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So close yet so far…

May 16 2005

Iain Dowie

Iain Dowie

The dream is finally over. Just 17 months since Iain Dowie returned to Selhurst Park as manager, Palace fans have endured the ultimate footballing rollercoaster that has taken in both the highs and the lows of the world's most beautiful game, writes Ed Aarons.

How sad that it should end like it did on Sunday, with the Eagles just eight minutes away from preserving their Premiership status for the first time.

But, with the what ifs, might have beens and maybes consigned to history, now is the time to dry those eyes and reflect back on this fantastic season we’ve all had the honour of playing a part in.

Think back to our home match with Chelsea back in August – after that game, who’d have given the team any hope of surviving? What Dowie and his team were so close to achieving against Charlton was the culmination of a truly miraculous story.

The manager built a team in his image as a player - based on guts, determination and a determination to prove the doubters wrong.

You cannot doubt that this tactic was a resounding success and he almost managed to turn Palace into a team that was good enough to remain in the top English league. That we didn’t make it is down to two simple facts – the standard of the players were just not good enough and our luck simply ran out.

Consider the miraculous run that propelled the Eagles back into the Premiership this time last year – the penalty against Walsall, Brian Deane’s last-minute goal for West Ham, Darren Powell and the penalties – we certainly had someone on our side.

And that had to run out eventually.

I watched the game on Sunday in the comfort of Charlton’s luxurious press box, which meant I was surrounded by home fans only too pleased to welcome their bitter rivals in that set of circumstances.

Surprisingly though, the moronic chanting took some time to emerge as Palace took the game to Alan Curbishley’s men with some style. Clearly, Dowie had his team mentally and physically prepared for the battle, as he has all season.

But when Charlton scored against the run of play, a wave of nervousness seemed to spread throughout the Eagles’ side.

That is the sign of an inexperienced team who need a great manager like ours in order to compete – just look at how he has transformed players with seriously limited ability such as Mikele Leigertwood and Tony Popovic in his recent renaissance.

So after the break, and presumably knowing that only a win would be enough, Palace came out as a different side. With Michael Hughes leading by example and talisman Dougie Freedman off the bench, somewhat questionably at the time, they clawed their way back to be sitting in an improbable situation with 20 minutes to go.

Now anyone who knows Palace will tell you that it’s never, ever the simple life to be one of us – there’s always a twist in the tail, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Unfortunately for us, and I think many sensed it in the air, this time it wasn’t to be.

The final whistle just didn’t seem like reality in this surreal Iain Dowie-led Palace world – but finally, we had to admit defeat.

Watching Dowie afterwards as he trudged off the pitch was almost too traumatic for words and similar feelings went through my head when Aki Riihilahti followed moments later.

But my sadness turned to anger at that point as thousands of home ‘fans’ decided to show just how sporting a crowd they really are. They started booing a relegated team off the pitch.

With the kind of response you would expect from a man of his calibre, Dowie’s press conference was full of honour and truthfulness, something that cannot have been an easy thing to have done.

The way he has carried himself throughout his time at the club has been a testimony to his respect for everyone involved – be it players, staff or even us fans. Simon Jordan must do everything to keep him.

The last word on the season, though, belongs to one of our most unsung players – Aki Riihilahti. In his regular column in The Times on Monday, he compared his grief at watching his grandfather cope with the death of his beloved wife with this weekend’s relegation experience.

"I can never forget how brave and honourable he was at the funeral," he said.

"He was deeply hurt, but still carried it through with dignity. It was heartbreaking but it taught me a lesson. Before I had though there could be nothing worse than relegation.

"Sure, my daily worries and life is depended on it. However, it is nothing in the bigger scale, nothing that can’t be fixed, thing shave to be put into perspective."

Thank you for doing that Aki.

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