By Matt Rowson
There is an air of something approaching hysteria inside Vicarage Road.
Advice on early arrival has broadly been heeded; an hour to go and the stands are already well populated. As kickoff approaches a degree of nervous tension is being released in the Rookery... inflatable clappers given out by sponsors are being branded as weapons, employed as makeshift badminton rackets with balloons cavorting above our heads as shuttlecocks, and being used for their intended purpose. Those pursuing the latter option are discovering that keeping time with such unwieldy instruments is no trivial matter, resulting in a cacophony of noise befitting of the restless anticipation.
Barring the Lower Rous, Vicarage Road has never been more yellow. Not quite as impressive as the magnificent Highbury send-off at the weekend, but still a stunning sight. The ploy of relegating our visitors to seating along the edge of the pitch, spread out and a long way below a roof has paid dividends... much frantic, synchronised arm movement suggests that the Eagles' fans are giving it some, but no audible evidence of this reaches us in the Rookery. Even on rare pauses between Watford chants on an evening that surely rivals any for atmosphere at Vicarage Road, the Palace songs reach us as a distant murmur.
The match begins in similarly frantic vein... the onus is on our visitors to attack, of course, and they make a reasonable fist of taking the game to us but their attacks are caught up in the blustery turbulence of the atmosphere and are initially wild and uncontrolled... a long and quickly taken Fitz Hall throw threatens to cause havoc but Johnson discovers that the space and time to control a bouncing ball is not something he'll be able to count on this evening.
Watford attack down the right, and King sends a ball into Kiraly's arms. The speed with which Kiraly locates an attacking outlet down the Palace right betrays their urgency, but like so many of their attacks that are to follow the suggestion of impetus is smothered before it has a chance to develop. Shortly later Jay Demerit and Lloyd Doyley team up to mug Andrew Johnson in the corner between the Rookery and the Main Stand, the successful robbing of the striker met with raucous approval.
Palace are in for a long evening. The Watford side, with Bangura protecting the back four, is designed to smother and frustrate; every Palace attacker seems to be double-teamed as soon as he gains possession, and when Watford break it's with pace and menace. King turns ominously and plays in Young who scampers towards the Vicarage Road end before being muscled off the ball and Palace start to build again. Dougie Freedman goes down under a challenge on the halfway line and protests at his lack of profit, desperation seeping in already. Ten minutes have gone.
The evening's pattern has been set. Palace have all the possession, but are being smothered at every turn. Watford occasionally gain possession and just run off with the bloody thing. I'm reminded of a couple of University mates visiting during a holiday, and our dog making off with Kirstie the Goth's fags. Thoroughly, playfully aggravating.
Malky Mackay and Jay Demerit set down their markers in the first leg and are equally, unremittingly unforgiving here. Mackay beats two Palace heads to a Tom Soares cross, Palace have a rare half-sight of goal as Jobi McAnuff meets the loose ball on the edge of the area but his half volley clears the bar by several feet. The Eagles aren't forcing more than glimpses of goal and much as the atmosphere might have changed had they gotten a break, such a break doesn't look likely. Hughes adroitly plays Freedman in, Foster is alert to clear with his head.
And so it continues. Palace get a small break when a loose ball deflects favourably off Dougie Freedman's heel, but yet again their progress is halted and Hughes scythes Ashley Young down in frustration. Tom Soares charges goalwards, but the eighteen year old (I mean, crikey, this guy will be a player) Al Bangura Bobby Moores him and calmly progresses upfield. Freedman's chip releases Johnson but with Mackay's considerable presence applying pressure Foster charges out and gets something to it to clear. This is as close as the visitors have come.
Matt Spring goes down on halfway after a challenge by Tom Soares. It's left to Ashley Young to put the ball out, which he does by sending it long for a Palace goal kick. Inexplicably, play is restarted after Spring has received attention with a Palace throw-in inside their own half, and the ball isn't returned to the Hornets.
Palace switch the play from left to right and we look like being opened up for the first time... Hall's loping gait stretches our play and Lloyd Doyley is caught with two men, both Hall and the hugely impressive Emmerson Boyce on the overlap. A good ball and we are exposed, but not for the last time this evening Hall's distribution lets him down, he overhits the pass inside Doyley and the chance is lost. Hall, incidentally, cost Palace more than we paid for our entire starting eleven, and three times as much as anyone in our squad.
This is a much easier game for us than for Palace; nonetheless the Eagles aren't rolling over, and the level of concentration demanded of and delivered by the Hornets is terrifying. We win a rare corner; Palace leave Johnson and McAnuff stretched on the half way line. Lloyd Doyley calls Chambers back, with Ali Bang Bang again patrolling in front of them. Any rushed clearance isn't going to find a Palace runner in a hurry. Instead, Stewart receives the ball short and flicks a cross to the far post. Demerit heads it back into the mix where Popovic, crucially, beats Mackay to the ball.
Minutes later the Australian is up in our penalty box, forcing a corner as Foster misses a cross under his challenge and Chambers clears. From the corner, however, the ball breaks for Chambers who belts off half the length of the pitch before clouting the ball excitedly into the yellow shirts in the Vicarage Road end with King in space to his left. This is kinda the game we expected.
McAnuff tries a shot from outside the area, beginning to gamble. It could have gone anywhere, but Demerit's backside takes the pace off it and Foster collects. Then King robs Popovic on the halfway line and is gone, Palace's worst nightmare about to unfold until a blinding tackle from behind (Hall?) arrests his progress.
