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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two Play-off Semi-Final 1st Leg, 06/05/06, 12.15pm
Crystal Palace
Walking in a Selhurst wonderland
By Ian Grant

It had to be Selhurst. Of all the places, it had to be Selhurst. Scene of so many humiliations, disappointments, and dreary fizzles over so many years. The place where Curcic and his ludicrous goatee cheated us out of a deserved win. Where Glenn Roeder's tenure came to such a decisive end. Where our short trip to the Premiership found its nadir, hammered by a team that was eventually relegated with us. Where Wayne Brown once had a shot that not only went out for a throw, but a throw level with where he'd struck the ball.

Selhurst. Where the privilege of sitting - or not sitting - on a small rectangle of unyielding wood behind a hefty pillar comes at thirty quid a throw. Where all plastic bottles - not just the lids - are confiscated upon entry, only for drinks in plastic bottles - complete with lids - to be on sale at the refreshment kiosks inside. Isn't that theft, technically? Where Premiership arrogance meets old school shabbiness. Of all the places.

Naturally, Croydon responds to this most famous of victories with grey drizzle turning steadily heavier as the celebrations grow a little wearier through the afternoon. As we stumble vaguely homewards while looking for a friendly pub - or just somewhere suitably hospitable in which to come to terms with it all, somewhere to try and digest everything that's just happened - only a passing car full of jubilant yellows and broadcasting "Rocketman" to the world, which just feels so right, betrays what's just happened. What we've just gone and done. Where we are. Who we are. Bloody hell.

Bloody hell.


Bloody hell.


Bloody hell.

Of all the places, this was simply perfect. In much the same way, that victory at Kenilworth Road back in '97 was all about context, about confronting and slaying demons, about starting afresh. Here, then...where better to signal that this Watford side is ready to make history? Where else, but the home of this creaking dinosaur, to announce the scale of our own ambitions? More than a famous victory, this; very much a promise of more to come.

Christ, I spent the whole of yesterday morning coming to terms with the fact that we're in the playoffs again, trying to recapture the magic of '99. The magic...and the tension, the sheer, sapping tension of the semi-final. Why can't I remember anything about the first leg at Vicarage Road, beyond what I've been reminded of by video? Simple: because the second leg obliterated everything, blocked it off behind a monstrous wall of noise, an experience so intense that it still makes me flinch. I'm prepared for all of that, as much as anyone can be. And, during the hour or so in which we stand around as the ground fills up and everyone breathes in while they still can, I'm getting ready; by kickoff, everything's pulled cheesewire-tight.

To be able to release all of that tension within the next two hours...letting it out in howling, violent celebrations that purge the body of everything but beaming, stupid happiness...ah, it's just unthinkable. It's more than you can think of, anyway...because there's always Tuesday, and so there's always some kind of calculation involved. What we'd be happy with. What they'd be happy with. To wipe all of that away before the end of the, it's impossible. To be walking back to the station, the return leg of a journey undertaken just three or four hours previously, making plans for Cardiff...well, it's madness. It's pure delirium.

It's the greatest thing you've ever seen. Or near enough not to quibble, anyway. It's brave in a way that captures the very essence of what matters to me about Watford Football Club, in a way that transcends even the brilliance of the three goals. In that bravery, I find, at long last, where Adrian Boothroyd gets his genius; it's not a word to use lightly, but it's hard to find a more appropriate term when you see your team lining up, arms linked, on halfway before kickoff, defiantly facing the opposition with unblinking eyes. For the second time in not very long, I'm reminded of Graham Taylor. Of how, beyond tactics and coaching and selection and management, he understood what, even now, I don't fully understand. He just fundamentally got it, and he expressed that understanding, that common touch, with such imagination and such creativity.

Those little touches are what make these occasions so memorable. They're what folklore is, even in the Sky era. It's not all about results, y'know. It's about how you felt when Matthew Spring planted the ball into the top corner to crown an already incredible afternoon, how you lost all control for those few moments. How nothing else mattered, right then. That's not something that happens on television, and it's not something that'll be on the video, no matter how hard you look. It's not a means to an end, opening a door to Cardiff and jamming it wide open.

It's a bit of history. Your history, as well as the club's.

Rewind, and it might not have happened quite like that. Which isn't to say that we didn't play well in the first half, because we looked like a tidy, competent side for much of the opening forty-five. In the build-up, you never quite know how your players are going to react to the pressure, especially with a side that's still so fresh...but we appeared composed, ready to take the game to our opponents wherever possible. The inclusion of James Chambers on the right of midfield (and the left of midfield, and the centre of midfield, and the opposition six yard box, and the right back spot, and the centre of defence, and the opposition six yard box again, and so forth) in place of Chris Eagles was utterly inspired, adding an energy and an intensity to the final third that's sometimes been lacking. It all looked quite positive, apart from the occasional heart-attack.

