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98/99: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 1, 28/11/98
Crystal Palace 2(1)
Scorers: Tuttle (33), Curcic (75 pen)
Watford 2(2)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 3, Page 4, *Palmer 5*, Robinson 4, Smart 3, Hyde 4, Noel-Williams 3, Johnson 4, Wright 4
Subs: Ngonge (for Noel-Williams) 2, Gudmundsson, Mooney (for Smart) 0
Scorers: Wright (23), Kennedy (26)
Report by Ian Grant

I could approach this in any one of three ways.

I could devote some space to the festering hatred of Palace that lurks unhealthily somewhere in my psyche. I could note how pleasing it is to find that the years since our last friendly get-together have only seen their Premiership-quality snobbery become even more odious - no signs that they're about to do a Leicester and disrupt the natural order of the world by coming over all likeable.

Or I could deliver a lecture on the evils of cheating, an extremely topical subject bearing in mind that the match turned on a cynical, pre-meditated dive. There's nothing quite so heart-breaking as being robbed of a glorious victory by the arrogance of referee-conning.

But, really, the third introduction is the only option. Once again, the players deserve more than concentration on the opposition. To write about Palace would be to ignore the brilliance of this Watford team - and, anyway, I'd rather describe glittering diamonds than stinky turds. As someone whose attendance at away games is fairly feeble, I've clearly missed facets of our play. We all know the blistering, skilful side to this season but, damn, there's some fire in their bellies when it's needed. In a match that was sometimes little more than a running punch-up, we retained both a semblance of Taylor discipline and, more crucially, the organisation to deny Palace three points in a backs-to-the-wall second half. It was tremendous.

During previous false dawns, Watford sides have looked good enough when faced with certain, set problems but have been unable to adapt to new challenges. Think about that first season in Division Two, when we spent months trying to figure out how to beat the uniform 'defend deep, hit on the break' tactics of visitors to Vicarage Road. But this is different, this lot appear to have the complete arsenal. To repeat what Matt Bunner said last week, we are third on merit.

Oh, how I wanted this. I don't live in Watford anymore; the Herts-Beds rivalry is kinda distant to me, a tradition to follow rather than something born of personal geography. You see, were it not for football, I would never even have been to Luton, its existence would've made no impact on me. Croydon, on the other hand, is the place where my life began and, thanks to age-old two-way animosity with 'poncy' Brighton, provides a very satisfying target for scorn. So, for me, Watford versus Palace offers a much more heart-felt local derby, something to get my teeth into. This was so, so nearly the win that I'd dreamt of.

Classic match, regardless. One of those games that slip by, utterly engrossing even if the notebook isn't in constant use. The first fifteen minutes disappeared in a flash of nothing and everything, both sides jostling for position amid a furiously paced storm of mis-placed passes and bruising challenges. Gone are the days when a Watford away performance involved almost sheepish deference to our hosts. Game on.

This was never going to be easy. Palace's home record speaks for itself; their array of fashionable and expensive names, lured to Surrey by the promise of better times, isn't just hot air. The Watford rearguard had to be at its best throughout and, from the moment when Lombardo's connection with a Morrison cross was disturbed by the attentions of several defenders, it proved to be so. Petric's low drive from a free kick was booted clear by Steve Palmer four minutes later, then Alec Chamberlain's collection of a harmless header was disrupted by a foul challenge.

So there hadn't been that much happening in the final third for the Hornets prior to Nick Wright's opener. But our forward play is currently of sufficient quality that we don't need to rely on the law of averages. The days of twenty attacks for every goal are also consigned to the dustbin of Watford history.

A lovely goal too, as beautifully forged in its own way as any we've scored this season. Allan Smart's speed of thought dragged him unnoticed out to the left corner as a sleepy Palace defence waited for Peter Kennedy to take a throw-in, Kennedy reacted quickly enough to find him before the burglar alarm went off. Smart's cross was perfect, Wright strained every muscle to direct the header goalwards, Digby watched helplessly as the ball flicked off the underside of the bar and rippled the net. If that's crude long ball, mine's a double.

The gap between goals was short, but still long enough for Bradbury to have a drive deflected over and Chamberlain to field a shot from the resulting corner. Then, delirium. Wright charged down the wing to cross, the ball flying through the six yard box after getting a flick from Smart. At the far post, Kennedy lurked unmarked. His shot from a tight angle somehow squeezed between Digby and the upright to be greeted by absolute ecstasy in the away section. Two goals up at Selhurst - Christ, are there no limits?

