This time West Ham United's dreams did not fade and die. Twelve months after the anticlimax of capitulation to Crystal Palace in the play-off final, Alan Pardew brought his team back to the Millennium Stadium to face Preston North End yesterday and left with a place in the Premiership courtesy of Bobby Zamora's second-half goal.
In the programme, Zamora was hailed by his goalkeeper, Jimmy Walker, as "a true cockney and cool guy". The 24-year-old striker is indeed an east Londoner, who received his football education at a star-making club called Senrab. Alas, coolness deserted him on critical occasions as West Ham strove to translate their superiority over Preston into goals.
The glittering exception worth a minimum £20m to West Ham as well as ensuring Pardew keeps his job came with nearly two-thirds of the match played. Matthew Etherington, whose left-wing display must have impressed an otherwise disappointed Preston president, Sir Tom Finney, received the ball from Zamora and raced towards the corner flag.
Etherington retained sufficient poise to cut back a cross at which Claude Davis dived and missed. Zamora, who rejected a move to Leeds United in the Premiership last season in order to join his boyhood heroes in the second tier, added to his two goals in the semi-final at Ipswich by steering the ball in from six yards with his left foot.
West Ham's victory was richly deserved they carried the greater attacking threat until Preston mounted a laboured rally in the closing stages but it came at a price for Walker. With four minutes left, he advanced to the edge of his 18-yard area to gather a dropping ball. As his momentum carried him over the line his right knee twisted sickeningly as it hit the ground.
Walker departed on a stretcher with suspected cruciate-ligament damage and a booking, yet it was a measure of West Ham's control that the save made by Stephen Bywater from the subsequent free-kick by Eddie Lewis was only Preston's second shot on target. Billy Davies' side may feel hard done-by they completed a double over yesterday's opponents and finished above them in the Championship but they seldom looked capable of ending North End's 44-year exile from the top division.
West Ham opened with an assurance that suggested a determination to make amends for their supine performance against Palace. Their passing was crisper than Preston's, their movement less conspicuously inhibited by the tension. This initial ascendancy almost brought a dramatic reward inside five minutes.
Shaun Newton delayed his pass to Tomas Repka until the right-back had overlapped almost to the angle of the six-yard box. The Czech has never scored for West Ham in 156 games; a low shot against the outside of Carlo Nash's left-hand upright ensured he maintained his record.
A dizzying array of dummies and feints by Preston at attacking free-kicks underlined why Pardew had warned of their set-piece expertise. In open play, though, West Ham looked the more dangerous. Before the midway point in the first half, it took a last-ditch tackle by Youl Mawéné to keep out Zamora, while Nash tipped over Etherington's flashing drive.
Five minutes before half-time, the 20-year-old prodigy David Nugent pursued a long ball into the penalty area. Repka, not renowned for his calmness under pressure, made a perfectly judged challenge.
Just when it appeared the second half was settling into the same attritional pattern as the first, both sides were denied by goalline clearances in the space of two minutes. Preston, having been awarded a corner in the 49th-minute, cursed Newton's saving header after Richard Cresswell had climbed above the congestion. West Ham retaliated when Nigel Reo-Coker's pass set up Marlon Harewood for a shot which Nash parried brilliantly with one hand. Zamora's first follow-up was hacked away by Mawéné, his second was driven at a grateful Nash.
Three minutes after he had finally turned claret and blue into gold, Zamora sent a free header over the crossbar from six yards out. He held his head in his hands and wondered whether it would prove costly. But even seven minutes of stoppage time could not trick Preston into a convincing spell of pressure.
For all that Pardew's men finished in sixth place, squeezing in ahead of Reading on the Championship's final day, it was difficult to begrudge them their celebrations or their maligned manager his first success in four play-off attempts. They did, after all, go down from the Premiership in 2003 with 42 points, eight more than completed West Bromwich Albion's great escape this spring.
They return £30m in debt and with a squad that trailed in 21 points behind Sunderland and 14 adrift of Wigan. All of which signals a struggle ahead, but on a balmy afternoon which ended with Walker being chaired around the pitch by his goalkeeping coach, Ludek Miklosko, the verdict of the West Ham defender Anton Ferdinand said it all. How did it feel, asked BBC radio. "Fucking unbelievable," he replied.
Goal: Zamora (57) 0-1.
Preston North End (4-4-2): Nash; Mawéné Alexander, 46), Lucketti, Davis, Hill; Sedgwick (Agyemang, 70), O'Neil (Etuhu, 81), McKenna, Lewis; Cresswell, Nugent. Substitutes not used: G Ward (gk), Broomes.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Walker (Bywater, 86); Repka, Ferdinand, E Ward, Powell; Newton (Noble, 81), Mullins, Reo-Coker, Etherington; Harewood, Zamora (Dailly, 73). Substitutes not used: Sheringham, Fletcher.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).
Bookings: Preston: Hill, Mawéné. West Ham: Mullins, Walker.
Man of the match: Etherington.
'This club is back where it belongs'
Despite defeat the Preston manager, Billy Davies, was "proud" of the effort from his players. "I can ask no more of the players. We have to be very proud of our season, we've learnt a lot."
But Davies added: "I'd like to see the goal again because it looked like Claude Davis lost his footing, the first goal was crucial. But this is football, we have to learn from the mistakes we've made. We have to dust ourselves down and learn from his."
Veteran Teddy Sheringham was ecstatic after watching his childhood team take their place in the Premiership.
He said: "[They are] fantastic moments. I used to support West Ham as a kid and this is special.
"We have dug deep at times this year and this is fantastic. It was very dogged and we had to dig in there. It is massive for the club."
Sheringham is keen to extend his career at Upton Park despite turning 40 next April and will sit down with manager Alan Pardew in a bid to secure a new Hammers contract.
He said: "Hopefully, we can sort something out this week. I want to play in the Premiership." Sheringham added that he was "confident" he would still be at Upton Park at the start of the new season.
Chris Powell, who had been promoted with Charlton earlier in his career, said: "We've been fighting against all the critics, our gaffer has been under pressure but we stood firm. We've put this club back where it belongs, but we had to work hard. We can now look forward to the Premiership."
The captain Nigel Reo-Coker said: "It was a fantastic feeling. We had a lot of criticism but we showed them today. There's great solidarity, all the backroom staff had a really tough season and we have to dedicate this to them."Reuse content