Play-Off Final Preview – The Palace Perspective

‘Twas Sun Tzu (not that one) that said: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” In the build up to the Big One, we’ll be looking at how Watford can reign supreme at the Home of Football on Monday; but first, we’ve asked Crystal Palace fan, James Woods (not that one) to give us an insight into the Eagles’ Camp, just six days before we do battle…

Congratulations on the semi-final win against Brighton, your bitter rivals from just down the road (followed by a 50 minute train journey). How did the tie go in the fans’ eyes? Not many will have predicted a 2-0 win at the AmEx before the second leg?

Thanks. It was definitely only the more optimistic who would have predicted such a scoreline. The beauty of the play-offs is that they can be reduced a 90 minutes winner takes all scenario. As far as the fans were concerned it couldn’t have gone any better: a comprehensive victory, away from home and crushing the dreams of 28,000 others all in one fell swoop. The fact that Zaha emerged from the promising young player sold for £15m to the man who fired us to Wembley made it all the more sweet.

After three losses on the trot to start the season, you soon got going under Dougie Freedman, and you’ve been a fixture in the top six ever since a win over Wolves in the ninth game of the season. It all went a bit wrong towards the end though, with your final day, play-off-clinching victory at home to Peterborough your sole win in the last ten games. You can’t have expected to be gearing up for a final at Wembley in mid-April. What’s the atmosphere around Palace been in recent weeks?

It’s been incredibly mixed. On the one hand fans are delighted to have made it this far, even more so given the relegation escapes and lower mid table finishes we’ve had over the last couple of seasons. On the other, though, plenty of people have been frustrated with passing up arguably the best chance in a decade to get automatic promotion and only sneaking into the play offs on the last day. That being said, the win over Brighton has pretty much absolved all the anxiety and seems to have breathed new life into the squad, our first final appearance since 2004 [a 1-0 victory over West Ham] has got the fans buzzing once more.

Ian Holloway. How do you and the fans see him as: a) a manager, and b) a person?

I’ll admit from the outset that I have reservations on Holloway on both counts so am not the most impartial to answer this.

As a manger, the jury has been increasingly out. It needs to be remembered that Dougie Freedman was probably the biggest fans favourite of a generation, and although his managerial time at Palace was mixed, a lot of fans were very sad to see him go. Holloway came in and inherited a highly performing team and maintained the status quo. Given how the likes of Leicester and Boro’s title challenges fell away, he should be credited for keeping us competitive for so long particularly given the overperformance of some players in the early months. There is no doubt though that the team has gone backwards in terms of performance since he arrived as he struggled to eventually impose his tactics and style. The jury is very much out, and the result on Monday will go very far in many eyes to determine whether he has been a success or not.

As a person I’ve never been one for his “wackiness” gimmick, particularly when at other times he seems overly solemn. He didn’t endear himself to the fans with his comments after the Brighton 3-0 defeat (“didn’t care about the rivalry”) and after we lost to Stoke in the  cup, but by and large I would say his ‘larger than life’ personality goes down well with most of the SE25 faithful. The video of him dancing in the changing room did wonders for his public persona.

Wilf Zaha seems to have had a less productive second half of the season after winning plaudits before Christmas and earning himself a big-money move to Manchester United. Was that a case of the team’s form affecting his own, or was there any suggestion that his heart wasn’t in it any more?

I think fundamentally Zaha is a bit of an up and down player. He’s incredibly skilful and tricky, sometimes they come off, sometimes they don’t. He’s capable of grabbing the headlines, but will just as easily be anonymous. There was a lot of attention on him in the autumn, with the deal to Man Utd being done as well as the England call up and his head was clearly turned. Although his personal form tailed off, his contribution remained good as teams would always double or sometimes treble up on him thus creating space for the likes of Bolasie, but as the team’s form tailed off his lack of form came into focus. He’s played over 100 games for Palace, so isn’t short of experience, no one can doubt his ability, but his biggest challenge is to perform consistently, to be catching the eye in 7/10 games, rather than more one off individual brilliance like we saw in the play-offs.

Jonathan Williams really impressed when you came to The Vic in February, how’s he pushed on with more first team involvement?

Williams has been one of this season’s biggest frustrations. His performance at Vicarage Road was probably his best of the season, however he has been hampered by injury ever since. He missed last season with a bad leg break gained on international duty, but since he has been back he has suffered from cramp and tendonitis in his knees and so struggles to get through 90 minutes, let alone the three games in a week that is commonplace in the Championship. Like Zaha, he has the raw ability to take teams apart and has received rave reviews for his performances for Wales as well. I would say though that he needs another year of careful management at Palace to really build up his fitness before trying his arm at a bigger club.

