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May 31 2023 4.18pm

Palace draw little comfort

May 7 2005

Fitz Hall scored Palace's first

Fitz Hall scored Palace's first

Palace conceded an injury-time goal and were held 2-2 by visiting Southampton, writes Simon Pophale.

It was so close to the fairytale ending for us on this day. With just 18 minutes remaining, when Nicola Ventola's cool finish put Palace 2-1 up and heading towards the relative safety of 17th place, you could see the headlines of the national papers the following day reading "Ventola nics it", "The Italian Job done" etc etc.

But such is the life of a Palace fan. We never do things the easy way. So when Nicola miscontrolled a ball with just 2 minutes left, a move that he would have done 99 times out of a 100 perfectly in training, Southampton charged up the field and Kevin Phillips cross field ball eluded everyone except Danny Higginbotham, who gleefully stabbed it past the despairing Granville and Kiraly to give Southampton the mother of all lifelines and took the control of the relegation battle out of our hands.

It was cruel and it was hard, but this is the Premiership where momentary lapses are punished severely. We had about 90 seconds to turn it around. Ventola collapsed on the ground, Johnson was floored. It had started out being a good day.

Which is exactly what it was. Being part of the merry band of supporters who helped out placing the cards in the Holmesdale for the display which had been organised by Horsham Eagle and Matt Hepburn, it was an early start. But so well worth it as between the 20 - 30 or so of us, the stand was covered in around an hour. Which, despite the obvious consternation of the Stalag Luft III guards, sorry I mean the Stewards, was no mean feat.

A big thankyou to everyone who organised, contributed and helped out with this. The effect it created when the teams were on the field, was akin to a small version of the Nou Camp or Bernabeu. It looked impressive and there was kudos from the Saints fans as well.

As to the game itself, the first half saw Southampton get the better of the opening exchanges, forcing 2 corners in the first 15 minutes. Henri Camara looked spritely but the big ariel threat posed by Peter Crouch was having very little effect as Fitz Hall was having a solid game at the back. 2 clean sheets in the last 2 matches seemed to boost the confidence and Southampton had a fair amount of possession, without forcing Kiraly into any real action. We were also producing a lot of endeavour, but with very little end product. That was all to change.

A neat exchange of passes from Leigertwood to AJ ended with the England striker being upended about 20 yards out. AJ took the free kick but cannoned it straight into the wall, but Routledge was on hand to pick up and swing the ball back into the box and although AJ could not get the ball under control, it bobbled to Fitz Hall who spun on a sixpence and his shot beat Niemi low to his right. A fantastic goal it was, especially coming against his former club. For once, we were not on the receiving end of the ex-player curse.

But the curse of conceding moments after scoring, is still alive and well. From the restart, a 30 yard ball launched into our area saw Kamara and Popovic give chase, with the latter controlling the bounce with his hand. From the finally taken penalty, Crouch hit the equaliser. 2 minutes, 2 goals, back to square one. We ended the half the stronger and had Niemi not brilliantly tipped over a Micheal Hughes 25 yard screamer, we would have gone in ahead. Still, we appeared to be in the ascendancy.

The 2nd Half was a cagey as you would expect from a relegation battle and with so much riding on the game, all that was required was a very small incident to light the blue-touch paper to kick off the fireworks.

The kicking came from Crouch and the fireworks came from well, pretty much everyone else. Crouch and Sorondo were having their own private battle where Sorondo came out on top. The floored beanpole swung his telescopic peg, catching Sorondo on the calf. Latin temperament being what it is, Gonzalo went back for afters and ended up on the floor himself, when Crouch elbowed him in the face (quite an achievement, considering the height difference!).

This led to a free-for-all where the now psychotic Sorondo, in the melee, smacked Greame Le Saux in the face, which led to those left on the fringe of the fight to become completely involved. Dowie gave Le Saux the verbals, Gallagher dished out the punishments which was a red for both players. Possibly the saddest end for the faithful might be that this could be the end of Sorondo's career at Palace, should the unthinkable happen next Sunday. But none the less, the sendings off benefitted us.

Dowie pushed Leigertwood back into the right side of defence in order to compensate but for Southampton, Crouch was their focal point of their attacks and now, looked toothless. Sensing this, Redknapp brought on Phillips to pep up the attack, while Dowie took of Popovic and Aki, for Watson and Ventola in order to stretch the Saints back line. Just over an hour had gone in the match by this point.

It was proving a masterstroke when a lofted pass over the Saints defence saw Ventola bearing down on goal and with the Southampton defence all looking for offside, Nicola stroked the ball past Niemi and gave us the lead, bringing pandemonium around the ground. Nicola ran straight to Harbin and the outpouring of emotion and relief was visible to see.

Poor old Nic had endured a terrible time since October, with injuries after injury plaguing him. His goal meant that he was the only other striker this season to score a Premiership goal other than AJ. He had only played to that point, a total of 40 minutes all season.

Southampton now had to chase the game and with gaps appearing, we were starting to exploit them. Had Tom Soares or Ben Watsons efforts gone in, rather than going inches wide of the post and bar respectively, there would have been no sting in the tail to this story. But with the clock running down, we did not learn the lesson of keeping the ball in the opposition half and running to the corners.

With over 2 minutes of the 4 added minutes gone, came Nicolas' miscontrol and Higginbothams' killer blow. Despite the sickening way in which this occurred, it is still all to play for next week, but it is now not in our hands.

A situation we all dreaded when the fixtures came out last June, was to have to go Charlton next week and win. It might still not be enough. The journey will end next week, but I am hoping that we will be on the right side of the relegation line.

Crystal Palace: G Kiraly, F Hall, T Popovic, G Sorondo, D Granville, W Routledge, M Leigertwood, A Riihilahti, M Hughes, T Soares, A Johnson.

Subs: J Speroni, D Freedman, N Ventola, B Watson, V Lakis.

Southampton: A Niemi, P Telfer, C Lundekvam, D Higginbotham, O Bernard, M Oakley, J Redknapp, N Quashie, G Le Saux, H Camara, P Crouch.

Subs: K Phillips, N McCann, P Smith, R Delap, C Davenport.

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