Same old, same old
By Matt Rowson
Ahhh, Selhurst Park. On a Friday night, no less. As ever, it's wet and blustery in Croydon and despite the significance of the fixture, only slightly dissipated by last weekend's results, the away end is only half-full.
"Is that all you take away?" demand the Holmesdale End scornfully, predictably. "Thirty quid, you're having a laugh!", respond the Hornets with some justification, before turning their attention to Dave Bassett, punditing for Sky nearby. But the away end is sparse enough for us to select a viewing position that is optimal (in as much as any can be at Selhurst), in the row in front of a pillar. Both ig and my Dad are amongst the no-shows despite having forked out, the former having succumbed to the lurgy, the latter finding himself in a restaurant in Cambridge that was more appealing than a trip to South London. Insert your own fast-food/greasy spoon based gag here.
In Selhurst's defence, the stewards do at least permit the away end to watch the game on its feet which is something to be grateful for, whatever the fare. For the first five minutes or so the game is just as blustery as the evening with the game moving quickly in fairly haphazard and rapidly changing directions. The Hornets have kept the same sixteen that lost to Millwall; Palace have changed things in midfield and, more dramatically, at the back where centreback Fitz Hall has been moved out to the right. A big man, he's in for an uncomfortable first half and is exposed for the first time when a good ball from Stewart finds Spring's run out to the left. The midfielder cuts past Hall and, from a narrow angle, tries to cut a shot inside Kiraly's near post. A deflection takes it into the side netting; Young's corner is floated in and easy for the keeper, who finds the galloping McAnuff with a quick throw. His run ends with a wicked cross towards Johnson, cut out by Doyley. A tone has been set.
Another recurring theme, inevitably enough, first rears its head on twelve minutes when a fine trap and chip from Jordan Stewart on the left finds Ashley Young, who rather pathetically swallow-dives over a challenge. He accurately judges that he's not going to achieve anything by prolonging his embarrassment with Palace's already-cocked jeers ringing in his ears. This was the point of Dowie's rather pompous anti-diving rant this week, of course... pressure on referees as far as his own team is concerned with Johnson's centre of gravity less profitable than it once was, but this time as with most things this evening the ref gets it right.
We're having a little spell now though... Marlon chases a through ball with the increasingly hapless Hall who gets the last touch as the ball rolls out before optimistically appealing at the decision. The corner reaches Demerit whose header finds Marlon close to the touchline; he heads across the face of goal but Darren Ward beats Doris to it and clears. Minutes later, one of a number of chipped balls over the Palace defence is looking for Marlon who goes down under Boyce's attention. Penalty claims are ignored, but if this was a dive it was a far more convincing one that Young's earlier effort.
The game swings back up the other end of the pitch; Andrew Johnson, ominously, turns and completely fries Malky Mackay before being dragged back by the big Scot's necessary attention. Ben Watson curls the free kick around the wall and into the side netting with Ben Foster covering; the Palace man had picked up the game's only booking for trying a quick one, presumably having been asked to wait.
But you feel that we're gradually gaining an advantage; Ashley Young wins a free kick off Hall and some neat passing around the area concludes with Eagles crashing over. Marlon King then delays a throughball before flicking through for Eagles' diagonal run; he feeds Young who cuts inside on his right foot and curls a shot around Kiraly and narrowly past the top corner.
And then we score, and it's like peeling a banana. Ward and Popovic are both good defenders, but neither is quick and the pace of King always looked like our best bet. Gavin Mahon picks up the ball as it breaks from our area, resists challenge and times a fabulous through ball for King. Marlon has timed his run perfectly, the ball takes Popovic out completely and the striker has gone, flowing around Kiraly's advance and neatly sliding the ball home. One-nil, and the away "end" has the space to go completely potty.
Palace come right back at us; Tom Soares instigates a break down the right, the ball works its way across to Morrison whose snap-shot is brilliantly parried by Foster down to his right. McAnuff sends it straight back into the mixer and Demerit clears. Ashley Young skips past Hall (again) and frees Henderson who clouts wide with his left foot. Back up our end, a one-two between Johnson and Morrison looks like cutting us open before Spring intervenes and wellies the ball at the Palace boxes. This is frantic stuff now... Watson has the ball wide on the right and sends a great ball into the near post which Morrison shouldn't have been allowed to stab wide, as Foster points out to Demerit.
