WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES
Ahead of tomorrow’s Championship Play-Off final, a lifelong Crystal Palace supporter looks back on the Eagles’ incredible relationship with the Play-Offs, the unforgettable games, the disappointments, the euphoria of success and the emotions thrown up by this increasingly intense end-of-season contest…
Image: Tom Brogan (via Flickr)
The Football League Play-Offs are a curious beast. For some, it’s a second chance. For others, an unexpected bonus at the end of a slog of a season. For all, it’s an intoxicating blend of excitement, unbearable nerves and raw passion.
Monday’s Championship showpiece at Wembley pits Crystal Palace against Watford, bringing the Eagles a fifth appearance in the final as they gun for a fourth promotion to the Big League via the Play-Offs. Palace fans know more about the Championship Play-Offs than most, having appeared in them seven times to date. As Bryan Davies explains, it’s never dull…
1996 & 1997
Having won promotion to the First Division in 1989 with victory over Blackburn Rovers (in the days of two-legged finals and magnificent Brian Moore commentary and pre-cliche pitch invasions), my first active Play-Off memories come from 1996. Facing Charlton Athletic in the semi-finals, the away leg clashed with a christening, meaning some pals and I were forced to endure the game on television. Frightened by a calamitous start and early concession inspired by our giant Norwegian oaf Leif Andersen, we turned the match off. Then on. Then off again. It was off for a while, before one of our cohort had a non-specific “good feeling” – we equalised as soon as the picture flickered back into view. Cult hero Carl Veart won the match with a scruffy header about an inch off the floor, before an early Ray Houghton goal made the second leg a comfortable evening’s viewing from the Players Lounge where, (not very) excitingly, I had my photo taken with Bryan Robson and Richard Rufus, who was magnanimous in defeat.
I missed the final as I was on the traditional family holiday to Pontins in Suffolk (a much derided genre of holiday, but they were wonderful times – games of hoy, Donkey Derby, dancing to Black Lace songs, a day at Pleasurewood Hills… absolute dream). With perhaps naive optimism I settled down in my chalet for ITV’s coverage of the final against Leicester City. Leicester were the better side but it was a drab match – 1-1 after 90 minutes and still after 119. With penalties looming, Foxes boss Martin O’Neill replaced 5’10” goalkeeper Kevin Poole with 6’8″ Zeljko Kalac. A bold move. Was he a penalty specialist, or perhaps O’Neill was banking on his daunting presence spooking Palace’s spot-kickers? It mattered not. Distracted by the substitution, Palace left squeaky cliche-bot Steve Claridge free on the edge of the box to famously shin home. A stunning conclusion. Kalac didn’t touch the ball, so I didn’t get to find out if he had a good touch for a big man. Heartbroken, I went out and played some seriously angry tennis, smashing the ball like Rafael Nadal gone nuclear. I hated football.
A year later and we were back at Wembley for the Play-Off final, and this time I was in attendance for the match with Sheffield United. After a bipolar season we’d finished sixth, and then took care of Wolves in a seesawing semi, winning 4-3 on aggregate. Memories of the final are sketchy. It was dull and it was boiling, and while it was magical to be at Wembley, the old place was looking and feeling tired. As the game entered the final 10 minutes at 0-0, the noise from the Palace end grew and grew and grew into something spine-tinglingly epic. In the last minute, a cleared corner found our inspirational skipper David Hopkin, who had scored plenty of vital goals that season. He took a touch, opened his body (not literally, Jamie) and looked to curl one… Boom. It was a sublime goal, and a sensational climax. We knew exactly how Leicester had felt the year before.
The culmination of a breathtaking narrative. After Iain Dowie’s December arrival and the birth of bouncebackability, Palace surged up the table from a lowly starting point to within touching distance of the end of season jamboree. Typically, despite Palace’s form, they somewhat stumbled into the Play-Offs. A meek defeat at a Highfield Road seemingly half-full of Palace fans (myself and friends in the home section ourselves) looked to have ended the dream, before a 90th minute Brian Deane equaliser for West Ham United at Wigan Athletic paved the way for Palace to finish sixth. By now the cover of the additional Palace fans was well and truly blown, and we were sensibly and politely escorted into the away end to celebrate with our brethren.
The semi-final against Sunderland was immense. Palace won the home leg 3-2 on a balmy Friday night in south London. Selhurst Park was absolutely rocking; I’ve never experienced a home atmosphere like it. My circuitous weekend took me home from university, back to university, back home, and then up to Sunderland for the Monday return. Five grown men sharing a Mini for hours was not a comfortable experience, especially as there wasn’t really a middle seat – more an ergonomically displeasing bump. Palace were excellent, but somehow 2-0 down at half-time. Things got worse when Julian Gray was sent off for a second yellow card. Game over. Or not. Darren Powell, a man dogged by injury, entered Palace folklore with a headed goal in stoppage time.
