Two become one
West Ham against Preston was once the biggest game of the English domestic season. It was 1964 and West Ham won 3-2. Bobby Moore lifted the FA Cup and would return to Wembley the following two summers to captain sides to trophies; no explanation should be required for 1966.
The 2005 FA Cup final was a showpiece occasion, boasting two teams brimful with talent representing successful, if heavily indebted, clubs. But the prize had diminished in the eyes of Arsenal and Manchester United; each ends the season with a sense of underachievement.
And in few other games is the reward for victory greater than the 2005 meeting of West Ham and Preston at the Millennium Stadium on Monday: estimates of the value of a season in the Premiership range from £18 million to £25 million. Nor does the revenue end there; a team who go straight back down, as last season's play-off winners Crystal Palace did, will receive two years of parachute payments.
And then there is the cost. West Ham are in their second season in the Championship. Should Alan Pardew's side falter in Cardiff for a second successive year, their budget will be cut. Win and the riches of the Premiership beckon.
For perennial play-off loser Pardew, it would provide vindication. Rarely can a manager have taken such sustained criticism and led a side to promotion. From the bitter sniping of former Hammers (whose main grievance appears to be that Pardew never played for West Ham) to more objective analyses of where the pre-season promotion favourites went wrong, he has not been short of counsel.
But, as many are reluctant to admit, he has been right on occasions. Though Sergei Rebrov's arrival remains inexplicable and Mauricio Taricco's brief spell at Upton Park bizarre, the signing of Teddy Sheringham was a masterstroke; at 39, the evergreen striker has contributed 20 goals, though a hamstring injury ruled him out of the semi-finals. At the other end of the footballing age spectrum, inexperienced central defenders Elliott Ward and Anton Ferdinand and midfielder Mark Noble have displayed ample potential in the closing weeks of the season.
Teenager Noble is an old-fashioned inside forward, but may be held in reserve at Cardiff. But the two 20-year-olds, given their chance because of injuries to Christian Dailly and Malky Mackay, are set to start. The suspicion is that Pardew stumbled across his best defensive partnership, but it relegates Tomas Repka and his habitual pratfalls to right back.
The tidy pair of Nigel Reo-Coker and Carl Fletcher, two of Pardew's more astute signings, will be in the centre of midfield. After the success of his 4-3-3 formation in the second leg at Ipswich, he will have to decide whether to revert to 4-4-2. One decision he appears to have made is to leave the returning Sheringham on the bench and start with the trio that troubled Joe Royle's side.
Left winger Matthew Etherington has the skill and pace to prosper in the Premiership; on his day, the gloriously inconsistent Marlon Harewood looks a top-flight player. Bobby Zamora, however, appeared surplus to requirements at Upton Park a few months ago; his brace at Portman Road signalled a renaissance in his fortunes. And those of Pardew, but he must wonder if even promotion will be enough to restore a reputation as one of Britain's best young managers.
In contrast, his Preston counterpart Billy Davies has enjoyed a meteoric rise that has mirrored that of his team. Preston finished 15th 12 months ago; since then, Davies has progressed from assistant to caretaker to finally manager, taking them into the play-offs while selling their two top scorers last season, Ricardo Fuller and David Healy.
It is easy to pigeonhole him as the next David Moyes, but it was Craig Brown who brought Davies to Deepdale. However, North End's current manager appears to be hued from the same Scottish granite as the Everton boss. They share an eye for a bargain and the ability to forge a formidable team from limited resources.
Davies has bought players from relegated Rotherham and Gillingham as well as League One Bristol City, but his finest signing came from even lowlier origins. David Nugent cost £100,000 from Bury, but he has a compelling case to be the Championship signing of the season.
His raw pace and fearless approach have brought nine goals in 14 games. With a rejuvenated Richard Cresswell passing 20 goals for the first time at this level, Preston have a strike force every bit as potent as West Ham's. And, as with Etherington, much of the threat comes from the left flank where American Eddie Lewis returned to devastating effect in the semi-final against Derby.
In midfield, Paul McKenna has enjoyed arguably the best season of his long Preston career though defender Youl Mawene beat him to the club's Player of the Year award. Alongside him, captain Chris Lucketti and right back and set-piece specialist Graham Alexander are stalwarts of the Preston back four.
The latter, like the last three managers, continues a long tradition of Scots at Deepdale that dates back to the Invincibles of 1888-9. Two of English football's first champions' records have been equalled over the last year as first Arsenal went through the season unbeaten and then Chelsea only conceded 15 goals in their league campaign.
More recently, Preston have gone 45 years without top-flight football; West Ham, where expectations are so much higher now, a mere two. Both have come tantalisingly close in recent years. Palace and Neil Shipperley denied West Ham last year, Sam Allardyce's Bolton beat Moyes' Preston in 2001. Unlike their manager, none of that team enjoyed sustained success in the Premiership, while former Hammers abound. But for two very different teams, the prize could scarcely be greater.