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Nationwide Division One, 9/12/00
Crystal Palace
By Matt Rowson

So is the cup half full, or is it half empty?

What sort of a question is that? It's been raining for all bloody eternity, trains are moving so slowly they're almost heading backwards, the United States appear to be on the verge of deciding that they've elected a very disturbing man indeed into the White House and Watford have lost their last four games and are even behind Birmingham. The cup's not just half empty; there's a great sodding hole in the bottom.

At times like these, everyone needs comfort and comfort is most accessibly provided by dependability, by stability. At times like these, everyone needs to ring their Mum and talk about Christmas, to slump in front of the Eastenders omnibus on a Sunday afternoon. Thornton's in the Harlequin sells out of chocolate and everyone feels the urge to listen to CDs they bought ten years ago.

Similarly, it's comforting to know that certain facts of life can still be relied upon. Case in point: Venables, Fenwick and Curcic may have gone. But Crystal Palace are still bastards.

The emergence of Alan Smith from beneath whichever rock he was skulking under plays no small part in that. Touted in some quarters as one of the nice guys of football, he's never come across as anything but snide and small-minded is his encounters with us.

As well as Big Al, two of football's more Neanderthal characters arrived at sunny Selhurst over the summer. Midfielder Jamie Pollock has been kicking chunks out of opposition midfields since time began, so it's something of a surprise to find that he's only twenty-six. He also looks like a baboon's backside, and used to own a boutique in Middlesbrough in the finest Monty Python footballing tradition.

Then there's Razor Ruddock, quite literally twice the man used to be, who has been terrifying opposition forwards for his many clubs for well over ten years. He uncharacteristically got into a spot of bother at Blundell Park at the weekend when accosting the referee at the end of the game, an oversight likely to cost him a fine. As an aside, it's worth noting that Saturday's game will only take place if there's enough of Selhurst Park still standing once Ruddock and John Hartson have downed arms after the Palace-Wimbledon derby on Tuesday evening.

In goal for Palace will be Alex Kolinko, a Latvian international recently recruited from Skonto Riga and highly impressive in the draw with Grimsby at the weekend. His deputy is former Torquay stopper Michael Gregg.

At the back, left back is the position in the side most widely acknowledged to need filling. Steve Staunton briefly stepped into the breach before being recalled to Anfield, and despite appearing surplus to needs in Liverpool he has gone on record as saying that he would rather not disrupt his family by moving to London. A popular alternative would be former Eagle Sun Jihai, but the Chinaman appears to be on the verge of signing for Newcastle. For the moment, then, the Eagles' problem position is held by Craig Harrison, a victim of Bryan Robson's Riverside policy of not blooding a youngster when there's a 35-year-old has-been available at extortionate terms. Harrison has become the latest victim of the Selhurst boo-boys however, who are illustrating that it's not only Watford where fans are moronic enough to hassle their own young players. Clint Easton knows all about that. So too Tim Sherwood, David Holdsworth, Richard Johnson and all the other former targets of the cranially challenged element of our support who have gone on to achieve, ooohhh.....

On the right on Saturday was the experienced Dean Austin, himself having overcome the tiresome mantle of the fans' target in the past since his arrival from Spurs. Another option at right-back is the aggressive, attacking Jamie Smith, employed in midfield on Saturday, whilst youngster Andrew Frampton provides another inexperienced option on the left.

In the centre, the versatile and highly popular Fan Zhiyi has been patrolling alongside the imposing Ruddock, although on-loan Andy Morrison is another option available should Smith wish to construct a brutal, if one-paced, rearguard. Youngster David Woozley is a slightly less crude alternative.

In midfield, former England U21 man Hayden Mullins was one of the three individuals famously singled out for criticism by Smith at the start of Palace's recent run, but was this week taken off the transfer list. Either side of him and Pollock on Saturday were Smith and summer arrival from Arsenal Tommy Black, who has made an immediate impact. Normally operating down the right, he played on the left on Saturday. His brother Michael is also a winger, with Tranmere Rovers.

Other midfield options include competitive Scotsman Steven Thomson, and cultured young Ulsterman Wayne Carlisle. Long-serving Simon Rodger has been out with a groin injury, whilst Latvian Andrejs Rubins, whose blistering pace has made no small impact since his 2m arrival, will miss out with a broken ankle. Another signing from Arsenal, Julian Gray, has a hamstring strain, and injury-prone Jamie Fullarton is out for the season having been carried off in a game whilst on loan at Dundee United.

Up front, the awkward goal-poacher Clinton Morrison has been partnered with on-loan Mickael Forssell. Forssell's indolent attitude had also attracted criticism from Eagles fans, although three goals in Palace's last three games may have gone some way to correcting this. Returning hero Dougie Freedman provides another option, as does youngster Stephen Kabba, whilst Kaiser Chiefs forward Siyabonga Nomvete has been linked with the Eagles this week.

Although playing away against an in-form side probably isn't what we need at the moment, there are several positives to be taken from the timing of this fixture. We never win at Selhurst anyway, so a realist might argue that we might as well get this out of the way now rather than have it disrupt a winning streak later in the season (oh stop it, of course we'll have one).

Additionally, Palace will have been softened up by their tenants during a week which we have off, and will have the distraction of a Worthington Cup Quarter-Final with Sunderland the following Tuesday to consider.

But crucially, what the Hornets really need at the moment is a distraction from their own navel-gazing, from their own run of form. Just as Tranmere's brutality woke us up in the Easter of last year, our repulsive opposition in this one might work to our advantage. You don't need any significant context to want to beat Palace.

Cup half full or cup half empty, then?

To hell with the cup, let's just beat these bastards.