Johnson escapes from Bangura on the halfway line and the youngster, losing control for the first time this evening, picks up a yellow for a late lunge. It could have been worse... a minute later Popovic plays a fine ball over the area to Freedman alone on the right flank; he delays and is closed down by Stewart but finds Hughes who is hacked down on the edge of the box. Bangura again, as Popovic is quick to point out, but we get away with it. So too the resultant free kick, which finds its way through to Popovic who is denied by an awesome tackle by Mackay, no less awesome for the offside flag that rendered it academic. The half ends.
Lucky half time chocolate: Bounty
Reason: Stood for some time in the Newsagents staring at the chocolate display. Bounty felt right.
Level of success: Having gotten to half time goalless, we didn't need much in the way of luck. All things considered, the jury is still out...
The second half, as might be expected, starts off in similar vein to that in which the first ended, but the air has changed subtly. As a ball out of defence drops over Palace's high backline Marlon King attempts to navigate a way through a number of Palace bodies, only apparently to be tripped by Emmerson Boyce. Had Palace found a goal from somewhere in the first half they might have had something to chase, but there's altogether less belief about their second half performance and this show of petulance is mirrored in a more resigned approach to the game from our visitors. McAnuff drags a shot wide, tired of futile attempts to work a proper opening, and then turns away with his head down as the cat calls come again from the yellow stands. The vigour in the Watford ranks has, contrastingly, redoubled at the break, a ferocious tackle by Mahon stopping yet another fledgling Palace attack in its tracks.
Another development is the apparent policy of allowing Fitz Hall as much time on the ball as he fancies, and he duly delivers with a skewed pass into touch to much appreciation. Our own attacks are more than mere tiresome irritants now, and with Palace having to commit forward there's a lot more space at this end of the pitch. Marlon hares down the right and his low near post cross narrowly evades James Chambers, who has made up a ridiculous amount of ground to be anywhere near it. Palace then come closer than they have done up to now, Fitz Hall getting his head to a right wing cross that briefly suggests a threat before drifting wide. And then it all goes mental.
Betty and Ian Dowie have both been perched nervously on the edge of their technical areas, Dowie all demonstrative, frustrated gestures, Betty more edgily attentive. The ball drifts out for a Watford throw, we see Betty stoop for it, Fitz Hall gives him a shove and that's about it as far as what is clearly discernible from the Rookery is concerned. Beyond the fact that pretty much everyone in both teams and sets of staff, plus a goodly number of stewards and officials, are involved in an almighty melee. I manage to miss Fitz Hall's yellow card, but do see Betty disappearing to a ferocious salute from the majority of onlookers, the already frenetic atmosphere now raised several further notches. Later in the half Betty is spotted behind the dugout in the stands, which speculative conversation suggests that he hasn't actually been dismissed. With the FA due to review video evidence, this one might not be over with Big Doris, someone who you really wouldn't want a face-off with, perhaps nervously awaiting the outcome. Less nervous Marlon King, who our own video review later on reveals as retaining his incredible focus and calming down his own manager.
The one disinterested party in all of this chaos is, of course, the ball, lying forgotten near the centre circle. Aware perhaps of the futility of the evening from his side's point of view and unable to resist the obvious temptation, a member of the Palace fraternity makes a run for it, takes possession and charges off towards the Vicarage Road end with a steward following in his wake. He finds the net too in what proves to be Palace's only on-target attempt of the evening, and then disappears from view; one hopes that the provider of some much needed light relief won't suffer too severely for his indiscretion.
Palace make their third substitution; having seen a series of attacking changes badly backfire on Saturday Dowie has swapped like-for-like up to now, but finally brings on winger Marco Reich for Tony Popovic. Having been heavily involved in the fracas himself, a factor that may have contributed to his nonetheless thoroughly gracious post-match assessment, Dowie is now a focus of the crowd's attention. If he knew the score, he wasn't letting on.
With still fewer bodies at the back for Palace, there's yet more scope for our counter-attacks. The indefatigable Chambers forces a corner on our right, Stewart is teed up by Young and feeds King whose scissors-kick would have brought the house down had it been narrowly inside rather than outside the post. Up the other end and an excellent cross by Reich from the left is met by Macken, whose header clears the bar by inches. This is as close as Palace are to come all night though... Andy Johnson's last sniff shortly afterwards is stamped on by the imperious Demerit, who over the two games has thoroughly exorcised any ghosts lingering from our earlier visit to Selhurst.
Al Bangura, who has done well to retain his discipline following his earlier booking, dinks a ball through for King which he has to take with the outside of his right foot and sends wide. Palace's last hurrah comes from one of our own players, as Mahon's header to McAnuff's cross loses everyone before being cleared.
The final throes, though, are our own. Henderson, on for Chambers and raging after every loose ball, bullies the hapless Hall by the cornerflag into prodding a weak backpass across to Kiraly. King snarls in, aware that the keeper is unable to pick the ball up, and nearly capitalises by sending a shot rolling past the post. King, again, finds space on the left and roars in on goal before being felled on the edge of the area by McAnuff. Palace have finally given up the ghost, and at the final whistle Marlon and Ashley are still chasing possession down in Palace's half.
A quite monumental effort, all in all. A Watford goal would have put the cherry on an already ample cake, but in some ways a nil nil is just so brutally efficient that it's no less satisfying. Palace, with their England striker and perhaps the most lauded strikeforce in the division, came needing to chase the game and score at least three goals. Such was our doggedness, organisation, ferocity however that Ben Foster had not one save to make in the entire match.
Hugely satisfying, then. An equally fractious encounter with an even more abrasive opponent awaits, one suspects, but Palace were the favourites for the play-offs, and over two legs we demolished them, as comprehensively here as we had on Saturday.
Bring on the Leeds.