Crucially, the advantage didn't last until half-time. As Rizzo's left wing free kick was headed in by Tuttle, with the considerable aid of a deflection, so any thoughts of a stress-free second half evaporated. Nick Wright failed to make the most of a chance to re-gain the sense of security, heading wide from another left wing cross, before Bradbury shot over from the edge of the box and Lombardo hooked an effort off-target.

If the first half offered absorbing entertainment and two moments of riotous, poke-in-the-eye joy, the second was just pure, shuddering drama. An assault on the senses, the kind of thing that leaves you overwhelmed and stunned to silence at the final whistle.

We expected a Palace onslaught, we got a Palace onslaught. The papers will have said that we surrendered a two goal lead. Nonsense - we surrendered nothing, contested everything. Most teams would've been swept away in a raging flood of Eagles attacks; most teams would've left Selhurst on the depressing side of 4-2. We are not most teams.

It began early, Bradbury cutting inside and sending in a shot that was deflected over once again - a fine example of our constantly obdurate defence. Two corners followed, the second half-cleared to Foster, all alone on the penalty spot, who blasted over when he should've scored.

But the real contest was yet to begin. After fifteen minutes, Palace broke quickly into the Watford half with Lombardo on a charge at the defence. Unable to catch him, Paul Robinson appeared to, erm, catch him and he went down. What followed was mayhem, scuffles breaking out all over and three bookings (Robinson, Page and Lombardo) before play was eventually resumed. 'Play' is perhaps the wrong word, though, because we were suddenly flung into the middle of the most thunderous battle, tackles crashing in on and off the ball as grudges were pursued. Palace picked their way through the debris to go all out for the equaliser.

Alec Chamberlain only made one save, though. It was a good 'un, mind, low to his right to push away Foster's low drive. Two minutes afterwards, more astonishing action. A right wing cross bounced all the way through to Lombardo. He had time to control the ball, take it inside for a better angle as Chamberlain sprinted from his line and thump in a shot that was certain to level the scores. Except it didn't - it smacked off the foot of the post, rebounding as far as your average defensive clearance.

If that incident made it seem that our luck was in, the feeling wasn't to last. A smart move down the left ended with Curcic just inside the area, marked by Darren Bazeley. One thought in his mind and it wasn't to go for goal, he darted towards the line and sprawled on the ground. The video replay reveals that there was no contact worthy of leaving a grown man and his stupid beard flat on his face - Bazeley had been turned, he wasn't even looking at Curcic, let alone sticking a leg out to trip him. For a hopeful second, as the referee rushed decisively forward, it seemed that Curcic was about to get booked for diving.

Not so, sadly. Further scuffles as enraged Watford players surrounded Curcic to remonstrate with him, the referee sticking by his hideous error. One of those moments when you just feel choked by anger, screaming frustration at anyone and everyone while the penalty is converted, Chamberlain getting a hand to it to amplify the anguish.

Curcic can rot in hell. If he's happy to finish a match with no-one wanting to shake his hand, then no amount of condemnation will make a difference. Asswipe. His gestures of innocence in response to some vengeful verbals from Bazeley just demonstrated that cheating is now part of the game - you can dive for a penalty, then demand and receive protection from the referee. Thing is, of course, that if this bastardisation of what we love is to stop, fans have to play a part - that means condemning our own for the same thing; that means telling Ronny Rosenthal, Nicky Wright and Tommy Mooney to stay on their feet.

You get paid professional wages, so act like f***ing professionals.

The rest was exhausting - both sides striving for a winner in vain amid the kind of acrimony that usually leads to a red card or two. Wright skipped brilliantly past tackles to put in a cross that was cleared; Curcic shot over, booed all the while; Kennedy had a free kick that went close. In truth, however, such incidents were no more than croutons in the great, thick soup of the match. A murderous, chaotic climax to a great match.

Gutted afterwards, of course. Whatever the reality, the knowledge that shared points was another fine result and all we could reasonably claim, it felt savagely disappointing. Yeah, Palace were worth the draw; no, they couldn't get it without resorting to...ah, sod it....

Let's not end on a sour note, let's give Steve Palmer the praise he deserves instead. In ninety minutes of x-rated violence, Palmer was immaculate. He closed his mind to whatever aggro was going on around him and simply got on with the job, winning so much in the air, giving the Palace forwards no room to work with and no lapses to exploit. I've always said that I rate him more as a defensive midfielder than a centre back - but this was vintage Palmer, whatever the position. Exemplary in every respect.

So, hey, no reason to be down-hearted. They did me proud in the attempt. I can wait.

See also: The Crystal Palace Web Pages, SE25