Football: Freedman's furious finale

Crystal Palace 3 Shipperley 68, Freedman 89, 90 Wolves 1 Smith 90 Attendance: 21,053
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The Independent Online
ON history, stadium, attendances and resources, Wolverhampton Wanderers deserve to be in the Premiership. On yesterday's evidence at Selhurst Park, their present brand of football does not. Not only their modern messy kit is a betrayal of the Old Gold.

Wolves' power, and the passion that Molineux can generate, may yet prevail in Wednesday's second leg of the Nationwide League First Division's play- off semi-final, but a less careless Crystal Palace should be optimistic about protecting a two-goal lead, having won 3-0 there four months ago.

The advantage came about in a dramatic three-goal last three minutes out of context with much of the dross that preceded it. Both teams seemed to be settling for Neil Shipperley's goal for Palace; then the substitute Dougie Freedman, on the field for only 15 minutes, pounced to double the lead. Jamie Smith's first goal for Wolves moments later looked to have lessened their task, but finally, in a frantic finale, Freedman popped up again.

The Wolves manager, Mark McGhee, not for the first time this season, was left fuming. It was not so much that Freedman looked offside for his second goal of the game - and 15th of the season - but that his defence had employed the tactic. "It was a big, big goal," he said. "We hadn't played offside all match and my players were wrong to do it at that point."

Wolves defended too deeply, kept the ball too infrequently, passed it poorly and supported too rarely the hungry symbol of the club over the last decade, the 32-year-old Steve Bull, still to play in the top league. In addition, too few matched his commitment.

In the first minute of the first half he clipped a through-ball from Darren Ferguson wide and in the last dived to head wide Smith's cross. In between, however, Palace dominated with Ray Houghton and Simon Rodger effective at the hub. They might have had an early lead but for Mike Stowell palming away David Hopkin's half-volley and Adrian Williams excellently blocking Hopkin's shot.

After half-time, Shipperley missed a glorious opportunity when he headed Houghton's corner wide but he soon made amends to give Palace the lead. This time, Rodger delivered the ball, this time Shipperley met it firmly to plant a header into the back of the net.

Williams responded for Wolves with a header on to the top of the bar from Ferguson's corner and Bull was doing his best to grab an equaliser, Stowell twice saving snap shots and another drifting wide. He was hauled off for his pains, although he was the liveliest in gold.

However, it was another substitution that lifted the match. On came Freedman, who will miss the final if Palace make it, having been sent off for a punch at Port Vale last Sunday - "Frank Warren tried to sign him," the Palace manager, Steve Coppell, said.

First, he accepted the persevering Shipperley's knock-down to volley home a dipping left-footed shot from 20 yards. Then he watched as, at the other end of the pitch, Iwan Roberts' mishit volley spun off Andy Linighan to Smith, who tucked home neatly. "I thought we were going to waste 88 minutes' good work," Coppell said. "I was up the road, boiling."

Freedman, though, kept his eye on Roberts's long free-kick as the Wolves defence stepped out and, this time right-footed, chipped Stowell. When the final whistle blew moments later, McGhee - "I was very controlled" - sought the referee's reason for allowing the goal. A wide player, it was later established, was playing Freedman onside.

The merits of the goal apart, Wolves had deserved to lose by two. They play "Glad all over" through the tinny speakers at Selhurst. This one might not be quite all over, but after losing to Leicester City in the play-off final at Wembley last season, Palace do deserve some consolation.