What price promotion to the Premier League? £20million? £25m? £30m? The figures seem to increase every year, along with the risks. To delirious Crystal Palace supporters in the Cardiff sunshine the only numbers that mattered were one and nil, representing the goal scored by their captain, Neil Shipperley, and the clean sheet that a vigilant linesman allowed them by ruling out two potential equalisers in as many minutes soon afterwards.
It was a deserved triumph, from the ashes of the First Division's bottom four when Iain Dowie took over as manager at Christmas, built yesterday on solid work at the back, a hard-working midfield given occasional inspiration by the teenager Wayne Routledge, and one sudden flourish from the leading goalscorer, Andy Johnson, to create the game's most important moment and the season's richest. West Ham, who had finished one point and two rungs higher in fourth place, peaked too soon with a thrilling semi-final victory over Ipswich, the quality and passion of which they never looked like repeating here.
So the Eagle proved mightier than the Hammer, "Glad All Over" not "Bubbles" rang round the stadium, and south London, rather than the East End, was en fête. Not until after the party has subsided will it dawn on all concerned that the really hard part starts now, stone-hearted bookmakers having already decreed that Palace what used to be called a yo-yo club will be among the three teams heading in a downward direction again in 12 months' time.
From early in the morning, Paddington station and the M4 had been decorated with the respective shades of red and blue. Palace's followers exuded the confidence that comes from being on a roll, West Ham's the nervousness that stems from favouritism and having been a Premiership side so recently and for so long. Understandably, they count themselves unfortunate to have been relegated a year ago having lost only one of their last 11 games and finished with 42 points more than Everton and Blackburn Rovers managed this season. The financial trauma that followed, after a decade of Premiership-level wages, meant losing more than a dozen players. Michael Carrick, the best of those who stayed, seems certain to be next out of the door as the club wrestle with debts reduced no lower than £33m.
"I may have to make some tough decisions now," said their manager, Alan Pardew. "We'd like to have played better. It was a tight game and it fell to who was going to take the chance. It's been a dark day for us, our fans and all their dreams. It hits you right between the eyes."
Palace, in contrast, have not stayed long enough at the higher level to become used to it. Even before yesterday, their dizzy ascent up the table had been one of the season's most affecting stories. That revival under a new leader, like West Ham's, also confirmed that managers matter and that there are some bright young British ones out there.
"It's a wonderful achievement for the players, nothing short of monumental," Dowie said. "Now we've got to come up with a team and a format that can keep us in the Premiership, but that's for another day."
In deciding on a replacement for the suspended Julian Gray, whose stupid sending-off made the semi-final victory over Sunderland all the more meritorious, Dowie unexpectedly plumped for Shaun Derry. Although combative, he was unable to exploit Tomas Repka's weaknesses in the way a more direct winger might have done and it was on the other flank that West Ham looked more vulnerable, the former Palace man Hayden Mullins struggling to contain Routledge, a tricky little 19-year-old. He supplied the cross from which Johnson should have opened the scoring after 17 minutes, the shaven-headed striker, who is not the tallest, glancing a fine centre over the bar.
Nearer the interval, it was another good Routledge cross that allowed Michael Hughes to come closer than anyone to a first-half score. Having his first shot blocked, Hughes kept coming and dinked the ball past Stephen Bywater, only for Repka to become an unlikely hero by clearing off the line. In between times, Dowie's team had most of the chances. Danny Butterfield, who scored at Selhurst against Sunderland following a free-kick, swerved a similar effort just wide; Bywater made a horrible mess of a corner but Danny Granville scooped a weak effort past the near post.
West Ham were never fluent, Carrick failing to dominate midfield. Their few opportunities were nevertheless good ones, above all when Carrick's one killer pass sent Bobby Zamora clear to shoot against Nico Vaesen's legs. Corners on either wing then encouraged Eastenders who must have been growing a little concerned; Christian Dailly headed one wide and Matthew Etherington almost reprised his semi-final goal, collecting a short corner and driving it over the bar.
Graham Poll booked Repka an extraordinary 17th yellow card this season for the Czech but later turned down three appeals for penalties, of which the first and third looked worth a shout. Just before the interval, Mikele Leigertwood grabbed Zamora's arm as the striker broke forward, and much nearer the finish the same player appeared to trip Carrick.
Pardew's team picked up the pace at last early in the second half, winning a series of corners before falling behind. Twice Palace barely cleared beyond their penalty area, Steve Lomas forcing a save from Vaesen just under the bar and Andy Melville appealing in vain for handball when his drive was blocked.
Two minutes later, however, Palace were in front. Johnson drifted almost lazily to the left, suddenly twisting to shoot through Dailly's legs; Bywater, possibly unsighted, could not hold the ball and Shipperley was on hand for a tap-in. West Ham's frustration was doubled then trebled as first David Connolly and then Zamora beat Vaesen but were given offside, which led to objects as well as abuse being hurled at the linesman.
Not surprisingly, the final few minutes were played mainly in Palace's half, but without Vaesen having a shot to save. "It sounds bizarre," said Dowie, "but we're in the Premiership with Manchester United and Arsenal."Reuse content