Good morning folks. He were are, one day away from the Playoff Semi Final first leg against ‘The Weed at Selhurst Park. Feeling confident? I am. The atmosphere tomorrow inside the ground should be absolutely rocking, plus we have the added bonus of laughing at all the Tesco jester hats and inflatable seagulls our friends from the South coast are bringing along. I’ll be previewing the game tomorrow morning, but for the time being here is the final part of my Crystal Palace FC playoff history – arguably the best of the lot…
2003/2004 Division One Playoffs
If you think this season was a roller coaster of emotions for all Palace fans, then 2003/4 was the ‘big dipper’. There are plenty of comparisons between the two seasons as well. The season started with a Palace legend at the helm – Stevie Kember had finally been given the job on a full time basis after a couple of memorable stints as caretaker boss. Where as this season started with three straight defeats, the 2003/4 season started brilliantly. Wins away at Burnley and Wimbledon, and a home win against Watford put Palace top of the league with maximum points after three games, Kember was lauded as a hero and Simon Jordan had one of his smug grins on. Then it all went wrong.
A run of one win (at home to Cardiff) in 13 games, culminating in the televised 0-5 hammering by Wigan Athletic cost Kember his job. Lets put things in perspective. Palace had never played Wigan before and they were playing second tier football for the first time in their history. Even though the game was a 12:00 kick off and it was live on Sky, I decided to make the trip to the game – probably one of the worst Palace related decisions of my life. Palace were simply torn apart by an efficient and powerful Wigan side. Kember simply had to go, and two days later, Simon Jordan put the Palace hero out of his misery.
Kit Symons was tasked with keeping the sinking ship afloat. Results didn’t pick up immediately, but one win, three draws and 2 defeats from his first 6 games was still an improvement. It wasn’t until the visit of Nottingham Forest in mid-December that things started looking up. Kit recalled Julian Gray to the side – The chairman had gone on record to state that he would never play for the club again – and Palace picked up a crucial 1-0 win thanks to an Andy Johnson strike.
The televised game with Reading was up next, and rumuors were circulating that Iain Dowie was to the next boss. Palace took high flying Reading apart, two from AJ and one from academy starlet Wayne Routledge gave Palace a comprehensive 3-0 win. The contrast between the two televised performances was as stark as you could possibly imagine and Palace were out of the bottom 3. Dowie’s first game was the Boxing Day visit of Millwall. Palace did everything but score – missed a penalty, hit the wordwork about 400 times and found Tony Warner in the best form of his life. Somehow we managed to lose the game 1-0, but the signs of recovery were evident for all to see as we trudged back to our families for leftover turkey disappointed, but feeling that a corner had been turned.
In fact, Palace hadn’t just turned the corner, they had sped round it like Nigel Mansell in his heyday – 6 wins in the next 7, with 22 goals being scored was a remarkable spell. It included a 5-1 win at Watford, where Palace simply purred and Julian Gray scored one of the goals of the season. The 6-3 ‘St Valentines Day Masacre’ of Stoke City at Selhurst was a joy to behold – particularly Wayne’s last minute ‘Zidane turn’ goal. Of the 22 goals scored in this run, Andy Johnson hit 10 of them, including a hat-trick in the Stoke game. AJ was a goal machine and Palace were flying.
Defeats to Derby, Forest and West Brom on the road appeared to have dented Palace’s hopes of steaming into the playoff places. Another run of 6 wins in 7, including another AJ hat-trick up at Gresty Road put Palace well and truly in the frame going into the last game of the season at Coventry. A win would do it for the Eagles, thanks to a Tommy Black ‘stumble’ in the box and a penalty rebound from AJ in the 86th minute to vanquish Walsall.
In typical Palace fashion, we lost at Coventry. The dream appeared to be over. However news filtered through that Brian Deane had scored for West Ham against Wigan to drop them out of the playoff places and put Palace back in. Palace finished the season in 6th place and would play 3rd place Sunderland. West Ham, who finished 4th would play 5th placed Ipswich Town.
Palace had beaten Sunderland 3-0 at Selhurst just 4 weeks before the first leg in one of the most complete performances of the season – rounded off by a Dougie Freedman wonder goal, so confidence was high in the build up to the game. A goal-less first half played at breakneck speed saw both sides have good chances, with Julian Gray blazing over Palace’s best of the half. 6 minutes into the second period it was Mick McCarthy’s side who drew first blood as Marcus Stewart tucked away a spot kick after Tony Popovic fouled Carl Robinson inside the box.
