They won the first Wembley final in 1923 and were among the last semi-finalists at the old stadium in 2000. Now they will travel to the new Wembley seeking a place in their eighth final after seeing off a spirited challenge from a patched-up Birmingham City side in a sixth‑round tie that shook off its early torpor to produce a fluctuating and absorbing contest.
After Bolton's South Korean substitute, Lee Chung-yong, had headed them into the last four in the 90th minute, their manager, Owen Coyle, declared that "we are now into the semi-finals of the best domestic competition in world football". Nice to know someone still feels that way about a tournament which has been attracting minimal attention from clubs with more pressing engagements.
It would be easy to write off the result on Saturday as another case of Who Cares Wins. True, only four of the Birmingham side that started the Carling Cup final faced Bolton at the kick-off but this was due more to injuries than indifference. Alex McLeish was so short of fit players that he had only six substitutes and after losing Barry Ferguson to a knock in the first half brought on Nathan Redmond, just turned 17, to partner the 19-year-old Jordon Mutch in central midfield. Even their combined ages left them a year younger than Kevin Phillips, 37.
Clearly Birmingham, at the moment kept out of the bottom three on goal difference, were more concerned about continuing to meet Bolton in the Premier League next season than going to the Reebok Stadium for a replay this time, and from that point of view McLeish might have had mixed emotions when Lee's winner went in. The Birmingham manager, however, was having none of it. "I didn't want to avoid a draw at all costs," he said. "I would have taken the draw. I didn't think Bolton were going to score again so we went for a quick winner."
This would explain the scarcity of blue shirts back in defence when Gary Cahill's long free‑kick found Kevin Davies unmarked in the penalty area with ample time and space to head the ball square for the equally isolated Lee to nod his side through. The reality is that the determination of both teams to avoid a replay kept the game open to the last.
Inevitably, Bolton's continued progress in the Cup has acquired nostalgic undertones following the recent death of Nat Lofthouse, who scored both goals when they last won the trophy by beating Manchester United 2-0 at Wembley in 1958. Davies's aggressive, intelligent leadership of their attack does carry some echoes of Lofthouse, although the latter was quicker and able to get away with a physical approach which was fair by the conventions of the day but would not be permitted now.
Lofthouse was the last player to score in an FA Cup final by barging the opposing goalkeeper, United's Harry Gregg, over the line. On Saturday, Davies was given his usual yellow card for some minor offence, prompting the thought that if similar strictures had applied 40-odd years ago there would have been no point in a bruiser like Burnley's Andy Lochhead getting changed.
McLeish tends to use Phillips as a get-out-of-jail card but the striker saw out the 90 minutes on Saturday while demonstrating that his scoring instincts are as sharp as ever. A marvellous drive on the turn was touched on to a post by Jussi Jaaskelainen in the 70th minute and a looping shot over the Bolton goalkeeper's head in the 80th kept Birmingham in the game at 2-2.
They had already equalised once, Cameron Jerome pouncing on David Wheater's poor clearance to score after Ivan Klasnic had cleverly touched the ball on for Johan Elmander to give Bolton the lead. Kevin Davies then put them in front again with a penalty after he had been fouled by Curtis Davies, by which time Coyle had brought on Lee to add pace to Bolton's attack on the right, although the Korean's first contribution involved clearing a shot off their line.
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