Football: Battling Stewart the unlikely hero

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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Millwall. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

AS THE Crystal Palace team walked off the pitch at Selhurst Park on Saturday, promotion from the First Division all but assured, their supporters' loudest cheers were reserved for the last man to depart. Battered and bruised, he looked as though he was leaving a boxing ring rather than a football field.

Paul Stewart is an unlikely hero. In his brief spell at Palace he has regularly fallen foul of referees - here he had a running debate with Alan Gunn after being denied a penalty - and has appeared to show as much relish for verbal exchanges with officials and opponents as for the physical battles in which he inevitably engages defenders. Moreover, since arriving on loan from Liverpool nearly three months ago he has scored just three times in 16 appearances.

Yet more revealing is the fact that since his arrival Palace have won 10 and drawn five of 17 matches, leaving Alan Smith's team 10 points clear and needing only five more from their remaining four games to guarantee promotion. Stewart's role has been crucial and Palace will soon have to decide whether to pay the pounds 1m-plus transfer fee required to make the move permanent.

On this evidence, the outlay would be justified. Despite Smith's intention to switch to more of a passing game, Palace's instinct is still to play early balls to their front men. Stewart has made this tactic pay, thanks to his aerial strength, and has been the ideal foil for Chris Armstrong, who is not a natural target man but whose speed of thought and foot enables him to feed off Stewart's flicks and knockdowns.

Stewart's physical presence unsettled Millwall and his clever distribution regularly created openings for colleagues. He also missed Palace's best chance, however, choosing to control Dean Gordon's cross before blazing over.

Palace just about deserved victory in a compelling derby match settled by Armstrong's glorious diving header from another Gordon cross. Millwall, who look a sound bet for a play-off place, played neat and composed football, but their forwards lacked pace and power.

The outcome could have been different had Gunn shown Nigel Martyn a red rather than yellow card after the Palace goalkeeper's reckless challenge on Dave Mitchell in the 42nd minute.

Goal: Armstrong (62) 1-0.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Humphrey, Young, Coleman, Gordon; Shaw (Matthew, 63), Southgate, Rodger, Salako; Armstrong, Stewart. Substitutes not used: Dyer, Woodman (gk)

Millwall (4-3-1-2): Keller; Cunningham, Van Den Hauwe, Emblen, Dawes; Rae, Hurlock, Berry (Kerr, 79); Allen; Moralee (Verveer, 68), Mitchell. Subtitute not used: Carter (gk).

Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey, Sussex)