HAMMER BLOW Gardner strike sends Blues to Wembley

BIRMINGHAM 3 vs WEST HAM 1

WEST HAM manager Avram Grant admitted his players were left devastated after Birmingham came from behind to deny the east London side a place in the Carling Cup final.

Leading 2-1 from the first leg at Upton Park, Carlton Cole’s long-range effort put the visitors further ahead and was just reward for an outstanding first-half display.

But lapses in concentration from two set-pieces after the break allowed Lee Bowyer to level the match on the night and then Roger Johnson to power home a header to square the tie on aggregate.

Local boy Craig Gardner, who had hit the woodwork twice previously, then struck early in extra time to condemn West Ham to a gut-wrenching defeat.

“It’s very flat,” Grant, whose side are rooted to the foot of the Premier League, said. “We are a team that has come from the bottom of the table and played really well. Everyone is very disappointed.

“It is tough. We were leading 1-0 and were doing good. Then we didn’t do good with two corners, which they scored from, and we lost the game.

“We were totally in control. But we had chances to score again at 1-0, but we didn’t. They then scored from corners, which happened on Saturday.”

Cole’s goal in the 31st minute, a rasping strike from nearly 30 yards, looked set to send the Hammers to a Wembley cup final for the fist time in 30 years, but the introduction of Nikola Zigic after the interval turned the tide in Birmingham’s favour.

West Ham failed to cope with the physical threat the Serbian striker presented and dropped far too deep in an attempt to counteract his growing influence.

The home side were level just before the hour when Bowyer lashed home from inside the penalty area, and 11 minutes from the end Johnson rose above Matthew Upson to plant a header past Robert Green.

And four minutes into in the first extra period Gardner, who saw a shot palmed onto the post by Green with the last kick of normal time, finally beat the England international from distance to send St Andrews wild.