Alex McLeish saluted Nikola Zigic after the Serbia striker came off the bench to lead Birmingham into the League Cup final.
McLeish admitted he feared Birmingham's Wembley dreams were over when Carlton Cole fired West Ham into a 3-1 aggregate lead at half-time of Wednesday's semi-final second leg at St Andrew's. But the Blues boss responded by sending on giant targetman Zigic and the former Valencia star finally delivered a dominating display after a lacklustre start to his career in England.
With West Ham unable to cope with Zigic's aerial power, Birmingham - whose only previous trophy was this one in 1963 - took control and equalised through former Hammers midfielder Lee Bowyer. Roger Johnson's late header sent the tie to extra time and set the stage for boyhood Birmingham fan Craig Gardner to drive home the 94th minute winner that sent the Blues through to face Arsenal in the final on 27 February.
"We were down and out," McLeish said. "I said to the players at half-time that to all intents and purposes we were out of the cup so I made a change to see if we could have an impact. I said if we had a chance to cross the ball, get it into the box because Zigic gave us a bigger presence. It was his best game for us, his most effective. When he plays like that he can be very, very difficult indeed to handle."
Birmingham squandered two chances to kill off the Hammers in normal time as Cameron Jerome shot straight at Robert Green before Gardner's strike hit a post. Yet McLeish, who has come under fire for his team's struggles in the Premier League, insisted he felt confident of victory in extra time.
"It only takes a second to score. It was a tremendous goal from Gardner," he said. "I was more relaxed than I've been in recent weeks in the Premier League matches. I just had to trust the players and they had to trust each other. We huffed and puffed in the first half without really troubling them but Zigic made the difference."
McLeish enjoyed plenty of cup success during his time in charge of Scottish giants Rangers, but this is his first taste of a major English showpiece. He admitted it was a tremendous feeling to be able to take a relatively unheralded club like Birmingham to Wembley. "The first word I think of is pride," he said. "It's enormous pride for me to lead the club out at Wembley. I've been to lots of semi-finals in Scotland and to win one in England is great."
For West Ham boss Avram Grant, there was only frustration at a missed opportunity to prove his worth to the club's owners, who opened flirted with a move to bring in Martin O'Neill to replace him earlier this month. Hammers co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold are unlikely to be impressed with the way their team wasted the advantage against the club they used to own.
Grant conceded morale was low among the players after such a devastating loss. "It is very flat in the dressing room," Grant said. "We are a team that came from the bottom of the Premier League and played well. The players are disappointed."