davies, however, was anything but incendiary after a match where the less-fancied challengers produced relatively little. "We didn't play particularly well, but that's football," Davies said. "We have got to learn from this experience, but we can be proud of what we have achieved."

By the time the victorious players had assembled for their claret-and-blue tickertaped award ceremony, the fans who had been largely tense and quiet until the very last seconds of the seven long minutes added on for injury time were finally able to celebrate their team's return to the place they felt they should never have left. It was as if, for much of the afternoon, they were gripped by fatalism.

"Mourinho - Hammers R Coming," announced one of the many banners waving. For all the optimism engendered by a team with such young talents as Anton Ferdinand, Kevin Lock-lookalike Elliott Ward and and scorer Bobby Zamora, you fancy that the Special One will still be able to sleep easy at night.

But if West Ham have a new set of questions to answer now they have managed to scramble back into the Premiership just before their annual parachute payment of £6m dries up, they have managed to avoid the one they least wanted to face: "Where do you go now, with £35m worth of debt, and a team about to drift apart following two unsuccessful promotion campaigns?" With one bound - and one inspired prod from a natural goalscorer - West Ham have embraced a future which is worth at least £30m to them. No wonder this match is hyped up as "the richest game on earth".

For all their disappointment of the previous year, the mood before the game had been one of high expectation for West Ham's fans. As the 10.15 from Paddington, packed with amiable Upton Park regulars, approached Cardiff Central, there was the first glimpse of those who had already made the trip. "Did you see that?" exclaimed one fan to his friends. "The whole street was awash with claret-and-blue."

"That's what it's all about," his mate added.

Outside the station the air was filled with drifting bubbles issuing from the machines smartly provided by street sellers, and East End hopes were rising in similar fashion. This time the bubbles would sail on, gloriously unburst...

Play-off winners

How long they lasted in the Premiership:

* 2003-04

Crystal Palace (1 season)

* 2002-03

Wolves (1 season)

* 2001-02

Birmingham (Still there)

* 2000-01

Bolton (Still there)

* 1999-00

Ipswich Town (2 seasons)

* 1998-99 Watford (1 season)

* 1997-98

Charlton Athletic (1 season)

* 1996-97

Crystal Palace (1 season)

* 1995-96

Leicester City (6 seasons)

* 1994-95

Bolton Wanderers (1 season)

* 1993-94

Leicester City (1 season)

* 1992-93

Swindon Town (1 season)

* 1991-92

Blackburn (7 seasons)

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