West Ham 2 Birmingham 1: Avram Grant's alive! Mark Noble and Carlton Cole leave Hammers in sight of Wembley
Chief Football Correspondent
Last updated at 2:01 AM on 12th January 2011
As the manager of West Ham, Avram Grant exists from day to day. He is aware that his employers are courting other managers behind his back, just as he is aware that not everyone at Upton Park is on his side.
But after less than 20 months as a manager in English football, this likeable and yet widely unloved Israeli is within touching distance of a third cup final appearance at Wembley and a fourth final in total if we throw in that extraordinary Champions League night in Moscow. A night when he came within a John Terry penalty of lifting the European Cup.
Clearly, Grant has something. Clearly, he commands the respect of his players, judging by the way they seem to battle for him in the semi-finals he has contested.
Oops: Ben Foster can't believe his error that handed West Ham the 'half-time' lead in the Carling Cup semi-final
Only last weekend, former England goalkeeper David James revealed how Grant is the only manager he has played under in more than 20 years who has successfully ‘turned a dressing room around’.
Chelsea’s Frank Lampard was gushing in his praise for Grant at a Football Writers’ Association tribute dinner in his honour last year and, for all the difficulties this West Ham side are experiencing in the Barclays Premier League, there seem to be plenty of players here who have not yet given up on him.
Exactly how West Ham’s directors feel about Grant we should know later today. There is a board meeting scheduled for this morning when his future is sure to be a subject of discussion.
But it should be more difficult to sack him when his side somehow emerged from an astonishing Carling Cup semi-final first leg with an advantage they can take to St Andrew’s in a fortnight.
Cole's goal: Carlton Cole milks the attention of his team-mate having been the main benefactor of Foster's gaffe
After 45 minutes they really deserved more than a single goal from Mark Noble, so impressive were they in the way they terrorised Birmingham with their fast, flowing football. Noble was terrific, as was Scott Parker.
But a soft 56th-minute equaliser was followed, three minutes later, by the dismissal of Victor Obinna, and with it the likelihood of a second goal for Alex McLeish’s side and the subsequent dismissal of Grant.
That it was West Ham who scored was remarkable, especially when Carlton Cole’s 78th-minute winner owed so much to the blunder that was committed by Ben Foster. Until he allowed Cole’s shot to slip through his legs, he had been a contender for man of the match.
Foster had been the main reason West Ham did not score more in that one-sided first half. Now he was faced with being haunted by another potentially career-defining mistake.
Noble cause: Mark Noble volleyed West Ham into a deserved lead
For Grant, it amounted to a possible lifeline; the chance to at least remain in position for another two weeks, even if his position will continue to be the subject of fevered speculation.
Grant remains dignified in the way he conducts himself, doing his best to look at everything in as positive a light as possible. He points out that West Ham are among seven clubs fighting to climb away from the bottom of the table, just as he pointed out in his programme notes that his team are ‘just two points off 14th place’.
Old friend: Liam Ridgewell - an Upton park youth trainee - heads Birmingham back into the game
He will believe 11 men can secure West Ham’s first appearance in a final at Wembley in 30 years, especially if they perform as well as they did before Ridgewell met a Sebastian Larsson corner with a fine header and the foolish Obinna was sent off for kicking out at Birmingham’s Swedish winger.
Until then they dominated the
visitors, even with Matthew Upson deployed as an emergency left back.
Upson was the first player to test Foster after 13 minutes but the
England goalkeeper proved powerless to stop Grant’s men scoring.
Noble created the opportunity and then converted it, floating a cross to the far post for Obinna. When his header was blocked, Jonathan Spector drove the ball back into the path of Noble and he responded with a stinging strike.
Petulant: Victor Obinna pleads his case after being rightly sent off for kicking out at Seb Larsson (left)
West Ham’s football was fluent and explosive. Entertaining, too. Within seconds, Foster had to save from Freddie Sears and James Tomkins.
After spending the interval with McLeish, however, who brought on David Murphy, Birmingham attacked with more purpose, first making it 1-1 and then finding themselves with an extra man.
But Grant sent on Cole and it was the player who has been scathing in his public criticism of his manager who swung this tie back in West Ham’s favour — albeit after meeting Spector’s cross with a shot that, while it took a slight deflection off Roger Johnson, should have been dealt with by Foster.
Upton Park erupted for a second time. ‘We’re going to Wembley,’ they cried. On this occasion, Foster’s pain is Grant’s gain. For now, at least.
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