Football: Hopkin's late hit has Palace glad all over

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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace 1 Sheffield United 0

The symmetry of Crystal Palace's victory in yesterday's First Division play-off final was no doubt lost on the beaten side. However, for the red and blue contingent in a 64,383 crowd, it was beautiful.

Denied a place in the Premiership at the same stage last season when Steve Claridge scored for Leicester in the last seconds of extra time, Palace made it this time thanks to a 30-yard shot from David Hopkin in the 90th minute of normal time.

United had less than 10 seconds to make amends. At the final whistle, the men in white dropped where they stood while their opponents formed a mad heap of jubilation which centred on the ginger head of their captain.

It was the 17th goal of the season for the 27-year-old midfielder, who may yet finish on an even higher note with his first Scottish cap, having been called into the squad for next weekend's match against Malta.

Hopkin is out of contract, and he will be having discussions soon with his chairman amid rumours that he may be moving on to Leeds United. Yesterday, however, he was content to enjoy the moment, although he spared a thought for the 1997 losers.

"I know how Sheffield United feel," he said. "It's just like us this time last year."

Hopkin's inspired strike from the edge of the box, after Carl Tiler had headed out a short corner crossed by Simon Rodger, decided a game that was - frankly - laboured.

Sheffield, deprived of the services of their most sparky performer, Don Hutchison - who dislocated his right shoulder in a fall a minute before half-time - failed to trouble the Palace keeper throughout. Perhaps they should have called upon their famous supporter in the stand, Sean Bean. After all, he did manage to score for them in the film When Saturday Comes.

The Londoners created what chances there were, but the first of them did not arrive until the 53rd minute, when Kevin Muscat's cross cleared David Holdsworth and gave Bruce Dyer a clear shooting opportunity which he miscued.

Dyer nearly made amends with an overhead kick in the 82nd minute, but as the ball landed in the side-netting it seemed Palace might have nothing to show for their efforts once again - until Hopkin transformed the occasion.

The result was a triumph for Palace's caretaker-manager, Steve Coppell, who took charge of the team for the second time in his career when Dave Bassett departed for Nottingham Forest at the end of February.

Coppell was not with Palace for last season's disappointment, but he knows the scene, having been in charge for the 1990 FA Cup final defeat by Manchester United.

"When the ball came out to David, someone behind my shoulder said: `Oh no'!" Coppell said. "I don't know what it meant, not to shoot it, or not to cross it. The ball almost travelled like slow motion, the way it curled into the net. It was fabulous.

"I looked at the Sheffield players coming off the pitch just now. Their world had caved in for the time being. That was what we had to suffer last season, and it was even crueller because it was after extra time. This week everyone was aware that they didn't want to go through that painful process again."

Thus Palace, who won the last of the two-legged play-off finals to reach the top flight eight years ago, were back in the division which they left two years ago. Like Blackburn, and then Leicester, they had followed defeat at this stage with victory. Coppell recalled the same kind of thing happening to him as a member of the Manchester United team which lost the 1976 FA Cup final to Southampton and returned to beat Liverpool the following year.

"I don't know what it is," he said. "It gives you that steel and determination. You want to go back and restore the damage. Now we want to model ourselves on Leicester and what they have achieved in the last year."

United's manager, Howard Kendall, meanwhile, is taking Crystal Palace as his side's model. "We have to do what they have done," he said. For Palace, then, the wheel has turned full circle - from victims to victim support in the space of a year.

Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Nash; Edworthy, Linighan, Tuttle; Muscat, Hopkin, Roberts, Rodger, Gordon; Dyer, Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Houghton, McKenzie, Veart.

Sheffield United (4-4-2): Tracey; Holdsworth, Tiler, Nilsen; White, Hutchison (Sandford, 44), Spackman, Ward, Whitehouse; Kachuro (Taylor, 25), Fjortoft. Substitute not used: Walker.

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).