As half time approaches Palace's play, fuelled by nervousness in the stands, gets a bit ragged and this in itself offers encouragement with regard to what might be to come. Fitz Hall scuffs us a corner under no pressure, and then a heavy touch by Johnson on the edge of our area invites a challenge from Stewart that the striker, predictably, collapses under to indifference from the officials. Darren Ward surges forward, his low shot spins up nicely for Johnson to try a scissor kick into Foster's arms. Young fries Soares on the left and feeds King who cuts inside and shoots over. The half ends.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Snickers bar
Reason: A flustered selection on surprisingly reaching the front of the queue at Watford Junction.
Level of success: Rubbish. Quite staggeringly awful. Note to self; these decisions should not be hurried...
Sarah has evidently been caught on camera at half-time; her husband back in Watford texts to ask why she's sitting on her own. She indirectly answers his question by wandering over to us and demanding "I really don't see what's wrong with Selhurst Park. I'm having a thoroughly pleasant evening". On the pitch, someone is chipping a series of footballs over a shed with no roof, not a great advert for the sponsors you'd have thought. A few others are playing keepy-uppies with pringles packets. Classy.
The second half starts, and we've allowed Palace to come out and hang around in the drizzle for a bit. No sooner has the half started, however, than a pivotal incident kinda turns the game on its head. Fitz Hall, whose contributions are now at the far side of the pitch to us and therefore perhaps less conspicuous in the second half detail, chips a ball through for Johnson. It's got a bit too much on it, but he's up for it anyway... as is Ben Foster, out of his goal and up for the header. Both have their eyes on the ball as they collide side-on with Foster, marginally the victor in the race to the ball, heading out but the keeper's extra two-and-a-half stones count, and Johnson stays down.
Watford supporters do the town proud (not for the last time this evening, the trip back through the underground to the sound of tipsy seventeen year olds bawling "yellows" between sniggers always a joy) by mocking Andrew Johnson's departure on a stretcher unsympathetically. Diving and whining at officials surely deserves mockery, being stretchered off... not so obviously. Palace fans prove themselves capable of similar idiocy by barracking the faultless Foster for the rest of the evening.
In the five minutes during which Johnson receives treatment on the pitch, the Watford players get hold of the ball and knock it around, jog in circles to keep warm and active. The home side amble around indifferently, and you half suspect that they resist following suit purely to avoid acknowledging Watford's initiative. In the stands, transgressing the scorn/concern for Johnson question there's an evident sense of relief at the striker's departure; he'd looked lively, and was an obvious threat. Betty was later to suggest that the players were guilty of the same mistake. Dougie Freedman was introduced, and Palace were at us immediately.
Emmerson Boyce is the first to threaten, turning Chris Eagles all too easily, cutting inside from the left and driving weakly wide after a strong run. Briefly, we suggest that the ding-dong pattern of the first half will be reprised... a rare but telling contribution from Spring releases Henderson down the right who inexplicably cuts across the approaching Darren Ward onto his left foot, a corner a disappointing return from a good break. The corner is wasted (again).
Palace's next attack seems to be going the way of most of their others up to this point, scuffling into a blind alley down the right until Michael Hughes picks the ball up and sends a fine ball out to McAnuff, unattended on the far side of the area. Demerit has to make a challenge, the winger goes down. At the time I was screaming blue murder, convinced that Demerit had played the ball; video suggests that the winger did enough, touching the ball away himself before the American's mistimed challenge.
Freedman takes the penalty after a brief debate, presumably based on his readiness for such a responsibility. It's not a bad effort, low and firm to Foster's left but the keeper gets down to it brilliantly, gets gloves to it and cushions its pace. Desperately unfortunate, then (thank you, Snickers bar) that the ball hits his leg as momentum spins his torso around, and rebounds to Freedman who doesn't waste his second chance. Very evident that Palace players were alert enough to have followed up with yellow shirts notable for their absence... sloppy, but probably irrelevant, the ball rebounded to the man on the spot and no challenge could realistically have arrived in time.
