WEST HAM UNITED are back in the Premiership! Alan Pardew's
heroes beat Preston 1-0 thanks to a stunning Bobby Zamora winner to
book their place back in the big-time.
Zamora's priceless winner came on 57 minutes, a fine finish from Matty Etherington's cross to spark wild scenes of celebration at the Millennium Stadium.
It was a memorable day, one that will surely become forever inscribed into Hammers history.
Pards made just one change from the team that won so brilliantly in the semi-final second leg at Ipswich Town, Shaun Newton returning to the midfield in place of Carl Fletcher, who takes up a place on the bench.
But the big team news for West Ham United was among the substitutes where Teddy Sheringham was named after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Nigel Reo-Coker, at just 21-years-old, led West Ham United out into a magnificent atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium.
Housed in the south side of the stand for the second year running, the Hammers faithful were in fantastic voice as a real claret and blue atmosphere crackled around Cardiff.
The tension of this game was obvious within the first minute when Youl Mawene clattered into Matty Etherington, the Hammers fans immedeately voicing their disapproval.
Attacking the Preston end of the ground in the first-half, Hammers fashioned a fantastic opening with just four minutes gone. Some fluid football in midfield earned Shaun Newton the space to released the marauding Tomas Repka, but up-field from right-back the Czech player could only thunder his fierce drive against the outside of the post.
Nevertheless it was an excellent start from Alan Pardew's men, who were instantly showing the freedom and confidence that had alluded them in last year's Final.
One player certainly full of energy was the buzzing Bobby Zamora, and he should have had a penalty on 12 minutes when he powered beyond Mawene only to be dragged to the ground by the Preston defender as he broke into the box. But referee Mike Riley incredibly waved away West Ham's appeals.
With quarter of an hour gone Anton Ferdinand had to be alert to clear the danger after a well-worked Preston free-kick between Eddie Lewis and Richard Cresswell saw the latter whip a dangerous ball across the face of the West Ham goal.
On 20 minutes another great bit of work from Zamora saw the striker hold the ball up on the edge of the box for Etherington to take over, and he darted down the left and fired in a shot that Preston 'keeper Carlo Nash did well to palm over the bar.
With the half hour mark approaching Hayden Mullins was booked for dissent, but it was Preston trying to break the game up with a succession of fouls in midfield as Hammers continued to look dangerous going forward.
Etherington hit a free-kick high and wide from 30 yards out, but the excellent approach work from Zamora was being nullified by a determined, and at times dirty, Preston defence.
On 39 minutes Preston registered their first real attempt on goal, Eddie Lewis' inswinging corner being met with a header from Chris Lucketti, but the Preston skipper glanced the ball straight into the arms of Jimmy Walker.
With just a minute left of the half Zamora was released into the right channel by Nigel Reo-Coker, and the lively forward momentarily shrugged off Claude Davis before the Preston defender fought back to slide the ball away for a corner.
Matty Etherington took it, Carlo Nash made a good claim and that was the end of a fiercely contested 45 minutes of football, which left everything to play for in the second-half.
Within two minutes of the restart Hammers were grateful for Shaun Newton's goal-line clearance to keep Preston out. Eddie Lewis' corner picked out Richard Cresswell and he powered his header towards the top corner only to see Newton rising to head away.
But just a minute later Hammers were left ruing a goal-line clearance of their own. Reo-Coker released Marlon Harewood, but one-on-one with Nash the Preston 'keeper made a great block with his trailing arm. The ball broke loose to Bobby Zamora, 12 yards out and with the goal at his mercy.
But he shot straight at the covering Youl Mawene, who dug the ball off the line. The clearance dropped back to Harewood 10 yards out and on a tight angle he drilled in a third goal-bound effort, but Nash was equal to it flinging himself across goal to make a magnificent block.
There was nothing Preston could do on 57 minutes though as a sweeping Hammers move was completed by Zamora's finish to put West Ham 1-0 up.
The ball was spread wide to Etherington on the left and he swung in a magnificent cross that Zamora finished first-time, slotting the ball beyond the despairing dive of Nash.
Euphoria swept across the West Ham United faithful, and Zamora might have made their cheers even louder with a header minutes later that sailed over the bar.
On 64 minutes Preston looked to hit back with a jinking run from Nugent, but his shot from the edge of the box was gathered comfortably by a well-positioned Walker.
Cresswell was next to go close for North End, his half-volley from the edge of the area spinning just wide of Walker's right-hand post.
But Hammers were certainly not sitting back on their lead, and on 69 minutes very nearly had a second when Harewood rose to meet a pin-point Tomas Repka cross, only to see his arcing header fall just the wrong side of the post.
With just over 15 minutes left the excellent Bobby Zamora left the pitch after going down under a hard challenge from Lucketti. His replacement was Christian Dailly, the Scottish international defender marking a triumphant return to fitness after nine months out.
Preston began to pile men forward, but still their best threat to the Hammers goal appeared to be from set-pieces. It was a corner from the left that found Nugent arriving with a good header that Walker saved comfortably.
Mark Noble replaced cramp victim Shaun Newton on 82 minutes to a fantastic reception, shortly after Preston had brought on Dickson Etuhu for Brian O'Neil.
With six minutes remaining the match took a dramatic twist. It started with an innocuous long ball from Lewis that Walker came rushing to the edge of his area to claim. In taking the ball his momentum carried him out of the area to concede a free-kick. But worse followed when he seemed to land awkwardly and twist his knee.
After lengthy treatment it was a sad sight to see Walker carried
off on a stretcher. His replacement Stephen Bywater wasted no time
in getting into the action though, making an excellent block down
low from Paul McKenna's direct free-kick.
Hammers hearts were pounding as the fourth official announced seven minutes of added time. But Alan Pardew's men were not going to be denied for a second time. Preston's last chance came and went as Mark Noble's pressure forced Matt Hill to concede possession from a throw.
West Ham were almost there, and when Mike Riley put his whistle up to this lips the magnificent Hammers faithful knew that their return to the big-time was just seconds away.
The final whistle sparked scenes of wild jubilation as the Millennium Stadium was suddenly playing host to a claret and blue party.
Claret and blue euphoria swept across Cardiff as Alan Pardew's victorious heroes went up to claim the Play-off Final trophy.
It was a crowning moment for Alan Pardew's squad, who had battled against the odds all the way to Cardiff, and had swept aside the disappointment of last season to return to the Premier League in triumphant style.
This was a day that will forever be remembered by Hammers fans across the world, as West Ham United sealed their rightful place back among England's elite.