Romance is all very well, but the cold, hard truth is that Crystal Palace need money. With a ten point deduction having almost certainly put paid to their ambitions of making the play-offs for a place in the Premier League, the FA Cup is their best chance of making some money this season. If they’re going to get to the latter stages of the competition, though, they are being made to do it the hard way. A win at Sheffield Wednesday was followed up with a convincing win in the Fourth Round against Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers after a replay.
Their reward is a home match against Aston Villa, and Crystal Palace supporters might be forgiven for casting envious glances in the direction of Villa supporters. Aston Villa have an owner that seems to understand how to run a club properly and within its means while maintaining the interest of one of the more demanding managers in football because he is the right man for the job. Villa are still in touch with those above them for a place in next year’s Champions League (although they have fallen slightly off the pace in recent weeks), are already at Wembley in the League Cup final and are playing today for a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. They give the impression of being a club moving in the right direction.
Yet the FA Cup still matters to Aston Villa. If we exclude their two Intertoto Cup “victories”, they haven’t won anything for thirteen years, and while Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal have already fallen by the wayside, Villa are still there, three wins from their first FA Cup final in a decade. Their interest, however, is an aesthetic one, while Palace’s is altogether more prosaic. They were put up for sale last week with an advertisement in the Financial Times. what happens to the club is now out of the hands of the supporters and firmly in the hands of the administrators. What they need right now is ready cash, and this match helps. They’ve made about £140,000 from ITV for it being televised, and this amount plus their share of gate receipts adds up to a tidy sum of money.
Some time shortly before the kick-off at Selhurst Park, a rumbling noise starts to come from the direction of the stadium. Is somebody considering landing an aircraft on Selhurst Park? No, actually. There are over 20,000 people in this afternoon, and they’re demonstrating the full benefit of the old-style football ground, with banks of seats at such an angle that you could almost swear that they are over-hanging the pitch. Like Selhurst Park, Neil Warnock’s Crystal Palace aren’t always pretty but they are effective. Aston Villa push the ball around neatly, but Palace fight and scrap for every ball. After ten minutes, Richard Dunne’s shot is blocked by Claude Davis and the ball runs to safety.
The crowd may be starting to fall quiet, but midway through the half Palace take the lead and the volume is turned back up to eleven. Scott Danns’ cross sees a slight mix-up between Brad Friedel and Steven Warnock allowing Jonny Ertl to head in from close range. Palace can only hold the lead for a little over ten minutes, though. A harshly-awarded free kick allows Stewart Downing to swing over a perfect cross and James Collins scores from close range. Within five minutes of Villa’s equaliser, both sides have had chances to take the lead. Within a minute, Stilyan Petrov heads James Milner’s corner just wide, but within less than three minutes Palace have a good chance when Ambrose’s shot is blocked and Lee shoots well wide. Half-time comes with the scores level and very little between the two teams.
Martin O’Neill uses the opportunity of a break to replace the largely ineffective Emile Heskey with John Carew, and this decision almost reaps immediate dividends when Carew has a shot well saved by the Crystal Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni. The two teams then proceed to largely cancel each other out for twenty minutes. Both are pushing hard to break this most attritional of deadlocks, but both sides are limited to half-chances and it starts to feel as if it is going to take one moment of something extraordinary to break it. That moment comes with just over twenty minutes left to play. A free-kick awarded thirty-five yards out seems innocuous enough, but Darren Ambrose’s shot is a bolt from the blue. Friedel gets a paw on it but can only push it into the corner of the net. Bedlam, and Palace leave.
Villa roar back, and Palace’s evident weakness at defending from set-pieces seems likely to cause them problem. It looks, though, as if Speroni is going to be the hero, saving brilliantly from John Carew with five minutes left to play. The rebound seems to strike a Palace player, but a corner is given anyway and this time the home side’s luck ran out. Downing crosses from the right against and Petrov heads into the corner. Villa continue to push on as time runs out, but at full-time the draw feels like a fair result, so it will be all back to Villa Park for a replay in ten days’ time. After the match, Palace manager is apoplectic with the decision to award the corner that led to the goal, but the raw truth is that Palace might benefit even more from a replay.
The reality of their position is that an FA Cup Fifth Round replay could bring in as much as £300,000 into the club – more if the rematch is also shown live on the television. As such, even if most Palace supporters are disappointed this evening to have conceded such a late goal when a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup was just about within their grasp, and there could be no greater incentive for their players than that the Sixth Round draw will send the winners of their match on a winnable to trip to the winners of the replay between Reading and West Bromwich Albion. The winners of that match, of course, will be at Wembley for the semi-finals. Any of this would obviously make the club a much more attractive investment for the buyers that the administrators are hoping to find. Aston Villa may be somewhat less impressed by the result, which adds another fixture to what is starting to become a slightly congested fixture list. This, however, is the price of success, and one would hope that they will be grateful for this rather than complaining about their relative success. As Crystal Palace supporters may be keen to tell them, things can get a lot worse than having too many matches to play.