That it should have come to this. Somehow, through a season-long narrative of financial implosion and mixed fortunes on the pitch, the final day of the season in the Championship has come down to a straight shoot-out at Hillsborough. Those that hold the belief that there is some kind of divine power with a steadying hand over the world may well take he fact that these two clubs are here this afternoon as proof of his (or her) existence. Results and circumstance have combined to ensure that the Football League’s match of the weekend will be watched by a sell-out crowd of almost 40,000 at a stadium that has seen triumph, occasion and, of course, the most awful of all British football tragedies in its past. Today promises to provide yet another extraordinary chapter in the life of one of our few remaining traditional, old football grounds and, for once, the mathematics are simple. Wednesday need to win to stay up – anything else, and Palace will avoid the drop.
This is a match that doesn’t carry any tangible prizes. There will be no silverware handed out at full-time today. Yet what is on offer at Hillsborough this afternoon may even be more important. Both Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace are in a financial hole, and dropping from the Championship at any time would carry a cost that would become apparent over a period of time. With the Premier League steamrollering the Football League into agreeing what looks like the Premier League Two by stealth, though, the cost could be calamitous. Crystal Palace are in administration and desperately need a buyer. How much less likely finding one will become should they fall through the trapdoor today isn’t easy to measure, but it’s unlikely to make it any easier.
Hillsborough, then, is cacophonous this afternoon and the match starts in a state of something approximating apoplexy. Every time either of the teams push towards the opposition’s third of the pitch, a huge swell of screaming builds from the terraces. It’s the sound that one might imagine would accompany the end of the world. The two teams, however, seem reasonably evenly matched in the eary stages. Wednesday, who need a win today and, therefore, have the least to lose by pouring forward, seem to have two Big Ideas about how to break down the Crystal Palace defence. The first is to shoot on sight, but Crystal Palace have one of the division’s abler goalkeepers in Julian Speroni and he deals comfortably with whatever is thrown at him. The second is a direct aerial bombardment, but too often the Palace defence tidies the ball up with ease.
With half an hour played, however, Palace suddenly seize the advantage. It’s a curiously routine goal, out of step with the frenetic circumstances that are surrounding it. Darren Ambrose swings a corner over from the right hand side and Alan Lees squirms free of his marker to power a header down, wide of Lee Grant and into the bottom corner of the net. Away to the left, the Crystal Palace supporters explode into delerium, but the rest of Hillsborough audibly deflates. They have looked somewhat blunt in attack for much of the first half – where are they going to now conjure two goals up from?
Half of the answer to this comes four minutes from half-time when Leon Clarke steals the ball from Danny Butterfield, cuts into the penalty area and shoots across Speroni from an angle and brings Wednesday level. In the ensuing pandemonium, Clarke injures himself to the extent that he has to be stretchered from the pitch and the injury deflects some of the speculation over whether he had fouled Butterfield. Sometimes they’re given, sometimes they’re not, but Wednesday just about deserve to be level at half-time on the balance of play. There’s still time, though, for a bout of pushing and shoving as the players head for the tunnel. Tensions are starting to rise.
The lift that the goal has given Wednesday carries over into the early stages of the second half and a couple of goalmouth scrambles in the Palace penalty area both end up with the ball bouncing around like a pinball before somehow being scrambled to relative safety. A golden opportunity falls to Luke Varney, who breaks clear of the Crystal Palace defence. At first it seems as if Speroni is a little slow off his line, but he makes up for any initial hesitation by blocking Varney’s shot with his legs.
It proves to be an expensive miss. Four minutes later, Palace, venturing out of their half of the pitch for more or less the first time since half-time, retake the lead and it’s another goal, the simplicity of which belies the occasion. Sean Scannell gets to the right-hand byline and pulls the ball back to Darren Ambrose on the edge of the penalty area and Ambrose, whose twenty goals this season have put Palace in the position of being able to save themselves today, slides the ball into the corner of the net.
The crowd continues to exhort Wednesday forward, but this time it feels as if there is no way back for them. Their brittle confidence appears shattered and their attacking play suddenly looks ponderous and aimless, in sharp contrast with the incisive raids that they were launching upon Julian Speroni’s goal earlier. For the next fifteen minutes they throw the ball aimlessly forward and, with nine minutes to go it looks as if the last chance has gone. Jermaine Johnson picks up a loose cross and puts the ball back into the penalty area but Francis Jeffers, six yards out an unmarked, somehow manages to only graze the ball and it sails harmlessly wide. There is still time for a tense, tight finish when a cross from the right finds Darren Purse completely unmarked at the far post and stoops to bring Wednesday level again. Five minutes injury time sounds like a lot, but the clock ticks much more quickly when you’re chasing a goal. There is even a chance for Palace to snatch a third goal when Ambrose breaks and sends Stern John clear, but the goalkeeper and a defender combine to smother the ball on the goal line.
For all Sheffield Wednesday’s urgency, however, this time there really is no route back. The full time whistle blows, and Wednesday are down. There are unpleasant scenes at the final whistle, as Crystal Palace supporters get onto the pitch behind the goal and have to be separated from Sheffield Wednesday supporters. It looks as though a couple of the Palace players leaving the pitch may or may not have been punched by Wednesday supporters as they leave the pitch, but the BBC, presumably mindful of only showing positive images of the match, turn their cameras hastily back to the experts in the temporary studio perched high up in one corner of the ground.
There are certainly those that will regard the survival of Crystal Palace in the Championship this season as a failure of the ten point deduction rule that is supposed to discourage clubs from taking the step of entering into administration. The fact, however, that Palace fell down the table and into the relegation places upon losing ten points in the first place, however, is confirmation that sanctions against clubs that find themselves in this predicament says something about the sanction and the more intractable issue of the fact that the wrong people – primarily the supporters – are those most hurt by this penalty remains unresolved. Those supporters, at least, may have got what they deserved this afternoon.
The Sheffield Wednesday chairman Lee Strafford may well return to this subject in the next few days, but he should also perhaps pause to reflect upon the possibility that the Palace players may have their pre-match team talk written for them by him and that the unsavoury scenes at the end of the match may also have been related to comments his unnecessarily comments. It’s difficult to quantify, of course, but certainly not out of the question. None of this, however, will provide much succour to Sheffield Wednesday’s supporters, who will perhaps reflect this evening upon the extended barren that they have suffered and wonder whether the issues that their club faces will become that much more intractable by today’s relegation. It is an unfortunate coincidence that these two clubs were destined to be pitched against each other this afternoon in such circumstances and Wednesday supporters know only to well how difficult League One can be to get out of. The Championship will certainly be poorer for their absence next season.