ESM's Cardiff preview

It's almost time to make that dreaded trip into the Principality again and to be honest the nerves are jangling like Big Ron's bracelets.

I've even hid my tickets (which are U15, Row 17, seats 16 and 17, if anyone is in the vicinity) as looking at them has been raising my blood pressure.

If you're anything like me, this week's been an exercise in trying to keep your mind off the game. It's a hopeless task, because everybody you know, Irons fan or not, wants to talk about it. I even got a pissed 'phone call from a mate in Manchester (a Citeh fan) last night wishing me good luck and telling me how West Ham was his second club. A nice thought maybe, but the f*cker had to call me just as I was about to attempt yet another fitful night's kip.

So what's going to happen this time? Well, as much as there are parallels in the way we turned over Ipswich again in the semi final, it feels very different to me in the lead up to the game this year.

It's a miracle

Last year, it just felt like Palace would do it. They had risen Lazarus-like up the table, we helped them into the play-offs by a last gasp goal at Wigan, and Dowie seemed to have instilled a level of belief in his players which we were always going to struggle to match. Even when we got into the stadium, the mood of the travelling Hammers appeared muted.

As Oxford Fred - who joins me again on Monday - said at the time, "It was a f*cking excellent day out until that ar*ewipe Poll blew his whistle to start the game."

To use the old clich?, football is a funny old game, but I really do feel that we are the form team leading up to this massive match. I also feel that we are better in just about every department and that our manager has got things right at the crucial time. The chances of a repetition of those inexplicable substitutions in last year's final are simply non-existent.

I didn't see the away game at Preston, but let's just reflect on that home game. This was when Pardew was still insisting on playing Hayden Mullins at right back, Repka got sent off just before half time, Bywater made a schoolboy error and Teddy was off-colour, not appearing for the second half. It was also a game where Malky was still playing in central defence and the week before we turned in our worst performance of the season away at Reading.

I said at the time that I doubted very much that we would make the playoffs at all.

Turnaround

Since that time, the team has transformed itself. The highlights of this turnaround for me are in a number of key areas.

First of all, I feel significantly happier with Jimmy Walker in goal. He came into the side when we made that trip up to Wigan and the win up there was huge for us (and made me and Oxford Fred ?160 each as we guessed the right scoreline). He looks and sounds confident and has the experience with other clubs of these playoff showdowns. I do not expect him to make an error and we will all be a lot happier in our seats when he makes clearances from back passes. If it comes to penalties - and I believe that it won't - Jimmy is the man to win it for us. Who can forget the save from Lampard at Scumford Bridge in the Cup?

Secondly, just take a look at our central defence. This Anton/Elliott combo is streets ahead of anything we have had this season. Remember the way they dealt with Kuqi and Bent at Ipswich. They did the same with Roberts and Ellington at the JJB. Awesome stuff. You can't tell me that Cresswell and Nugent are better than those pairings. Sure, this will be the biggest game both of them have ever played, but I reckon that they will deal with it.

Old heads

Thirdly, Chris Powell and Repka - when he's kept his cool - have looked very solid to me. These guys are professionals who have played at the very highest levels of international football. Don't think for one minute that they don't want it, as well. Tom would dearly love to end his playing days in the claret and blue with success, and Powell has never really won anything major during his career. Anyway, who has been the last guy on the pitch punching the air at the end of recent victories?

Fourthly, since Hayden's been back in midfield he has looked a totally different player. The confidence has returned and I have a sneaking suspicion that he might score on Monday. I would love it if he did. Fletch alongside Hayden gives us the bite that will give us the best chance of bossing the middle of the park. If Fletch plays like he did away at Ipswich, I would be more than happy. Matty, too, has found some form at a critical point and I reckon that Preston's right side will not be able to live with him. We will need Mr Riley to offer some protection here, though, as no doubt Preston will seek to kick him out of the game.

By the way, that's another difference to last year - the ref does not have anti-West Ham form.

I'll be honest and say that I think Nigel's not been at his best of late, but this occasion is made for him. He had a taste of the turf in last year's final, so he will know what to expect out there.

The best strike force in the league

Fifthly, and let's say crucially, both Marlon and Zamora look to have hit peak sharpness at exactly the right time. We won't be trying to work out where Marlon's playing this time and this is Bobby's supreme chance to prove doubters like me that the performance at Portman Road was no flash in the pan. Unlike last year, when the options up front felt limited, we also have Teddy waiting in the wings to come on and work some of his old pro's magic. I won't even be worried if things are level at 70 minutes, because we all know that the introduction of Sheringham is more than likely to make the difference. We also have the wunderkind Noble available as well.

There's one other important ingredient that we must not forget. It is Alan Pardew. Now I have been a severe critic this season, but you have to take your hat off to the man for the way that he has fought on with sh*t raining down upon him. I admire him for the way he has handled this, and I am supremely confident that he is ready to make the right decisions and get the right result. He told the players last year to never forget what that feeling was like. The feeling of failure at the last and crucial hurdle. He is not going to make the same mistake twice and nor are the team.

Our job

The final piece of armoury for our team is us, the fans. We didn't seem up for it last year, but this time we are going to be a different proposition. I had a mate who was in Istanbul for the Champions League Final and he told me just how raucous the Scousers were at half time when their team was 0-3 down. We can learn something from this and I would love to hear "Alan Pardew's Claret and Blue Army" ringing loud and clear round that stadium from the beginning. Backing our team means backing every single component of it, even if things don't go quite to plan.

Although no doubt Oxford Fred will insist on taking me back to his favourite gay bar for a pre-match drink, the trip to Cardiff will also be different for me because ESM Jnr is not going to be there. This is gutting for him and gutting for me, but he's away in France on a school trip. The plans had been made and the money had been shelled out several months ago and he decided that he was going to have to go. He said it was the hardest decision he'd made in his life. I saw him off yesterday and in his bag was a West Ham flag and a radio which is his only way of hearing the commentary. His parting words to me were: "2-0 to the Irons, Marlon and Z-man".

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