McLeish outwits Grant for Wembley prize
Birmingham City were true to both the words of their club anthem and mantra of manager Alex McLeish as they reached their first major Wembley final in 55 years.
When West Ham United walked off at half-time with an extended lead in the Carling Cup semi-final and the sound of the home fans turning on their own players, all Avram Grant's recent traumas seemed a world away.
But as the strains of "Keep Right On To The End Of The Road" rang around St Andrew's in a call to action, McLeish reacted by ordering his Birmingham players to have no regrets when they returned to the dressing room after the final whistle.
What Grant told his West Ham players is a mystery - but there was no doubt who won the battle of the managers and with it a place in the Carling Cup final against Arsenal.
McLeish did not simply issue words in the direction of his team, he altered their approach, tactics and used one of the oldest tricks in the book to turn the tide of a tumultuous game that was running firmly against Birmingham after 45 minutes.
McLeish shakes the hand of Zigic at the end of the match. Photo: PA
After watching West Ham dominate and extend their 2-1 lead from the first leg courtesy of Carlton Cole's wonderful strike, McLeish turned to the giant figure of Nikola Zigic to rescue his side's Wembley ambitions.
It hardly needed a convention of football's finest tactical brains to decipher how Birmingham would make use of Zigic - and yet it seemed beyond West Ham and Grant to make any attempt to solve a fairly obvious problem.
The serenity of West Ham's defence was disturbed by an aerial assault of epic proportions as balls were launched in the direction of the Serb. He occasionally takes five touches when four will do but what he lacks in technique he can sometimes make up for with sheer physical presence - and he spooked West Ham to an alarming degree.
From dictating terms and happily allowing Cameron Jerome to run into blind alleys, the visitors were unable to cope, cracking under the weight of the bombardment and the pressure of the occasion as St Andrew's came alive.
Lee Bowyer set the foundations with a strike just before the hour and Roger Johnson powered a header past Robert Green after 79 minutes to level the tie overall.
Craig Gardner had twice been frustrated by the frame of the goal before he made the decisive contribution four minutes into extra time with a 20-yard effort that is the lifelong Birmingham fan's trademark, although Green should have saved it.
Zigic, who has hardly warmed the hearts of Birmingham's fans since his £6m move from Valencia, won appreciation from McLeish, who said: "I thought he had his best game. He was much more aggressive. The big man realises what it takes to succeed in England and that's the best I have seen him. If he was not exactly unplayable, he was verging on it."
West Ham's hierarchy of David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady declined to attend the semi-final against their former club. If they were harbouring any regrets at half-time, they would have been well and truly banished by the final whistle. It was a miserable conclusion for the London club and their wonderful supporters.
McLeish was left to reflect on his pride at leading Birmingham to Wembley - and as he prepared to celebrate with friends, he laughed off the uncertainties and insecurities of management.
He has been, according to some speculation, under pressure - an unusual state of affairs given the scale of his achievements at Birmingham, having guided them back to the Premier League, stabilised them in the top tier and now steered them to Wembley.
"I just keep working to the best of my ability and what happens happens," said McLeish. "I'm not invulnerable if results don't go my way. We are in a results business and I got a good one tonight. Maybe I will be here for a few more days yet."
Grant will presumably be at West Ham for a while, too, given the very public support offered by the club's board in the wake of the stories linking them with Martin O'Neill. This, however, was not a night that added any gloss to Grant's managerial reputation.
The explanation that West Ham's loss was down to a failure to deal with Birmingham's threat from corners was simplistic in the extreme. There appeared to be a lack of direction from the dug-out as the home side took a measure of control on affairs that Grant's side never looked like wrestling back.
West Ham defended so deep they were almost behind the goal, while Grant did nothing to cut off the supply line to Zigic, whose height means he is inevitably going to present problems in the air.
Instead, Barry Ferguson was allowed the freedom of midfield to prompt attacks - indeed he was almost encouraged rather than allowed - that invariably ended with a ball aimed at Zigic's head.
In Grant's defence, he was robbed of Frederic Piquionne, who was controversially sent off at Everton on Saturday following some overzealous goal celebrations. The striker would have been invaluable with Cole tiring as the game went on.
Grant will also have cursed the absence of the unpredictable and pacy Victor Obinna, especially as legs became weary. He, too, was suspended, dismissed in the first leg.
The manager might have had more options, more chances to make significant changes, had the pair been available to him. Scott Parker and Kieron Dyer missed late chances to rescue West Ham, too, but this was Birmingham and McLeish's night.
Grant behaved with great dignity when the storm raged around him recently and vocal support from Upton Park's board was slow to arrive. However, there remains serious doubts about whether he has the qualities to move West Ham forward.
Green fails to keep out Gardner's strike. Photo: Reuters
While McLeish produced the oratory and the proactive approach to revive a team that looked beaten, Grant and West Ham seemed to shrink from the challenge once the pressure was on. It was a hugely disgruntled visiting support who made their way back to London at the conclusion of a depressing night.
Grant had a golden opportunity to put clear daylight between himself and further speculation about his future by taking West Ham to Wembley. But he allowed the game to drift out of West Ham's control completely. Yes, the players on the pitch must take responsibility but Grant did not appear to give them clear direction either.
The jeers of their Birmingham counterparts were transformed into scenes of unabashed elation when referee Howard Webb blew the final whistle. A club that has spent too much time in the shadow of neighbours Aston Villa will spend a richly-deserved day in the sun.
McLeish knows the realities of facing Arsenal, though. "We will be underdogs of course," said the 52-year-old Scot. "Arsenal will be hot favourites but we will work hard to get our tactics and strategy right to hopefully pull off a major shock.
"It's a really exciting moment for me. Leading Birmingham out at Wembley will be one of the proudest moments of my career. We always want to achieve something when we come down here from Scotland with a bit of chip on our shoulder, to show we can live with you guys down here."
McLeish's achievements in Scotland automatically afford him respect south of the border - and his work with Birmingham City has only increased his stock.