Because we were struggling to deal with the pace and movement of the Palace front-line from the very first minute, when (oh, look) James Chambers was forced to clear from his own six yard box after McAnuff had crept into the left of the penalty area and smacked in a low cross. That's not what we wanted so early, not what our blood pressure needed. And, although we spent the next five minutes pressing the home side back into their own half with an effective show of strength, we were still nervous and tentative when the ball returned in the other direction; Jay Demerit smothered a swift Johnson break, but you already wondered how long we'd hold out.

Instead, we created the first genuine chance of the match, our only genuine chance of the half. Just a long punt forward from Ben Foster - I may be underselling it, but it's hard to tell from a side-on view - and suddenly Marlon King is behind the defence, with that glint in his eye. His half-volleyed finish is true, and only one of Kiraly's spread-eagled extremities prevents it from finding the back of the net and deflects it wide for corner, from which Gavin Mahon drives over in traditional fashion. It's an open game, already thoroughly engrossing. Ashley Young cuts inside and shoots at the keeper shortly afterwards, our attacking play seemingly more crisp than it has been of late. But you just have that nagging doubt about our defence, and it won't go away.

In the end, we ride our luck. There's no shame in that; we did it in '99 too, if you recall. There's a certain amount that we can take responsibility and praise for, of course...and it starts with Ben Foster's fine save to McAnuff's firm shot in the tenth minute, diving back across to his near post to palm the ball away. But it's only a certain amount: beyond that, we were fortunate that the Palace strikeforce didn't live up to its billing, and wasted opportunities to swing the tie in their favour. When we fell asleep at a free kick and quick thought found Johnson on the right of the box, darting his finish across the face of goal and mere inches wide, Matt somehow communicated through the noise that the miss was as good as a goal; when those chances fell our way, we took them with ruthless, savage efficiency. That's the difference.

Even then, though, we needed some help from the officials. The linesman on the far side had been flakey even before...although, absurdly, the current offside rules always leave some doubt over whether the flag would have gone up if the ball had reached the offending player. Still, he bottled the most crucial decision, for he must have had a clearer view than the referee when Morrison threatened to steam away onto a through-ball, only prevented from doing so by Jay Demerit's grappling hands. The next minute or so was spent watching the striker, never one to hide his feelings even when he's clearly in the wrong, throwing the mother of all tantrums while play continued elsewhere; for once, and in strong contrast to the match-winning incident at Vicarage Road back in December, he had a point. It was a foul...and if it was a foul, it was also a red card. Massive moments, these. Vital decisions, going our way. Adrian Boothroyd is a brave man, and bravery achieves an awful lot in itself; I do wonder sometimes, though, whether he hasn't also signed some sort of pact with the devil....

As if to emphasise, Morrison recovered some of his precarious composure, turned on a sixpence on the eighteen yard line, and sent a curling shot whistling past the upright. Jesus. Recounting these events has a certain pleasure to it, knowing that it'll all turn out fine in the end...but it was unbearably tense at the time, demanding and exhausting to watch. And to play in too: when Ashley Young went down with a knock after half an hour, both teams, including goalkeepers, wandered to the dugouts for much-needed refreshment. There's so much at stake, so much to lose...and, in three hours of football, so much time in which to lose it. Popovic and Jordan Stewart are booked for an unnecessary push-and-shove after a challenge on Ben Foster; unnecessary, yet entirely understandable. This is desperate stuff.

And it breeds unlikely heroes, inevitably. Thus - after Watson had struck a shot wide from a loose ball, thankfully missing comfortably enough to avoid too many palpitations for those of us in the Arthur Wait Stand - we had what really ought to be the cause of a truce between Jordan Stewart and his countless detractors. Because, once Matthew Spring had carelessly lost the ball in midfield and Johnson had beaten Jay Demerit to open up the space between himself and Ben Foster's goal, he looked odds-on to score; then, suddenly, he didn't, because he no longer had the ball. There have been tidier tackles than this, but few interceptions have been more vital than that achieved by Stewart's trailing leg. We left the pitch at half-time in the knowledge that an awful lot of coins had been flipped, looped up in the air while everyone looked on anxiously, and fallen in our favour. The story of the tie could've been written in that forty-five minutes.

Instead, we started with a blank page in the second half. At the time, replacing Darius Henderson with Al Bangura seemed to be a cautious move by Adrian Boothroyd, designed to preserve our clean sheet for the second leg. It seemed wise too, given what had nearly come to pass before the interval. And, in some ways, it was that, for the extra man in midfield did indeed protect the back four and prevent Palace from finding any of the space that they'd previously exploited. But it was so much more than that too. So much more. It gave us the means to produce a masterpiece of counter-attacking football, in which increasingly desperate, despondent opponents stumbled into carefully-set traps and were gobbled up greedily. It was brilliant, sensational. It was a work of art.

And, naturally, it owed much to Marlon King, whose predatory presence in the Palace hinterlands never allowed the lumbering centrebacks to rest. Bursting forward on both flanks, Ashley Young and, particularly, James Chambers kept the full-backs and wingers occupied too, so that the home side's possession found no outlet, eventually just getting soaked up by the mass of bodies in the centre. I can think of no higher compliment than to compare Chambers' performance with Nicky Wright in his prime, when he used to bomb up and down the flank like a lunatic for seventy-five minutes...and then be removed when he was so utterly spent that he could barely walk. Like I say, unlikely heroes.

