The cheer that reverberated around this ground when it emerged Stoke City would be playing Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup semi-finals next month was every bit as loud as the din at the final whistle.
Tony Pulis tried as hard as he could to warn everyone connected with Stoke that drawing Owen Coyle's side should not be interpreted as a free ticket to the final, but this was not the day to quell expectations at the Britannia Stadium.
With a first trip to Wembley in 11 years on the horizon – their last visit was as a third-tier club against Bristol City in the Auto Windscreen Shield final – Stoke's raucous supporters departed in euphoric mood after West Ham United were vanquished in an FA Cup quarter-final full of incident and contentious decisions. Stoke and West Ham both suffered at the hands of the referee, Mike Jones, but it was no surprise that the losing manager, Avram Grant, complained loudest at the end.
Grant accused Jones of trying to "even things up" at the start of the second half, when the referee awarded Stoke a soft penalty after earlier allowing Frédéric Piquionne's equaliser to stand, despite the Frenchman controlling the ball with his arm before lifting it over Thomas Sorensen. Robert Green denied Etherington from the spot but another Stoke set-piece, after Carlton Cole was penalised for blocking Jermaine Pennnant's shot with his arm, culminated in Danny Higginbotham drilling home a free-kick.
That was the cue for a West Ham side that had been outplayed for much of the match to lay siege to the Stoke goal in the closing stages. Victor Obinna, Robbie Keane and Cole were all denied by the excellent Sorensen in a frenetic final 25 minutes that also saw Matthew Upson head against the crossbar and West Ham have two penalty appeals turned down. The second of those claims, when Jon Walters wrestled James Tomkins to the ground, looked clear-cut.
Grant said he had no desire to talk about the referee before he proceeded to do so at length. "I think maybe [Piquionne's goal] is the reason the referee started the second half very, very strangely. Until they scored the goal, he gave fouls and penalties, everything for them. But it was a penalty for us at the end and he didn't give it."
Pulis claimed not to have seen the Tomkins incident but felt West Ham's goal was a "stonewall" handball. "When they get their first shot on goal and it comes from [Piquionne's handball] it was disappointing," he said. "Matty then comes out second half and misses a penalty, so that knocks you down again, but great credit to the players, they've got great commitment and had that been a lesser team it would have affected them."
Stoke's breakthrough came after an electric start. Etherington, who was outstanding in the first half in particular, should have scored against his former club inside two minutes but headed Pennant's centre straight at Green. Huth was more ruthless from a similar position 10 minutes later, when the German made the most of the space that opened up after Walters blocked Upson to head Rory Delap's long throw-in past Green from inside the six-yard box.
Piquionne's goal, which Thomas Hitzlsperger created, knocked Stoke out of their stride for a period, and when Etherington failed to score from the spot, after Scott Parker was harshly judged to have brought him down, it looked like it might not be their day. Higginbotham, though, had other ideas with a strike that brought Stoke their first FA Cup semi-final since 1972. "Since we've been promoted, we've been written off," said Pulis. "We've now got to a semi-final and we've finished 12th and 11th in the Premier League. We've done fantastic."
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