Once again, a football match has assumed an importance beyond its design. As with too many matches recently, what happens off the pitch at tonight's FA Cup semi-final replay between Crystal Palace and Manchester United will be observed at least as keenly as what happens on it.
The death of a Crystal Palace supporter before Sunday's drawn tie has been a reminder - if one were needed after Dublin, Stamford Bridge and Zaragoza - that hooliganism is far from eradicated. However, it is right that the match should go ahead. It has to be played, and if the police believe that sooner is safer than later, then so be it.
However, not everyone shares this view. Yesterday, Colin Noades, a director of Crystal Palace and brother of the club's chairman, Ron Noades, spelt out his opposition. "We sincerely believe the match should not be played so soon after the dreadful events of last Sunday," Noades said, "and we are anxious to avoid any further serious incidents."
He then added, in a remark that might be regarded by some as inflammatory: "This was the third serious instance of appalling behaviour at games involving the two clubs. Two years ago at Selhurst Park, a Crystal Palace supporter received multiple stab wounds at a match against Manchester United.
"Earlier this year we saw the Eric Cantona incident, then last Sunday. It is long overdue for Manchester United to make a statement concerning their supporters' activities, and to take the necessary action."
Noades also called for Palace supporters to boycott the replay, suggesting that only one in 100 Palace fans believed the game should be played. "They have life in perspective, even if the FA have not," he said.
This is unfair to the Football Association, who had to follow police advice. Imagine the outcry if they ignored the police, staged the game next week, and there were further serious incidents.
However, thought should have been given to the time of Sunday's kick- off, which allowed supporters of both sides to indulge in four hours of drinking, while watching the first semi- final on television.
Noades' call for a boycott looks like being answered, as Palace are expecting to sell less than 4,000 tickets. However, given that they could not sell all their allocation of 16,000 for the first game, Palace would probably not have sold many tickets anyway.
The extra expense, the difficulty in getting time off work, and a sense that both the fans and the team have had their "day out", would have kept down the numbers, even without Sunday's tragedy.
The belief that Palace's chance has gone has been strengthened by their subsequent injury problems. Nigel Martyn and Chris Coleman are both out; Martyn suffered a broken finger in the opening minutes of Sunday's match, while Coleman's ankle injury recurred later. Eric Young will play, despite a groin strain.
Rhys Wilmot, who has played three minutes of first-team football this season, replaces Martyn. It will be his first start for nearly two years. The last, in May 1993, was for Grimsby.
Nicky Butt, a substitute at Villa Park, should start for United, with David Beckham dropping out. Steve Bruce's return after suspension will free Roy Keane - an unhappy central defender on Sunday - to take up a more mobile role. He could revert to full-back, but may move into midfield alongside Butt and Ince in an attempt to match Palace's aggression.
Andrei Kanchelskis is now unlikely to play, for the mysterious ailments currently keeping him out of the side are increasingly thought to have more to do with his mind than his stomach. Lee Sharpe will probably move to the left flank, and so provide United with the width they lacked on Sunday. Gary Neville should retain his place at full-back.
Palace will again seek to unsettle United at set-pieces and on the break. They will be comforted by the knowledge that they had chances to win the first game, but may find, like Oldham last year, that United do not give second chances.
Crystal Palace (probable): Wilmot; Patterson, Shaw, Young, Gordon; Houghton, Pitcher, Southgate, Salako; Armstrong, Dowie. Substitutes: Cox, Newman, Glass (gk).
Manchester United (probable): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Keane, Ince, Butt, Sharpe; Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes: McClair, Scholes, Walsh (gk).
n Both managers, Alan Smith of Crystal Palace, and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, will make a personal appearance on the pitch before tonight's match to appeal for calm.Reuse content