Extra time was ghastly to watch, my stomach twisted in all kinds of knots. The 10 men of Palace bravely held on to force penalties, reminiscent of England’s performance against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Penalties. At the other end. Fans linked arms in solidarity. Sunderland went first: John Oster missed; Andrew Johnson scored; Tommy Smith scored; Dougie Freedman scored; Phil Babb scored; Neil Shipperley scored; Carl Robinson scored; Tony Popovic scored; Gary Breen scored; Shaun Derry – to win – missed; Jason McAteer missed; Wayne Routledge – to win – missed; Jeff Whitley missed; Michael Hughes – to win – scored. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Oh yes. Pandemonium in the away end, and some incredibly tender, passionate cuddles with complete strangers, as is the norm in such situations. What emotion and what belief. Somehow, we’d done it.
West Ham at the Millennium Stadium in the final. A glorious venue in a glorious city. The media and the bookies were convinced a West Ham win was a formality, as seemingly were the thousands of east Londoners clogging up the M4 in tacky limousines. Even though Palace were underdogs and I endured excruciating nerves, I sort of knew we would do it. I guess Palace felt a bit indestructible at that time, given what had gone before. Palace duly did do it, thanks to a Shipperley rocket from a couple of inches, some resolute defending and astute Dowie tactics, employing Derry on the left of midfield in place of the suspended Gray. The Hammers trudged home, cursing Deane for bothering at Wigan. Joyous red-and-blue scenes ensued, as did a cracking night out at a student bash in Cardiff. Great days.
(We’ve conveniently skipped over the semi-final disappointments of 2006 and 2008). So, Palace in pretty so-so form, against arch-rivals Brighton & Hove Albion, a side in terrific shape. It didn’t look great. That said, and despite all indicators, I had a slightly troublesome inner confidence about the tie.
A cagey first leg (0-0) left us with a Monday evening in May at the excellent but asymmetric Amex. 2,000 Palace fans in amazing voice; 28,000 Brighton followers provided with incredibly naff clap banners. Everything to play for. Palace were superb – excellent defensively, they passed the ball with élan and had an outstanding threat on the break. Wilfried Zaha was sublime and took his two goals expertly. The celebrations were perhaps as intense as anything I’ve ever experienced: an underdog victory in such a significant game, at your biggest rivals, inspired by an academy graduate – it doesn’t get much better than that. It was the perfect away performance, and Ian Holloway – often unfairly caricatured and criticised for his apparently limited tactical knowledge – got his gameplan spot on for the full 180 minutes. Two clean sheets were impressive for a side that had been struggling at the back. Holloway lead the dressing room celebrations, and the team was in the final once again – a first trip to Wembley 2.0.
The financial rewards for winning Monday’s final are staggering, and as much as I’m looking forward to the game, I’m also a bit petrified. Palace are run fantastically well these days, so a Watford win is by no means a disaster, but of course I’m desperate for a Palace victory. My confidence wavers from day to day, such are the fine margins between the sides. Whatever your thoughts on the ethics of Watford’s transfer policy, the two sides are well matched – sides who pass the ball and are potent offensively, particularly on the counter (you’ve all seen Watford’s third against Leicester, right?). It should be an attractive game for neutrals, in the best traditions of classics like Charlton 4-4 Sunderland (7-6 on penalties) and Swansea City 4-2 Reading.
Both sides are managed by men used to big occassions. Helpfully for Palace, Holloway has experience of both winning and losing Championship Play-Off finals at Wembley, so they should be perfectly prepared. Also helpfully for the Eagles, only one side has Zaha…
A huge Wembley occasion is a fitting finale for an exceptional Palace career. A player who thrives in big-match environments, a Zaha-inspired Palace victory would be the ultimate leaving present to top off the wonderful gift of his goals and performance at Brighton.
Win or lose, it will be emotional to see Zaha don the red and blue one final time. He loves Palace, and the fans, and we love him. Palace have nurtured him since he was a boy, and both sides will part with fond memories. Watching Zaha develop and thrive has been a complete joy, and he leaves – as most players do – with Palace forever in his heart. The second leg highlighted what Zaha is all about – directness, extraordinary trickery, sharp passing and defensive discipline allied with strength and growing maturity. His two superb goals highlighted his ever-improving finishing ability, and gave a flash of the future as he may well migrate to more central positions as he expands his game further.
Armchair critics point to a perceived lack of goals and assists, but Zaha will never be a player you can fairly judge with stats (the goals he has scored have been absolute crackers, mind). A rare breed in the often robotic world of modern football, he is a player who is most effective off the cuff; a player who will amaze you with the things he can do with a ball; a player who provides elements of fantasy – the sort of player who makes young boys and girls fall in love with football. With dedication to match stellar talent, he will only improve and flourish in the Premier League. If he is given an early opportunity at Manchester United I’m convinced he’ll take it and very quickly become a regular for club and country. Zaha could be the difference on Monday, and it would be an appropriate end to a wonderful season of domestic and international success for himself and his fellow academy graduates, who between them have won full international caps, the FA Cup (with the winning goal to boot), the League Cup, the Europa League and the Africa Cup of Nations.
Thank you, and good luck, Wilf.