A real blow, but there's worse to come and we don't just lie down and take this one. Another Palace attack, but Foster collects and an enormous kick finds King whose first touch to the dropping ball takes him around Kiraly for the second time of the evening, but is marginally too heavy and runs to Ward who clears. Palace attack down the right again and win a throw. As with the move that led to the penalty there's no panic, no suggestion of a great threat... Fitz Hall launches a long throw into the box, Jordan Stewart meets it at the near post and under no real challenge flicks the header backwards over the helpless Foster. Its trajectory is painfully obvious from our viewpoint, obvious enough for a number of under-the-breath expletives to puncture the air before the ball drops into the net.
Jordan Stewart. Hey ho. As so often, he'd not been having a bad game really. Hardly a "Robbo versus Charlton" epic, but competent enough. You don't remember the "competent enough" bits though. Pascal Cygan at Arsenal is similar in this respect... for the most part he does a decent job, until once a game his brain falls out and it all goes wrong.
In the past, Stewart has seemed pretty robust to the disasters that he's played a part in, digging in and not obviously allowing his head to drop. Not here though, as he's a nervous catastrophe for the next five or ten minutes. The Score at left back is obvious... Stewart is there because right at the moment we don't have anyone else. Nonetheless, we can't assume that the status quo, one or two bad mistakes a game, will continue even if we were prepared to put up with it. Sooner or later, it's going to get to him.
It's not just Jordan whose game collapses, as we're all over the place for the next ten or fifteen minutes. Even the usually impeccable Lloyd Doyley makes a ricket... holding off McAnuff in an attempt to let the ball run into touch only to be caught when it stops on the line and McAnuff is past him, a recovery tackle from Eagles, who's digging in today if having no greater impact offensively, limiting the damage to a corner.
A note in my pad at this point implores "it's all going against us". As if to illustrate, Freedman beats Demerit in the air (what?) and Morrison latches on to fire a dangerous but uncapitalised ball across the face.
We're flat... nothing's happening up front, and we have nothing on the bench that's going to change matters. "It's got to be McNamee; he has to bring McNamee on!" concludes a bloke a couple of rows in front, perhaps inadvertently summarising the problem. Marlon, Doris and Ashley are as potent a strike force as you'll find in the division, but if it ain't working we're kinda screwed.
Gradually we eke our way back into the game, forcing a series of corners to which the away support slowly responds; Doris heads the third of these over when he should have done better. Palace are comfortable though, and are now doing to us what we've been doing to opponents on our travels all season... letting us commit numbers forward, and then breaking with pace and menace. Freedman sounds a warning when sliding a ball between Doyley and Demerit, Morrison doesn't take advantage.
We have no option but to carry on regardless. Actually that a lie, we have one option and McNamee dutifully appears for Eagles with predictably inconsequential results. Oh, and Malky wanders up front too. Instead, it's Palace who score again... Soares breaks down the right, his firm ball across hits the helpless Demerit in mid-stride and flies past Foster, stranded again. Tickets, raffles and so forth... if you send a fierce ball across the box such things CAN happen. Nonetheless, as if to emphasise that it really isn't our evening, Ashley Young sends a free kick from the same position from which he scored such a belter at Leeds, over the wall but a deflection spins it narrowly over rather than under the bar.
The last action of the match sees late sub Bangura put Henderson through on the left again, his ball across bypasses Kiraly but is cleared up by Boyce with King lurking. We're still doing our stuff, but as in the second half last week the conviction isn't there. We'd have needed a lucky break to get back into the game, to revigorate our belief, and that was never going to happen this evening.
The whistle goes, we've lost, and we're in Croydon. Magic.
In the light of day with almost twenty four hours to calm down (and to benefit from the perspective offered by results elsewhere) this was another disappointing result but no disaster. Certainly it didn't teach us anything that we didn't already know... that we have a team capable of hurting the best sides in the division, even on their own patch. That there are nonetheless weaknesses in the side, and a lack of options outside it. That sometimes shit happens.
But also that there really is only one outstanding team in this division, and they're already promoted. Palace impressed in the second half today, but their defending was far from comfortable in the first and they need to discover some hitherto unsuggested consistency if they're going to make second spot. Leeds just can't score goals at the moment; they have the experience in the side, but are solid rather than spectacular.
Pole position, of course, are Sheffield United, but they have ten points from their last ten games, practically relegation form. Colin's assertion on Saturday evening that "You're not going to get a much more difficult game than Stoke away" convinces nobody. He may yet find out just how wrong that statement is next season. In the meantime however we just need to bear in mind that, as last season, we don't need to be brilliant to achieve what we need to.
We just need to be better than everyone else.