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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 31/12/05, 1.00pm
Crystal Palace
Get up, you tart
By Ian Grant

He's right about one thing, is our Adrian. That penalty was a joke. The kind of thing that leaves a bitter, sour after-taste, that lingers after the result has stopped hurting. A very Crystal Palace way to lose a game. God forbid that we ever become like that, just means to an end.

But he's quite wrong about another: it really ain't Mr Dowd's fault. Oh, it was a crap decision. Of course, we'll take that as read. But, really, the amount of hamming and faking and exaggerating and general - for let's not dress it up - cheating going on over the course of these ninety minutes made it somewhat inevitable. He was a fraud victim, nothing more. The problem lies deeper: that hamming and faking and exaggerating and, yes, general cheating are now common currency, a mark of professionalism at this level as much as anywhere else. It's arrived. And it's incredibly bloody tedious.

The grey, monotonous reality is that, henceforth, every late tackle will be cause for infinite rolling around and wailing. Every shirt pull and gentle nudge will be an excuse to fall over theatrically, as if performing a service to the referee by alerting him to the crime that's been committed. Every poor touch in the penalty area will be covered up by a dive over the nearest opponent's leg. Every shove in the chest will be a punch on the nose. And so on, and so forth, to infinity. And television - for whose benefit all of this exists - will replay these incidents from seventeen different angles in order to establish that there was "contact", for "contact" is the only thing that matters. And whenever anyone complains, they'll be told that it's "reality"...because once something's been established as "reality", it can never change.

Yawn. Sometimes, the people who hate football don't have it entirely wrong.

In a way, it seems churlish to concentrate on the peripheral nonsense in reporting on what was generally a rumbustious, entertaining game of football. It deserves better. But that's the point: it deserved better. It deserved a proper result, either way, rather than the dreary shabbiness of a grown man falling over because someone's given his shirt a slight tug. As so often - too often - in football, such utter absurdity has become an accepted norm.

So, yes, I'll certainly point the finger at Andy Johnson, whose amateur theatrics were a recurring feature of last season's "Match of the Day" and whose shameful attempt to get Lloyd Doyley booked for a late but otherwise innocuous challenge in the early stages clouded an often sharp, predatory afternoon's work. Typically, the abuse received was responded to with cheeky disdain: a clear conscience, a professional doing his job. A cheat, but not in the eyes of his peers. And I'll point the finger at the quite heroically petulant Clinton Morrison too, for the penalty-winning tumble featured enough amateur exaggeration to be seen from the moon, let alone the Rookery. Cheats, one and all. But that's football, right?

You can't just point the finger at opponents, though. This stuff happens because winning's more important than anything else, including honesty and integrity. Because nobody cares, as long as we win and they lose. There's a valuable life lesson for you, kids. So, let's do some naming and shaming on our own side too, for that's the only way that things will ever change. Let's point out that Al Bangura's reaction - scream, clutch face and roll-roll-roll-roll-roll until the referee's got his card out - to Leigertwood's second half challenge was really quite ridiculous, and no less dishonourable than Johnson's behaviour. Let's remember Darius Henderson doing much the same at Millwall, and James Chambers preferring to lie as if dying in the hope of convincing the officials to halt a promising attack rather than, for example, chasing back and stopping it himself. Let's stop appealing for free kicks whenever Paul Devlin falls over. Because cheating's no less shameful when you benefit from it.

Sanctimonious? What, me? Well, yeah, I suppose. But it's just so bloody dreary, so far away from what I want to watch and yet, increasingly, what I am watching. If winning's so important to you that anything can be justified, that's fine. Carry on. But I reserve the right to snort derisively whenever one of our players takes an elaborate tumble, and to suggest that they'd probably be better off concentrating on playing some actual football. I don't know much. But I know what I hate.

And, like I say, it's an awful shame, because this was a fairly terrific match, in the main. The result might've been determined by other means, but both sides, in different spells, put forward convincing and assertive cases for their continued presence in the playoff positions in 2006: Palace were far superior in the first half, but a very impressive resurgence after the break damn nearly resulted in a home victory too. Given the tendency for matches at this level to degenerate into pointless bashing and crashing, it represented genuinely compelling drama, even if it was never allowed to reach crescendo.

Really, we must learn to start better. As at Millwall, and as on too many recent occasions, we were dreadfully cautious in the opening stages, handing the initiative to our opponents simply by failing to grab it ourselves. On this evidence, Palace are a good outfit - tight and organised at the back, competitive in midfield, quick-witted up front - and they weren't slow to take control; by the time that Adrian Boothroyd replaced an ineffective Matthew Spring - emphatically not a wide midfielder, if this is any guide - with Ashley Young after half an hour, we were a goal down and going nowhere.

To the untrained eye, the problems weren't particularly obvious. We were just marginally off the pace, and were being punished for it: Palace took their cue from other visitors, lofting early balls behind our somewhat ponderous defensive pairing and letting their pacey strikers stretch their legs. Not especially pretty - although much as it pains me to say it, the implementation had a little more class than, say, the Albion version of a few weeks ago - but effective enough, and worthy of a very comfortable half-time lead.

