Football Commentary: Palace hit the mute button on Salako

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The Independent Online
THE performance, celebrating his comeback with a hat-trick, was 'pure theatre', but this star was to be allowed no curtain calls. John Salako could give Danny Baker lessons in self-promotion, and the last thing he needed, his manager said, was more publicity.

The renascent England winger ran rings around Stoke City's defence in Crystal Palace's 4-1 victory that secured the leadership of the First Division, but gratitude was conspicuous by its absence.

Alan Smith, Palace's novitiate manager, was weary of Salako headlines. He preferred to discuss the merits of others, and asked him not to share his thoughts about a remarkable return after nearly a year out of the game, and two major operations.

Wrong. Talking down the human interest story of the day was probably the first mistake Smith has made since stepping up to succeed Steve Coppell at Selhurst Park. Credit where it is due, and Salako, although still not fully fit, had warmed the cockles on a chill day by rising magnificently to the challenge of proving himself all over again in his first start for 11 months.

He had done his manager proud by filling in so successfully for Chris Armstrong, the suspended centre-forward, and deserved better in return than criticisms of his attitude to training and the gripe that: 'I've got so many good players, and it does piss the others off to be always reading about John.'

Salako, to be fair, is not a shy boy, and is almost impossible to put down. He is definitely of the all-publicity-is-good-publicity persuasion, and there was smiling assent all round when Smith added: 'I could say the most horrible things about him and he'd see it as a compliment anyway.'

Fair enough, but since when has confidence been a demerit? It is Graham Taylor's favourite quality and, on Saturday's form, Salako could soon be following that other returnee, Alan Shearer, back into the England squad.

He was too good for Stoke - as were Palace in general. It was not quite as one-sided as the 4-1 scoreline might suggest, but any hope Lou Macari and his team had of extending their unbeaten away record was extinguished by the excellence which made Nigel Martyn England's goalkeeper as recently as the last match in the US Cup, against Germany in June.

Martyn made high-quality saves at the expense of Martin Carruthers, Thor Orlygsson and Ian Cranson when the outcome was still in the balance, drawing due praise from both sides. 'Without him,' Smith said, 'it could have been 2-2 at half-time, and we wouldn't be talking about John Salako now.' Macari nodded in agreement. 'He turned the whole game. He is a big target, very difficult to beat.'

Martyn and Salako are survivors of Palace's Premier League days and, with the obvious exceptions of Geoff Thomas and Eddie McGoldrick, they have done well to keep last season's team together in the reasonable belief that a side unlucky to be relegated should be good enough to bounce straight back.

So far, so good. Six wins and a draw from their last seven games have entrenched them at the top of the table, and with impressive strength in all areas they are worth a modest wager.

Their defence belongs in the Premiership, with Martyn afforded bristling protection by Andy Thorn and Eric Young, and if the midfield is more graft than craft, there is ample compensation in a forward line chosen from Salako, Armstrong, Paul Williams and the emergent David Whyte, who was a tireless forager and provider on Saturday, deserving of a goal.

It was a good day, and a good place, to forsake Manchester United's championship monopoly and Liverpool's travails for an excursion into the unpromisingly styled Endsleigh Insurance League. The weather did its worse, but if Noah had been blessed with the Selhurst groundstaff there would have been no need for the ark, and the pitch stood up to the deluge surprisingly well.

Given a better surface than they had any right to expect, Palace and Stoke gratefully provided an absorbing match, every inch the equal of many to be seen in the bottom half of the Premiership.

Good football and, joy of joys, sensible numbering. Wimbledon and Liverpool, with their 36s and 25s, made Match of the Day sound more like Miss World, but in the First Division, beyond the clutches of the marketing men, sanity prevails, and we still have good old-fashioned 1 to 11.

Traditional tactics were also much in evidence, with both teams striving to get the ball wide, and attack via the flanks.

Palace should have had an early penalty, when Cranson put the arm on Simon Rodger like a not-soGiant Haystacks, but the referee, Ray Bigger, saw nothing amiss with a half-nelson, followed by a full body press. Bigger, it must be said, got no better, and missed too much.

Thanks to Mr Magoo, the first goal was delayed until midway through the first half, when Mark Prudhoe, who missed almost as much as the ref, made a hash of Salako's right-wing cross, enabling Gareth Southgate to shoot in from 12 yards.

The roles were reversed when Southgate's ball down the line saw Whyte centre from the right for the incoming Salako to score, with his left foot, at the far post.

Stoke, neat and determined, fought back well, and would have been back in contention before half-time but for Martyn's heroics. Instead, Ian Clarkson inexplicably presented possession to Whyte near the byline, and the consequent cross had Salako stooping to conquer at nodding range.

At 3-0 it was end of contest. Stoke eventually managed to come up with the goal they deserved a quarter of an hour from the end, when Tom Cowan's cross from deep on the left was headed in by the prolific Mark Stein, but Palace reasserted themselves and when Prudhoe missed another centre, from Chris Coleman, Salako completed his hat-trick with a second routine header.

Seven minutes from the end, the returning hero was substituted, to a standing ovation. 'Pure theatre,' Smith said. 'There is something about his personality that makes that sort of thing happen.'

There was also something, apparently, that sometimes made nothing happen. 'I've had that lad since he was 14 years old, and I know what he's about, and where he's coming from. If he thinks he's more special than the others, he's not. There will be times this season, when we are away on a cold Tuesday night, when we won't see him. He'll be stuck out on the wing with frostbite.'

Smith added that Salako was not match-fit - 'I'm not happy with the way John has been training' - but it would be a perverse decision if he was the one left out tomorrow, when Armstrong, who is available again, has been promised a place for the Coca-Cola Cup return at Charlton.

Goals: Southgate (24) 1-0; Salako (31) 2-0; Salako (44) 3-0; Stein (75) 3-1; Salako (81) 4-1.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Humphrey, Young, Thorn, Coleman; Bowry, Southgate, Shaw, Rodger; Whyte, Salako (Williams, 83). Substitutes not used: Woodman (gk), Gordon.

Stoke City (4-4-2): Prudhoe; Clarkson, Cranson, Overson, Cowan; Orlygsson, Foley (Sturridge, 69), Gynn (Shaw, 83), Gleghorn; Stein, Carruthers. Substitute not used: Muggleton (gk).

Referee: R Bigger (Norwich).

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