• 'We wanted to go up straight away,' says Noble
• Squad have spirit and experience to get to Wembley
His 18th birthday was barely behind him when Mark Noble, still in his first season as a professional footballer, savoured one of his finest moments in the game. As a late substitute for Shaun Newton, Noble entered the Millennium Stadium pitch and helped West Ham United to secure promotion to the Premier League via the play-off final. It was, he says, "an unbelievable occasion for a young kid".
Seven years on, West Ham will return to south Wales in pursuit of similar exaltation, this time for a semi-final first leg against the city's resident club. Noble's memories could fuel their efforts.
"I remember sitting on the bench and Pards [Alan Pardew] said: 'Get ready you are going to come on.' It was unbelievable to get out there, especially to see the game out and the feeling afterwards. I've only ever had that feeling a couple of times in my career but hopefully I'll get it again."
West Ham had finished sixth that season after a late run of form, they then swatted the third-placed Ipswich Town in the semi-finals before edging past Preston North End. Such fortunes made Noble acutely conscious of the momentum and confidence engendered by clasping a play-off spot on the final day of the season, as Cardiff City have done this term.
"I've been in the situation of just getting into the play-offs and everyone is buzzing as you have a chance of getting to the Premier League. Obviously we were disappointed this year because we wanted to go up straight away. But we need to get that disappointment out quickly and concentrate on Cardiff as they are a top team. I told the lads after the game against Hull: 'We'd better get our heads around it quick.'"
Sam Allardyce has overseen resurgence in recent weeks – the perfunctory 2-1 win over Hull City on Saturday was achieved through a brace from the often wayward striker Carlton Cole. His headed goal in the first half was sound, but technically eclipsed after the interval by a marvellous second goal when he cushioned a drifting pass and arced the ball away from Vito Mannone with the outside of his right boot. Hull scored when a calamitous clearing header from Guy Demel dropped to Corry Evans and the visitors even thought they had equalised until Richard Garcia's late diving header was ruled marginally offside.
West Ham's season has been blighted by matches drawn, especially eight at Upton Park; had two of them been victories the Hammers would have won the league. Since Christmas, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Watford, Doncaster, Middlesbrough and Birmingham City have all left East London with a point. More pertinently, the Bluebirds departed with three points courtesy of a 1-0 victory on the opening day of the season, though West Ham responded by winning 2-0 at Cardiff City Stadium in March.
"The play-offs are massive games but it is the same sized ball and the same colour grass and the same white lines," said Noble. "With the spirit and experience that we've got in our squad we have enough to go to Wembley. We need to take our away form into the game and hopefully come back from Cardiff with a lead. It will probably start off as a bit of a chess match and then hopefully it will open up."
Cardiff ended the season with four wins from six matches after a similarly fruitless spell to United's through early spring. Following successive play-off failures they will hunger for victory this year. Last year Cardiff endured a 3-0 aggregate defeat in the semi-final against Reading and 2010 ended in demise at the final versus Blackpool.
The Carling Cup final defeat to Liverpool on penalties this year was a further cuff to a team of undisputed promise. Allardyce must now exploit Cardiff's perceived psychological insecurity.
"I'll tell my players to relax and enjoy the couple of days that we have between now and Thursday with our families. They need to get rid of as much fatigue physically and mentally as they can," the West Ham manager said. "I'll do the worrying."
Man of the match Carlton Cole (West Ham United)