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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/01/04, 3.00pm
Crystal Palace
Proof by example
By Matt Rowson

There's a guy who sits behind me in the Rookery. Sometimes. His occasional appearances are a Good Thing and generally add to the experience rather than detracting from it, although he does have a penchant for using trips to Vicarage Road to exercise the more childlike side of his nature. Or maybe he's like that all the time, I don't really know.

Anyway, this repertoire includes, but is not restricted to, messing around with any hood or similar temptation that anyone in the row in front makes the mistake of sporting, turning to his Gameboy if the football itself doesn't engage, and imploring of a visiting goalkeeper lining up a goal kick in front of the Rookery to fall over or kick the ball backwards into the net.

Diversions such as the latter may seem a juvenile waste of time (beyond shaking the same occupants of the row in front out of whatever stupor has beset them), but strangely, not so. You would have thought that the basics of a game of football were as natural as breathing to those paid to play the game. Let alone an international striker. But not so.

In mathematics you only need one clear incident to demonstrate proof by example. Such is the case here. And the example, the one instance that proves that the guy behind me is not, in fact, wasting his time by imploring defenders to kick the ball into their own net occurred on the eighteenth of December 1996 at Edgeley Park and has descended into legend. As I have just discovered, asking Google for pages containing the convoluted collection of words "Dowie", "Stockport", "West Ham" and "own goal" yields eighteen hits. Not many early League Cup games from 1996 are recorded in such detail.

Own goals are two-a-penny of course, but the magic about this one is the look on Dowie's face when he realises that he has not, in fact, put West Ham two up but has instead provided Stockport with an equaliser; the winner was to follow shortly. This is the sort of thing I would do. If only my Grandad had been born in Belfast, maybe I could have been playing international football too...?

Dowie was born in Hatfield, and began his playing career up the road with Luton Town. Despite this early blight, the former Northern Ireland international has emerged since his retirement as a manager of some note, getting Oldham to the play-off semi-finals in Division Two last season despite chronic financial constraints (even by Division Two standards), and as a reasonably interesting and intelligent pundit to boot. Someone worthy of a bit of respect, in other words.

Then he became manager of Palace. So much for respect.

Having secured the first win of his tenure impressively enough at Ipswich Town, Palace have failed to score in their last two games and are struggling badly with injuries, particularly at the back.

Thomas Myhre will be in goal for the Eagles in what is likely to be the penultimate game of his loan spell from Sunderland. He's impressed during his time at Selhurst Park, but Sunderland refused to allow him to be cup-tied which implies that this is unlikely to be a longer-term arrangement - and West Ham are rumoured to be considering the Norwegian in filling their recent vacancy. Cedric Berthelin will be on the bench and will presumably step back into the breach when Myhre's loan ends.

In defence, an already difficult team selection was exacerbated further by injuries to Curtis Fleming and Tony Popovic during the weekend's disappointing draw with Burnley. Fleming broke a bone in his leg and will be out for two months. Popovic was taken off as a precautionary measure with a tight hamstring, and his absence, if confirmed, leaves Palace with a serious lack of height at the back... the robust Darren Powell is out with a thigh strain, and the elderly ex-caretaker boss Kit Symons has a groin problem. With regular stand-ins Shaun Derry (hamstring) and Jamie Smith (suspension) also out, it looks like a stop-gap back four. Most money appears to be on a central pairing of Danny Granville, more regularly a left back and in from the cold with an impressive first start of the season against Burnley, and Mark Hudson, signed on loan from Fulham on Thursday and a previous loanee under Dowie at Oldham. Fullbacks are likely to by Danny Butterfield, more frequently a midfielder since his arrival from Grimsby, and eighteen year-old Gary Borrowdale.

The situation is little better in the centre of midfield, where the first choice pairing of the gritty Aki Riihilahti and Michael Hughes, sent off on his Palace debut during our August encounter, are also both out leaving the midfield seriously lacking in bite. Another teenager, Ben Watson, is likely to feature, as is the exciting Wayne Routledge, whose performances have looked a little tired of late. Julian Gray is back in the fold on the left, but whilst his obvious ability is welcome his persistent indifference to working off the ball is not. Tommy Black has generally been used to liven things up as a sub, whilst youngster Tom Soares made the bench at the weekend but has yet to feature.

Up front the problem is less lack of ability and options than lack of form. Exempt from this accusation is Andy Johnson, whose fifteen goals this season have been precious although he too has been carrying an ankle injury. Less prolific is Neil Shipperley, in his second spell at Palace but without a goal since early October. Indeed, he's only found the net twice this season, one of the pair being a gift in our encounter at Selhurst Park. The third option is Dougie Freedman, talented but frustratingly lackadaisical, he's started on the bench recently. Long-term nearly-man Gareth Williams has barely had a look-in, and spent November on loan at Cambridge.

Getting back to League form, we could have been less lucky than to face injury-hit and struggling opponents after the Chelsea drubbing. Hopefully Heidar Helguson's absence from that was genuinely a "let's not risk him" decision rather than something that was never up for discussion... we've hardly looked full of goals in his absence. Alternatively, perhaps Palace's injuries will force their manager to don his boots again and solve our goalscoring problems...