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March 30 2023 9.30am

Pain for the Arse

November 12 2004

Aki Riihilahti

Aki Riihilahti

On November 1, 2003, Steve Kember took charge of Crystal Palace for the last time as the Eagles were soundly thrashed by Wigan Athletic to slump to 21st position in the First Division, writes Ed Aarons.

That 5-0 defeat to one of the league’s then newly-promoted sides is thankfully now a distant memory after the arrival of “Saint” Iain Dowie propelled the club back into the big-time thanks to that remarkable run.

But even that dramatic turn-around could not have prepared the most optimistic Eagles fan for the events of Saturday afternoon…

I had to pinch myself several times last week as we prepared for the visit of Arsene Wenger’s “Unbeatables” to our very own corner of South London but it was clear from the build-up to the match that what Alan Hansen might have called the biggest mis-match in Premiership history was destined to be a lot closer.

Dowie and his team thrive on their underdog status and, coming off the back of our excellent recent form, he was entitled to feel we had a chance against a stuttering Arsenal team that were lucky to escape defeat at home to lowly Southampton last weekend.

By way of inspiration, the entire first team squad was kept behind after training on Friday to watch a film of 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”, where Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics gave him an unlikely victory over unbeaten world champion George Foreman in Zaire.

It certainly seemed to do the trick as Palace came out believing in themselves that they could get a result against all the odds. In particular, one man is beginning to typify the kind of spirit we have at the club right now and no one could have been happier to score the equalizer than Aki Riihilahti.

Named as the cheapest player on offer in this season’s Fantasy Football competitions, the Finn has now scored two goals and impressed everyone with his heart and commitment in every game. Writing in The Times on Monday, he showed exactly what Palace’s Premiership status means to him.

"Playing against these great teams and players is something I’ve waited and worked for for 28 years," he said.

"I feel this is the most defining moment in my life, when I can leave my mark and play my heart out in these occasions. It is like Christmas every third day. You might get the occasional, disappointing soft package, but still you’ll never get tired of opening the wrappings. Dear Santa, I wish I could have gifts like these again."

What a guy! The joy that was etched on Aki’s face as he paraded around Cardiff with the Play Off Trophy is still fresh in the memory and he has confounded those who said he lacked the skill to make the step up.

The same can be said for most of Iain Dowie’s side, who, during large parts of Saturday’s game went toe-to-toe with some of the finest players in the world.

Thierry Henry was kept relatively quiet by the impressive Emerson Boyce, playing Second Division Football just six months ago, while Michael Hughes was reminiscent of the great Ali with the way he gracefully avoided the challenges of an out-of-sorts Patrick Vieira in midfield.

And it was encouraging to see the performance put in by Michele Leigertwood in his first appearance of the season as a makeshift right-back.

There were a few worried faces in the Holmesdale when he was brought on to replace an assured Sorondo after only 20 minutes, but the ex-Wimbledon man was superb and even made some good breaks forward.

Amongst the fans, there was a real party atmosphere that even Arsenal’s goal failed to thwart. As soon as Henry had scored, the cries of "Iain Dowie’s Red and Blue Army" grew louder and the faithful were rewarded within two minutes.

That goal was, for me, the happiest moment of the season so far because we deserved it so much and it was great to see the smiles wiped off the faces of the fickle and uninspiring Arsenal fans.

The tension reached new levels as the game reached its climax but the refrain of "We’re Proud of You" that reverberated around the stands said it all for how much this performance meant to Palace’s biggest attendance for more than 10 years.

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