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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 31/12/05, 1.00pm
Crystal Palace
Unwanted Present
By Mike Smart

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. Probably, you’re still enjoying the novelty of your more successful presents, while trying to find the right words to thank your Great Aunt (you know, the one with the moustache) for that present that wasn’t quite what you had in mind. In a lot of cases, if the myth is to be believed, that will be socks. (I don’t recall ever getting a pair of socks for Christmas, so perhaps that’s just one of those things people say. Like “Ooh, Alex Ferguson’s so good at those mind games”). In my case, for some reason, I always seem to receive a lot of deodorant…

Anyway, when Iain Dowie took over the Palace job from (via a couple of unsuccessful cameos) Trevor Francis (…let’s take a few seconds to remember our Trev…

), it might be safe to assume that he didn’t soil his pants with excitement at the prospect of Andy Johnson being at the club. Capable striker, no doubt, but hardly the man to firmly put Palace on the map. He was the ‘makeweight’ in the Clinton Morrison deal, an unwanted present, Birmingham paying something like £4.5m plus Johnson to secure the services of the, erm, Irishman. Some deal - kinda puts £450 000 for Jamie Moralee into perspective. Seventy-five goals later, I reckon Dowie is pretty glad to have him at the club.

It’s a pretty unique situation; twenty-one Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) goals came last season, and Johnson could doubtless have taken his pick from most of the top flight clubs for this season. Instead, however, he chose a return to Division Two. Slightly reminiscent of Steve Bull, perhaps; there’s clearly a fair amount of loyalty involved, and that’s to be commended, but I wonder if there’s an element of ‘quitting while he’s ahead’ about Johnson’s decision. Like a teacher at a school in Kensington, turning down a promotion in Peckham; like a statistician who shuns the statistical delights that cricket has to offer, preferring to focus on football, where numbers rarely exceed four. You have to wonder if Johnson realises he’s on a good wicket and doesn’t really fancy the challenge of trying to repeat last season’s heroics.

And I’m with him on that one. Cos I don’t really reckon he’s that good. Of his twenty-one league goals last season, eleven came from the penalty spot. Take those out, and his strike rate was little better than one-in-four. At this level, he’s a formidable opponent, and obviously, he’d walk into any Watford side post-1987 (if nothing else, for his ability to take a bloody penalty!). But England? Not for me, thank you. And not for him, either, because his decision to return to Division Two certainly rules him out of a jaunt to Germany in June, barring an injury crisis.

It means, though, that we’ve got to try and bloody well contain him on New Year’s Eve. And we’ve got to be successful, too, if we want to avoid a repeat of (click at your peril) this. The thing is, I reckon Palace are very beatable, if Johnson is kept in check; that they were relegated despite their top-scorer hitting twenty-one goals is an indictment of the rest of the team. In our Premiership (not etc.) season, we cobbled together twenty-four points, despite our top scorer notching only six goals, and despite the fact that we were, largely, crap. Last season, Johnson aside, Aki Riihilahti top-scored for the Eagles with four goals out of a total of twenty.

To combat this problem, two strikers have been acquired: Jon Macken has arrived on a free from Manchester City, and has thus far netted twice in sixteen appearances, and Clinton Morrison, fresh from the triumph of his all-conquering spell at Birmingham, has returned, ego seemingly intact. Morrison’s return so far is a slightly more impressive eight from twenty-one.

When writing these previews, someone always turns up who is only in their early thirties, despite the fact that you’re sure you remember them playing alongside Dixie Dean. Step forward Dougie Freedman, enjoying something of a resurgence at the age of thirty-one. A first-team regular, he has contributed five goals so far. Iain Dowie often goes with three strikers. If he does that against us, Macken being one game into a three-match ban, it’s Johnson, Freedman and Morrison. If it’s a two-man attack, my guess is that Morrison, who scored against Derby, to partner Johnson. Wayne Andrews hovers around the subs’ bench, hoping for a piece of the action.

Ben Watson returns to the centre of midfield after serving a one match ban. He will probably be partnered by Tom Soares who, along with Watson, is a product of Palace’s academy. Jobi McAnuff may well feature on the right, although when Dowie opts for 4-3-3, it is generally McAnuff that makes way. Michael Hughes, rested against Derby, is likely to play on the left. Other options in midfield include Marco Reich (out of favour due to stalling on a new contract), Mikele Leigertwood (who will probably play at left-back) and Gary Borrowdale. Riihilahti is either injured, out of favour or both, and hasn’t featured in recent weeks. Terrific website, though! Tommy Black, recovered from a broken leg, has played very little this season.

Leigertwood, then, should be at left back, with ex-Luton man (and former Lewington target) Emmerson Boyce on the right. Fitz Hall is another option at right back, and can also play in the centre, where he competes with Aussie Tony Popovic and Darren Ward (in my opinion, Vialli’s best piece of business, Mahon aside), a scorer against Derby. Dannies Granville and Butterfield are recovering from long term injuries, and Mark Hudson is a young centre back who may feature.

In goal, pyjama-clad Gabor Kiraly has just taken his place back, having lost it to Julian Speroni. After two clean sheets, Kiraly is probably the man for Saturday.

Having shown that we have a weakness in seeing off clubs at the foot of the table, we really need to make up for it by getting results against the more successful sides. Mind you, most of you have already got your minds on next Monday…

Let’s hope the players haven’t!

Happy new year!