Bolton Wanderers 0 // Stoke City 5
LONDON // Nearing three years of Premier League survival and a first FA Cup final. Critiquing the pugilistic pragmatism of Stoke City's football is an oft-repeated exercise, yet until the rest of England's top tier find a solution to Tony Pulis's inelegant methods there can be no questioning its success.
How the neutrals at Wembley Stadium yesterday wanted Bolton Wanderers to make the May 14 final with Manchester City. A fitting conclusion to the season in which Nat Lofthouse, the club legend, passed away; a reward for Owen Coyle's demonstration that lower-budget football need not necessarily be brutal.
In a stadium half clad in red and white stripes, sentiment and aesthetics mattered not one jot. Bolton started the superior side then provided unintended assistance for the finish with which Matt Etherington broke their self-belief.
Further frightful defending contributed to Robert Huth and Kenwyne Jones putting Stoke further in command before a Jonathan Walters double secured the grandest winning margin in 72 years of FA Cup semi-finals.
"I'm not sure if it will silence our critics," said Pulis. "I think there is always that stigma, you are what you are.
"I have to be honest, the first year we were in the Premiership we worked very, very hard, were very organised and methodical in what we did. I think we've moved on from that and we've gradually got better and we will continue to get better.
"And you have to be strong because you will get criticised. But I'm pretty single minded in how I think a Championship club should evolve into a Premiership club."
If Coyle has effected a faster, more attractive evolution, his team regressed badly here.
"Stoke were terrific today but I think we were architects of our own downfall," he said.
"There's ways of losing games and that wasn't one of them. With the goals we lost we capitulated and it's not good enough. If you offered that up every week you wouldn't be in the Premier League. It's as simple as that.
"You've got to ask was that stage too much for one or two and try and pick the bones of it.
"It's not just physical ability football, there's a mental strength goes with it and you have to show that on these big occasions."
As Stoke's travelling support taunted Bolton for not selling out their ticket allocation, Pulis had held true to a team that lost narrowly in north London the previous weekend.
Of the 11 that went down 3-2 at Tottenham Hotspur, only Asmir Begovic made way for their established cup goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen.
Initially, it seemed Wembley Stadium's width would suit Bolton's more refined game. On the left wing, Martin Petrov won a corner at which the ever tolerant Howard Webb allowed Robert Huth to place heavy hands on Kevin Davies's face.
Then a blatant error let Stoke in. Having recovered possession at left-back, Paul Robinson turned it over to Etherington 25 yards from goal.
The winger moved parallel to the penalty area and spun into a left-footed strike that arced across Gary Cahill's back and well away from Jussi Jaaskelainen.
As the Stoke support prepared a chorus of Delilah, their manager pulled defenders over to the touchline for tactical instruction. After Stoke's second, Pulis did not bother.
This was archetypal Stoke. Andy Wilkinson flung a high ball into the area, Cahill clambered over Kenwyne Jones to head clear but merely teed the ball up for the unmonitored Huth to curl a shot past Jaaskelainen for Stoke's second.
Bolton had lost their way. At the end of a week in which he had declared his ambition to play Champions League football, Cahill was struggling badly with Jones's muscle and height.
When Coyle's men did claim clean possession they regressed to the long ball. On the half-hour Stoke netted again.
Jermaine Pennant caught Petrov in possession and, as Coyle berated his winger for not tracking back, Stoke drove on.
With room to pick his pass, Pennant selected perfectly, his elegant diagonal releasing Jones behind Cahill. Alone in the area, the striker controlled with his left boot, took in the keeper's position, and passed precisely around him.
"Bolton score 90 per cent of their goals from second-phase passes from Kevin Davies and set plays," Pulis said.
"We made sure that we marked him very, very tight. And we knew that with Etherington, Pennant and Walters we would have lots of space to break into. It worked a treat."
Head in hands as he contemplated the collapse, Coyle's interval response was to station Mark Davies's more delicate skills in midfield and Matt Taylor's energy on Petrov's left wing. Johan Elmander pushed up to centre forward, but there was to be no turnaround.
Ryan Shawcross, Jones and Walters all spurned chances to extend the lead before the latter made and converted a stirring fourth. Collecting possession on the halfway line, the shadow striker wove his way 30 yards further forward before angling at goal. The initial arc was good, a slight clip off Cahill's boot made it still better, and a footballer who has dropped all the way down the divisions then risen back up them again had a goal to remember.
Still Bolton's suffering was not over. Jones careered down the right before clipping on to Wilkinson. Though the goal-hunting full-back stumbled over, the chance spilt on for Walters to score the 11th of a fine season. In four weeks' time, it could well become better still.