Within a minute, something was afoot...but Marlon King couldn't quite keep upright as he turned to shoot after pouncing on a long clearance from Ben Foster. Within two minutes, everything was going utterly loopy: another of those clearances and another of those Marlon King goals, comprising such an astonishing proportion of this season's mighty haul. One moment, back to goal and defender close behind, with ball bouncing erratically; in the blink of an eye, he's turned and fired goalwards in the same lean, elegant movement...and, like a blindfolded knife-thrower, he's somehow found his target with piercing accuracy, beating the keeper's dive and hitting the inside of the post at the perfect angle. From our vantage point, it appears to be going wide...until it doesn't go wide, and everything is lost in a great storm of arms and bodies and noise and yellow. It's a fantastic goal, worthy of promotion.

Palace look very vulnerable, suddenly. Even as Ben Foster tips over a Popovic header from a free kick, there's the awareness that we've caught them once and can do so again. For their part, there's also the knowledge that we will take our chances when they come. That we won't hesitate. For the first time, the play becomes stodgy and a little stale, and the keepers start swapping over-hit kicks while the midfield crane their necks...and it's all fine, on the pitch and in the stands. Released by Gavin Mahon, Marlon King belts another angled drive into Kiraly's midriff, perhaps a little too ambitious. But it's all fine: the tactical switch has given us such control over the flow of the game that the thought, previously utterly impossible, pops up that we might do more than just win here. We might just do it all at once.

And then Ashley Young's pushed over in the midfield...which doesn't take much, but it is a foul. Even my enthusiasm for the Coxy Into The Wall free kick can't deny the brilliance of this effort, whipped over the wall from twenty-five yards and planting itself gloriously in the net at mid-height, far beyond the keeper's hand. Again, that joyous tangle of people, so much emotion in a confined space. I'm lost. Ashley Young is buried in the front rows and Kiraly is going mental at his wall - for no real reason, as it happens - and I'm lost in the celebration, completely oblivious. From the kickoff, we're back up that end again, Matthew Spring curling a shot at the keeper from the edge of the area...and if that had gone in, there'd have been no coming back. Not for Palace. Not for any of us.

We attack sporadically throughout. In that respect, it isn't the game that the scoreline suggests. But we attack with such conviction, such voracious hunger, that time spent in the opposition half becomes an irrelevance. Matthew Spring breaks through, releases Marlon King and a defender's head deflects what appears to be a goal-bound effort away for a corner; in the stand, it's becoming damn hard to get a grip on reality, to hold back the realisation that this is it. That there might not be a second leg, in any meaningful sense. Only when the ball breaks to Hall after half an hour, and he's somehow escaped the sheer mass of yellow shirts that seems to be everywhere, is there a glimmer of hope for Palace, immediately snuffed out as Ben Foster saves the shot with his legs.

The Palace assault gets no further than the edge of our penalty area, and then there are too many bodies in the way. Everything is blocked, every pass is intercepted, every tackle is made. Emphatically, it is our game to win. When we're ready, we commit enough men forward to score again...and that's not many men, not many at all. Matthew Spring waltzes into the six yard box past vague challenges and smashes the ball into the top corner with his left foot, igniting pure pandemonium in the away section, where there simply isn't enough room for all of that ecstasy. For all of that belief, suddenly confirmed. The noise fills in every space, echoing around under the iron roof before escaping into the open air...and it doesn't feel as if you need to breathe any more, it doesn't feel as if you need to function at all. You're just part of the noise, feeding from its energy. There is no better feeling, surely. Nothing better.

The rest is wonderfully pointless, played out in front of emptying home stands and a small, riotous block of yellow. A ball runs loose and Johnson sends a volley bobbling well wide, turns with head bowing under the weight of disappointment. We had all sorts of hopes...and the team and its manager have exceeded every single goddamn one of them. Not without luck, but that can be taken as read. And not without another installment on Tuesday, of course...and that's something to momentarily sober us, as the coaching staff curtail the players' celebrations by dragging them away as quickly as possible. Plenty of time for that. Besides, we don't have to be so sensible....

And then, there's supposed to be a conclusion. But there isn't...because if you already know, then you'll have shaken your head in bemusement before smiling as broadly as it's possible to smile several dozen times between then and now. Because you're already way beyond conclusions and perspectives and all that stuff, and rightly so. And if you don't already know, then you've come to the wrong website. There is no conclusion. We'll all look bloody stupid if Palace win four-nil on Tuesday, of course, but that's part of it. That's part of what it means to win three-nil in the first leg. Three f***ing nil in the first leg. At Selhurst.

At home, there's a text message waiting on my answering machine. "To all AFC Wimbledon shareholders. MK Dons have been relegated. Does it get any better than this?"

I dunno. Does it, Aidy?