Birmingham City knew that success in the First Division play-offs does not come easy. Three defeats in the last three semi-finals had told them that. But after an exhausting struggle yesterday with a hugely enterprising Norwich side, they returned to the top flight for the first time in 16 years, via a penalty shoot-out that frayed whatever nerves a tumultuous gathering of 71,597 supporters here in Cardiff had left intact.
Fifteen months earlier, this same stadium had been a scene of misery and frustration for the Blues after Andrew Johnson's penalty miss allowed Liverpool to take the Worthington Cup after extra time. This time round, however, the omens were more favourable.
Against Liverpool, Birmingham's then manager Trevor Francis took his team off the pitch in protest at having to shoot at the goal with Liverpool's fans behind it. Yesterday, the toss went their way and Norwich had to compose their thoughts in front of the Blues' hordes.
Their success obliterated the memories of their last appearance here as they took their place in the Premiership via the boot of a player who was three when they last inhabited the high regions. Following misses by Norwich's Phil Mulryne and Darren Sutch, the only remaining member of the Norwich team relegated in 1995, it fell to Birmingham's 19-year-old substitute Darren Carter to propel the Blues back where they have so long felt they belonged.
His powerful drive evaded the outstretched arm of the Norwich goalkeeper Robert Green, who had kept his side in this final with a point-blank save from Geoff Horsfield a minute before half time that defied belief.
"It's unbelievable," Carter said. "Last year I was up in the stands watching us lose the League Cup final. I don't think I'll sleep for days after this."
Norwich's shattered players, who had glimpsed the promised land when the late substitute Iwan Roberts put them ahead a minute into extra time, only to see Horsfield level the scores 11 minutes later, sank to their knees in the centre circle.
Birmingham might have made it a swifter end had Michael Johnson's header with three minutes remaining not hit the post and bounced clear.
For their director Delia Smith, who has provided the club with ingredients of £6m over the last six years, the occasion had fallen flat as an unsuccessful souffle. For Birmingham's manager Steve Bruce, who had observed the penalty drama with almost zen-like calm before rising to his feet at the finale, the decision to leave Crystal Palace mid-season and rejoin his old club, was vindicated. Earlier in the week, Bruce had described this match as "the biggest in Birmingham's history'', a claim which took in the parlous state of affairs facing all below the Premiership plimsoll line next season following the collapse of ITV Digital.
The excitement levels hardly slipped throughout a tense and eventful first half. Birmingham might have been two goals up within quarter of an hour as first Bryan Hughes stood on the ball when clear, and then Stern John, whose 90th minute goal at Millwall had earned Birmingham's place in the final, drove wide after being sent completely clear by a Hughes through-ball.
Norwich, playing the constructive football their manager, Nigel Worthington, had promised, regained the initiative and might have gone ahead themselves on the half hour when Clint Easton snatched at his shot as the goal beckoned. But the Canaries had to thank their keeper in the 44th minute as he made an improbable reflex save to deny a powerful point-blank header from Horsfield.
The second half produced less goalmouth incident but a steadily escalating tension and it required a diving header in defence from Carter to clear what might have been a decisive Norwich attack in the second minute of time added on.
Roberts, Norwich's totem of a Welsh international forward, had produced huge roars when he took to the pitch. But within a minute of extra time the forward, who has not started a match since February because of injury, generated even greater noise from the Norwich fans. After Martin Grainger's mistake had offered Alex Notman the ball on the right, the cross was headed in by Roberts, who seemed to have skipped Birmingham's minds after arriving late in the penalty area, having shaken off a kick to his ankle.
But Birmingham, who had suffered so long in the metaphorical shadow of their neighbours, Aston Villa, were not to be denied. And when Jeff Kenna's cross was headed back across goal by John, Horsfield dived in to level the match and set up the finale that Birmingham's fans could only have dreamed of. Bruce hailed the courage of his side, saying: "It was an unbelievable game, end to end, and I have to say it's a cruel way to finish. I thought the game was magnificent – and thankfully we've had that little bit of luck you need in a penalty shoot-out.
"Darren's probably been the catalyst of our season. We threw him in, and he was cool as a cucumber."
Goals: Roberts (91) 0-1; Horsfield (102) 1-1.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Vaesen; Kenna, Vickers (Carter, 70), M Johnson, Grainger; Devlin, Hughes, Tébily, Mooney (Lazaridis, 68); John, Horsfield (A Johnson, 112). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), D Johnson.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Kenton, Fleming, Mackay, Drury; Rivers (Notman 89), Mulryane, Holt, Easton; Nielsen (Roberts 82), McVeigh (Sutch, 101). Substitutes not used: Libbra, Crichton (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Hertfordshire).
Bookings: Birmingham: Grainger, Carter.
Man of the match: Green.
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