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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two Play-off Semi-Final 1st Leg, 06/05/06, 12.15pm
Crystal Palace
Leading at half-time
By Frances Lynn

I haven't slept for a week. The ambivalent feelings that I've had all season about the prospect of Premiership football next year have disappeared and been replaced by an overwhelming desire to see this wonderful group of lads playing 'where they should be'.

The final push of publicity for the Play-off Banner had got us past the thousand mark and the end product was absolutely magnificent. Adrian had graciously agreed to let us present it to the players at the training ground on Thursday. I think everyone at the club was surprised when they saw the sheer size and professionalism of the banner. It was lovely to see Betty and the lads reading the messages and the manager was insistent that it be displayed at the ground in the run-up to Tuesday's game. I left London Colney that day with an impression of the gaffer's steely determination in the preparations for the game. I was only there for a brief period, but even the photo call with the banner had Adrian giving the players their instructions and setting expectations.

Friday night was spent shredding Yellow Pages and watching the footage of the pre-season Fans' Forum, with Betty's inspirational words having a very different effect on me than they did at the time. COME ON!

Starting out on the train from Windsor through the Surrey countryside on Saturday morning, my bright yellow shirt looked somewhat out of place. At Clapham Junction I joined the train to Thornton Heath and found it was full of Horns, then spotted a familiar face and made the final leg of the journey to the ground with Howard and his son. Pre-match consensus was a 1-1 draw and a win at the Vic on Tuesday. A 1-0 defeat would also have been considered acceptable.

As the time passed until kick-off, our party gathered to find that, despite having put four applications in together, one of the seats we had been allocated was in a different block. Musical chairs and the fact that Don was to be allowed to stay in his wheelchair on the concourse found us down near the front. Our neighbour there was a guy I've seen on numerous away trips, but only know as 'Grandad'. Farzana was very impressed at the streamers with which the Palace fans had adorned the stand to our left. Not so impressed at the display of coloured cards from them just before kick-off. The blue was not quite right!

The players came out to a stream of ticker tape and loud cheers from the traveling Horns, which didn't stop all game. While the Palace players were in their pre-match huddle, the Watford players were standing in a row by the half-way line, arms around shoulders staring at the opposition. A phalanx of Golden Heroes ready for the battle.

The game kicked off and not one person in our stand sat down as we sang our hearts out. I was a bit worried about 'Grandad', but he looked quite happy standing there leaning on his walking stick. We had the first decent chance of the game. Marlon broke through and Kiraly had to pull off a good save to deny him. That was our best chance of the half. There was an ebb and flow to the game possession-wise, but Palace looked a lot more dangerous in front of goal. Johnson and Morrison both had shots that were only just wide and McAnuff had a good shot pushed around the post by Ben Foster. Farzana turned to me with a worried look on her face - 'We could be 3-0 down'; I smiled ruefully but my first thought was, 'Yes. But we are not!'

At half-time, a message was relayed from Simon Jordan that the crowd needed to keep up their great support (yeah, right) and roar Palace on to victory. Then, just before the players came out for the second half, the announcer came on and started them off in a chant. I believe that was the last time we heard them singing. As soon as the teams ran out for the second half, the traveling Horns started the singing again and didn't stop until after the game.

The second half started with Al Bangura running on with a huge smile on his face to replace Darius Henderson. A comment came from behind me about us becoming defensive. A minute later that comment was shoved down the speaker's throat as a long punt from Foster reached Marlon on the edge of the box, he twisted past Darren Ward and put a shot in. It looked to be going wide until it hit the inside of the far post and then was nestling in the back of the net. The Watford contingent went absolutely mental. Farzana and I were leaping up and down, screaming and hugging each other, then she was hugging Grandad. Our confidence levels rose. A couple of minutes later Foster did well to push a header from Popovic over the top.

As the half continued, something odd happened. The Palace players started aimlessly hoofing the ball forward. All the confidence and creativity that they'd had in the first half had completely disappeared. And any time they did try to play, there were at least two yellow shirts in attendance stifling them. These were the players all the pundits had tipped for promotion. Been there and done it. The weight of expectation had the opposite effect, though, as once we went ahead their nerve seemed to go.

Mid-way through the second half we got a free kick in a dangerous position. I was imploring him from the stands, 'Come on Ashley, a wonder strike, please.' Ashley obliged. An absolutely incredible free-kick. Why Kiraly screamed at his defence, I have no idea. They would have had to be eight feet tall to have had any chance of stopping it. At that point, the Palace players' heads dropped completely, they never really looked like coming back into it, despite a purple patch with about twenty minutes to go when Foster made another good save with his legs from Boyce. We deserved the clean sheet, though, as the defence was immense. And then the icing on the cake. Spring, who hadn't had the best of games, got the ball just outside the box, took it inside and, instead of taking the sensible option and passing to Eagles to his left, he fired a powerful left foot shot. To the total disbelief of everyone in the ground, it is 3-0 and the smiles of the Watford fans were not to leave our faces all the way home. The Palace fans streamed for the exits.

The final whistle went and the Watford fans roared again. The players ran over to applaud and celebrate with us. And then Betty impresses again as he pats the players on their backs and calmly sends them back to the changing rooms. The expression on his face says so far so good, but we've won nothing yet. Once they are all heading back, he turns and give us the pumped fists and the smile.

As we leave the ground, there are smiles and hugs and kisses from friends and acquaintances. A couple of Palace fans come over and congratulate us and wish us well for Cardiff (and they mean it). The first of a very gracious home support that we met, but not the last.

We find a pub for a celebratory pint. It is full of Watford fans and a guy I've never seen before asks to be pinched so he can be sure he really did experience what he thought he did. And there are songs and huge grins on the faces of all in yellow shirts. My throat is hurting and my hands are raw. And I know that I need to rest up for the next couple of days, as I need to be fresh so I can sing and clap equally hard on Tuesday. It is by no means over yet. But 3-0 at half-time? I'll take that, thank-you very much.