Palace hit back immediately when Neil Shipperley headed the Eagles level from a Danny Granville cross and Selhurst was rocking again. The game calmed down and Dowie’s men settled into a nice rhythm and took the lead when Danny Butterfield’s drive deflected off former Liverpool man Phil Babb’s heel and nestled into the bottom corner of Mart Poom’s net. Palace’s lead was short lived as big Kevin Kyle found space inside the Eagles’ box to level matters after Aki failed to clear.
Andy Johnson then took centre stage and hit a low drive beyond Poom for his 32nd goal of the season to restore Palace’s lead, and with away goals not counting in the playoffs by this point, Dowie’s men took a one goal lead into the 2nd leg at the Stadium of Light.
If you thought the first leg was packed with drama, and it certainly was, nothing could have prepared you for the ups and downs of the 2nd match. Palace outplayed Sunderland for all but three minutes of the first half, but somehow found themselves two goals down thanks to strikes from the scorers in the first game, Kyle and Stewart. In typical Palace fashion they had gone from controlling the game and looking likely winners to devastation in the space of three minutes.
Julian Gray, the man who’s return the team earlier in the season from exile was instrumental in Palace’s run to the playoffs was dismissed for a lunge on Jason McAteer and Dowie’s men looked doomed. Enter Darren Powell who had been out injured since October. As the fourth official’s board showed 4 minutes of injury time, Palace won a corner after Shaun Derry’s freekick was saved by Mart Poom. Derry ran across to take the set piece and delivered to the back post where Powell rose highest to head beyond the keeper and send the travelling Palace fans and those watching back in South London into ecstasy, Palace had done it at the death and now extra time beckoned.
Extra time was a battle, Palace only had 10 men, but somehow we survived the onslaught from the Black Cats and the game was to be decided by a penalty shoot out. The shoot out turned into a mini drama all of its own. With the scores locked at 4-4, McAteer missed giving Wayne Routledge the chance to win it for Palace. His kick was saved. Jeff Whitley made the strange decision to try and dink one, which Nico Vaesen easily saved, prompting Mick to boot a water bottle half way to Newcastle. Michael Hughes stepped up and found the net to send Palace into the final after the most tense of evenings. The Palace players celebrated and the travelling fans, some of whom had chartered a plane to get the to North East sung “We’re proud of you”. We were, and we still are.
The final would pit the Eagles against West Ham United at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday on Saturday 29th May. The build up to the game was dominated by over confident West Ham fans, former players and pundits talking as if the result was a foregone conclusion – none more so than Tony Gayle on Sky Sports News on the morning of the game – no one really gave Dowie’s men a chance. As we travelled down the M4 on the way to the match the number of limos with Hammers scarfs trailing from the window suggested the fans were in confident mood.
The game went by in a blur. Nico Vaesen made a fantastic save from Bobby Zamora early on, and again from Steve Lomas in the 57th minute as the former Manchester City midfielders 25 yard volley seemed destined for the top corner. Despite West Ham having the better of the chances it was Palace who took the lead on the hour mark. Andy Johnson, who, as the commentary goes was “more than capable of scoring” saw his low shot saved, but skipper Neil Shipperley popped up to prod home the most important goal of his two spells with Palace.
West Ham had the ball in the net twice through David Connolly and Zamora, but they were rightly ruled out for offside. Pardew’s side were unable to break down a very well organised Palace side and the Eagles repelled anything they had to offer. As the final whistle blew I turned to my friend and said “No one gave us a prayer” – Palace were back in the Premiership and the most unbelievable journey was complete.
As Angela Vince on Twitter (@angela_vince) puts it “From a grim morning in Wigan to the unadulterated joy of Cardiff, the perfect illustration of supporting Crystal Palace Football Club.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Thanks also to Chris Allen (@chrisofeagles), Phil Morgan (@pnm1979) and Andy Walker (@andytheeagle) for providing their memories of the 2003/4 season on Twitter.
I hope you have enjoyed all five parts of my playoff history – now lets write a new chapter tomorrow and Monday and get ourselves to Wembley.