After last season's disappointing performance at the same stage, West Ham did their supporters proud at the second attempt. Up against Preston North End (a club that are part of West Ham's history, as we beat them to win our first FA Cup), we turned in a good performance to snatch the win by 1-0, Bobby Zamora getting the goal in front of 34,000 delirious Hammers.
Having qualified for the final by again beating Ipswich at the semi-final stage with a classy performance in the second-leg, I was pleased for my mate Clive, who had been unable to attend last season's final, but could make it this year. Having sorted our tickets by 7.30 the day after the semi, we were both looking foward to a great day out.
We set out from my place at about 7.30 on the day of the match, and I chose to use the same route as last year, avoiding the traffic on the M4. This was a good choice, as we made it to Cardiff in plenty of time, even after a stop for bacon butties and tea on the way. Having found a place to park in the back streets near the county cricket ground, we found a pub close by that had a few supporters from both clubs in it, but was not packed out, so we could get served quickly. We had a couple of pints and something to eat from their barbecue. While we were eating, four coachloads of West Ham turned up outside, and very soon the pub was heaving.
After a while, we decided it was time to move into the city centre to soak up the atmosphere in the streets. We had to make our way through the Preston fans until we found the main area of West Ham support. The streets and all the bars were absolutely heaving with fans. We tried but failed to get into one of the bars, so we just stood around in the streets for a while to enjoy the atmosphere. While there we bumped into a couple of season-ticket holders who sit very near us at Upton Park.
At about 14.00, we made our way into the stadium. At one of the turnstiles, there was one West Ham fan having an argument with the stewards, as he'd somehow managed to bring the ticket for last year's game, rather than this year's one. Quite how he'd done that I don't know, but we thought it was funny. Don't think he did somehow though!
Once the match kicked off, West Ham were soon into their stride, and Tommy Repka of all people hit a post after just a few minutes. Shortly after, Etherington forced a good save from the Preston 'keeper. Things were looking good for us at this stage, but in the latter part of the first half Preston began to gain more possession. They caused us a little bit of concern from a couple of set-piece routines, but in open play we were dealing quite comfortably with them.
The second half started with Shaun Newton heading off his own line from a Preston corner kick, but then West Ham began to establish a degree of dominance again. We squandered a great opportunity to take the lead when Harewood (twice) and Zamora both failed to find the net in the same incident. I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be one of those days where we failed to score and lose to a sucker punch, when Zamora sent the Hammers players and fans into a state of delirium when he converted a Matty cross. The south end of the stadium where the Hammers fans were massed went into a state of pandemonium as we celebrated madly. I finished up about three rows down from where my seat was!
Shortly after, Zamora was substituted for Dailly, as Pardew tried to close the game out. This was largely successful, as Preston didn't really offer a serious threat to our goal. The most worrying moment was when Jimmy Walker came a bit too far out to catch a ball, and in trying to turn and keep the ball inside the penatly area, seriously damaged his knee. We feared he might be sent off, but was only shown a yellow card as he left the pitch on a stretcher. From the free-kick, the sub 'keeper Bywater held the goal-bound shot, much to our relief.
The referee awarded seven minutes of injury time at the end of the game, which had us biting our nails with anxiety, but after what seemed a great deal longer, the ref blew the final whistle. This caused immediate jubilation amongst the Hammers fans, as we went potty celebrating our return to the Premiership.