Football: Facts of life threaten Palace's fantasy world

Crystal Palace 2 Stockport County 2
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The Independent Online
DIRECTIONS TO Cloud Cuckoo Land sounded loud and clear from the radio shortly after two o'clock on Saturday afternoon. All roads led to Selhurst Park as Crystal Palace supporters told Radio Five Live that they still fancied their team to reach the play-offs.

Palace should be more concerned about the other end of the First Division table, for on current form they could be filling one of the relegation places come the end of the season. They would have lost here had Stockport's Derek McInnes hit the target instead of a post in the final minute.

Palace have won only one of their last 11 matches and their director of football, Steve Coppell, in caretaker charge after Terry Venables stepped down as manager on Friday to become a "part-time consultant", is aware of other painful statistics. "We've gone 19 games without a clean sheet and we've used 30-odd players [35 in fact]," he said after the match. "We have to stabilise the ship."

To achieve that, however, you need a steady pair of hands on the tiller and Palace fans are starting to wonder about the direction that Mark Goldberg, the chairman, is taking. Not content with just changing course with his manager on Friday, Goldberg turned to team selection.

On Thursday morning Goldberg had asked Coppell to take charge of the team. Coppell prepared the side for two days with Matt Jansen a key part of his plans. On Friday night, however, the chairman told Coppell not to play his England Under-21 striker, presumably because he did not want to risk an injury to a player whose sale appears to represent one of his only hopes of financial salvation.

Not that Goldberg concedes he has a problem, despite the fact that he owes pounds 4.5m to the club's previous owner, is being sued for more than pounds 400,000 by his own lawyers and has alienated both his chief executive, who is threatening to withdraw his investment in the club because he considers his position untenable, and his public relations firm, who claim they are owed pounds 60,000.

"Whereas the outside world believes that Crystal Palace Football Club are involved in a financial crisis, I would like to say that that is far from the truth," Goldberg wrote in Saturday's programme. "What I am achieving by the decisions we are making is ensuring that we become far more efficient and will also ensure that we are well on the road to increased profitability."

Well that's all right then, his bankers will no doubt proclaim. As for the seemingly imminent departure of Palace's two best players, Jansen and Attilio Lombardo, Goldberg revealed the need for rationalisation. "A large playing squad has been assembled," he wrote, "and it may well be that now is the time that we become more streamlined."

Explaining Jansen's situation, Goldberg said that the player (who, he failed to mention, recently signed a long-term contract with Palace) had "expressed a desire to play in Premiership football".

As for Lombardo, Goldberg revealed that he was "looking to finish his playing career in Italy and has, in fact, received a contract offer from a club in that country". The warm-hearted chairman revealed that he "would, of course, like to retain his services, but I fully understand the feelings of the player on this matter."

Despite Goldberg's bravado, the next four months promise to be a slog. Palace are fortunate to have a man of Coppell's loyalty to turn to, despite the manner in which he was shunted aside last year (he did not have a contract and was asked to step down as manager by Goldberg, who was not even chairman at the time but was calling the shots because he was in the process of buying out Ron Noades).

Not that Coppell believes Goldberg had many alternatives. "If I was the owner of the club I would ask me to do it," Coppell said, adding that he would do the job "until a better man is found". He would not be drawn on whether he wanted the job permanently or how long he had been asked to do it.

Coppell described Palace's situation as "a shambles", which would also have been an apt description of their play in the first half hour. Brett Angell scored for Stockport with a lucky deflection after three minutes and was left unchallenged to head his 13th goal of the season 18 minutes later.

Palace got back into contention when Clinton Morrison scrambled in Lombardo's knockdown after a searching cross by Nicky Rizzo, who had a fine game on Palace's left flank. Lombardo also made the second goal, crossing for Fan Zhiyi to head home. It may well have been Lombardo's last act at Selhurst Park and Palace fans will be wondering how many other players will have left by the time they see their team again.

Goals: Angell (3) 0-1; Angell (21) 0-2; Morrison (43) 1-2; Fan (46) 2- 2.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Miller; Burton, Tuttle, Moore, Rodger; Lombardo (Curcic, 66), Fan Zhiyi, Fullarton, Rizzo (Austin, 75); Morrison, Bradbury (McKenzie, 69).

Stockport County (4-4-2): Nash; Connelly, Flynn, McIntosh, Dinning; Matthews (Grant, 59; Gannon, 90), McInnes, Hughes (Cooper, 54), Woodthorpe; Angell, Moore.

Referee: B Jordan (Tring).

Bookings: Palace: Moore, Fullarton. Stockport: Connelly, McInnes, Hughes.

Man of the match: Rizzo.

Attendance: 15,517.