That lead came from a set piece: the free kick following the aforementioned nonsense between Lloyd Doyley and Johnson, whose apparently imminent demise was miraculously halted, possibly, by the sudden realisation that he's actually paid to stand on his feet rather than roll around in the mud. Or possibly not. Whatever, the cross was flicked through to the far post, knocked back across goal, and the familiar figure of Darren Ward scored from a yard. To be honest, though, it had been threatened for a little while, from a variety of sources. A couple of corners had looked dangerous, Ben Foster far from convincing, before Popovic had wasted a headed chance as if in surprise at not being offside on the six yard line. For us, Marlon King had imperiously turned to not-so-imperiously fire into the Vic Road end, but inspiration was otherwise scarce.

The subsequent stalemate suited Palace rather than more than ourselves, naturally. Particularly as the promise to break through our offside trap was always there, never quite realised until the thirty-fourth minute, when Johnson's burst past Malky Mackay teed up McAnuff on the edge of the box. He had so much time, so much space...and only an excellent save from Ben Foster, scrambling down to his left to divert the ball around the post, prevented the lead from being extended. The corner was cleared, returned, and Foster was again alert when Johnson's driven cross was deflected goalwards by Mackay's knee. Aware that the game was slipping away, the manager had made a decisive, urgent substitution. There was still only one team in it, though.

In truth, we probably did well to trail only by one goal at the break. The increasing bad temper of the contest bought us a little time, perhaps, although Ben Foster still needed to save from a low free kick (the product of another Johnson tumble...really, it's a wonder that he can get out of bed without falling over) and block Morrison's follow-up. And the rather more positive side of Johnson's game surfaced in an instinctive attempt at lobbing Foster from forty yards in injury time as James Chambers and Malky Mackay allowed a long ball to drop between them, and he was unfortunate to see the effort beat the stranded keeper before skidding wide of the post. All Palace, really. No argument.

But we put forward a much more forceful and convincing challenge in the second half, playing with an aggression that had previously been lacking and causing Palace to look considerably less composed. We began positively, getting the previously anonymous Anthony McNamee onto the ball, bringing the looming presence of Darius Henderson into play, nearly sniffing out an opening for Marlon King. Three minutes in, and Macker's cross was headed on by Henderson, and Marlon King controlled superbly between two defenders, turning them inside out before prodding a low shot just wide. A long time to wait for our first meaningful attempt on goal, but not too late.

From there, we forced our way back into the game. True, we needed Ben Foster to pull off a slightly panicky save when Leigertwood attempted a curling chip from the corner of the area, the keeper back-peddling hurriedly to tip over the bar...but we were suddenly a presence, a threat. We were disputing everything, making it difficult. And we scored just by being urgent about our business: Gavin Mahon belting a free kick forward while the Palace defence was still taking shape, Marlon King rising to flick on, Darius Henderson charging onto it and smashing a superb left-footed finish past Kiraly without hesitation. Not a subtle goal, but direct and decisive and hugely invigorating.

Game on, then. We had our confidence back, the visitors suddenly looking more than a little nervous. Within five minutes, Ashley Young's in-swinging cross from the left was taking another flick from the towering head of Henderson, and Clarke Carlisle, arriving to meet the ball at the far post, simply had to score. And didn't score, denied, astonishingly, by some part of Kiraly's sprawling body. But here was the crescendo, noise building from the Rookery as our attacks became more coherent, more penetrating, forming around Henderson's physical presence and perceptive touch.

Here was the crescendo, deflated immediately by Morrison's pathetic dive in response to a slight tug from Clarke Carlisle as the pair contested Johnson's cross. "Clinton had his shirt pulled," says Iain Dowie, in the full and unspoken knowledge that he wouldn't have won a penalty if he hadn't fallen over dramatically while simultaneously turning to the referee in frantic appeal. And thus it continues, forever. Boring. Try to stifle a yawn as Johnson smashes the penalty down the middle and runs away to celebrate, clear conscience, professionalism intact. "That's just football, innit." Yeah, it is. And it's f***ing rubbish.

No crescendo, then. Although we continued to make a very decent fist of a second comeback attempt, some of the momentum had been lost. Marlon King's twisting header from Ashley Young's cross floated tamely to Kiraly, and when an unmarked, slightly stunned Young failed to make any contact with an Anthony McNamee centre with fifteen minutes remaining, you rather knew that it wasn't going to happen. Still, we were playing some of the most fluent, exciting football that I - as a Southampton absentee - have seen us produce for some considerable time, and were again unfortunate when a flowing move - Al Bangura chipping wide to Ashley Young, whose classy touch and immediate cross was knocked back by Anthony McNamee for Marlon King on the penalty spot - ended with nothing more than a shot into the keeper's chest.

It deserved more. Really, you wouldn't want to exaggerate the injustice too much - despite the second half revival, Palace were so much better before then - but it nevertheless felt wrong, somehow. We deserved to be beaten fairly, at least. Or, perhaps, we deserved to get something tangible from the later stages of the game, even if we might not have had that opportunity without some charity from our opponents. Whatever, this was much better, much more promising. It was urgent and intense and concentrated, and it felt like a team effort; a significant step up from the tawdry, it'll-just-about-do mediocrity of recent performances. It merited a more stirring finale than watching Palace change three players in injury time, perhaps the slowest, most spirit-sapping substitutions that I've ever seen.

It hurt, this. Not fatally, but certainly more than a little. Perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps we need something to shake us out of relative complacency, to provide some contrast. Some focus and common sense, especially tomorrow.

A victory for cynicism, then. A victory for Crystal Palace. It's nothing to envy, though.