What do you make of the rivalry that seems to have ignited between the two sets of fans since Holloway’s comments that evening? Has it really registered with your supporters, or is it Watford Twitterati getting a bit touchy?

It’s part and parcel of football, let alone football on the internet to go into absolute uproar as soon as the smallest of perceived slights is levelled at a team, so I would say there is a heavy dose of the latter in this situation. Watford’s situation with the Pozzo and the ownership of Udinese and Granada seems to have created a perfect storm of tepid football banter this season. Watford fans seem desperate to either defend the club or assert their contempt at any questions of immorality at their use of the loan system, while every other club (Palace included) have jumped at the opportunity to get the old ‘Loanford’ barbs in. I doubt anyone believed Holloway’s claim that he didn’t realise what was going on until he looked at the programme, but it wouldn’t be football if everyone didn’t get outraged by it.

A big reason that you did make it into the Playoffs were Glenn Murray’s 31 goals. A knee ligament injury will keep him out of action for several months, so can you rely on the unprolific Aaron Wilbraham and the aging Kevin Phillips to lead the line at Wembley? How does that change how you’ll play?

It won’t be a massive difference in how we play, although it would render us less effective. Murray’s success this season has relied on the speed and trickery of Zaha and Bolasie out wide coupled with the ruthlessness of Murray’s movement and finishing inside the box. Wilbraham has a similar work rate off the ball to Murray, a real nuisance factor for defenders, but isn’t as effective at holding the ball up, so we may (hopefully) see fewer long balls out from the back by Delaney and instead have more time on the ball for the likes of Jedinak [Palace’s Player of the Season].

We all know about Kevin Phillips, he may be 39,  but he still comes alive in the box, and in a game like a play-off final, he’s probably still one of the faces you want looking back at you when you need a goal in the final 10 minutes.

Both clubs have sold out their allocation, do you see your lot as big game players – a group who can turn it on with a wall of air horns bleating behind then?

The biggest legacy of Dougie Freedman was that he instilled in the team a real resilience and backbone. We went from perennial bottlers in derby games to wins at the Valley, the Den and the Amex last season as well as a League Cup quarter final win at Old Trafford along with two goal comebacks against Cardiff and Burnley this season. I don’t think our players will be overawed, they have a clear way of playing and all of them know the roles they are out there to do plus the wins against Posh and Brighton will have got them back with total confidence.

Watford on the other hand did manage to pick themselves up after the disappointment against Leeds, as well as being one kick away from their season ending, so they’ve been through the emotional wringer and back out over the last fortnight. I do think that the game at Vicarage Road and the Leeds game though show that you can get to them though, and if pressed, I would say Palace are better set to handle the occasion.

What do you think of Watford in a footballing sense?

I think most people recognise both Watford and Palace as two of the most exciting teams in the league this season. I think people were surprised at how quickly Zola got it together, but soon realised they would be serious contenders with individual quality such as Vydra, Chalobah and Cassetti all in the side. I think there are some questions over the resilience of the team, particularly given how we were able to attack you in the second half of the game and what happened in the Leeds game, but those were pretty comprehensively answered with the amazing scenes in the final two minutes against Leicester.

The speed and quality on the counter will be the biggest threat, arguably my favourite non-Palace moment of the season was Vydra pulling down Adam El-Abd’s pants and roasting him down at the Amex. Palace have a very ponderous central defensive partnership, so Vydra will have some luck if he can get in behind, and Dean Moxey can be a bit shaky, so it will be worth trying to involve Anya as much as possible. Chalobah and Hogg will have a tough time of it against Jedinak and Dikgacoi who are both very competitive and will press them every time they get the ball. Having the experience of Doyley will help contain the threat of Zaha (depending which wing he plays) and despite numerous high profile blunders, Almunia has played at the highest level.

I think if both teams performed to their full potential, then Watford would shade it, but not many on both sides will have played at Wembley in such a big game, so it will depend on who can settle and impose themselves quicker.

Likely line-up?


Thanks, James. Enjoy Monday. But not too much.

You can follow James on Twitter at @HolmesdaleReg

One comment

  1. […] Check out our Preview from a Palace Perspective here. […]

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