THE PALACE chairman, Mark Goldberg, almost had something to celebrate until grim reality returned in the form of a stoppage-time equaliser from Sheffield United's Lee Morris at Bramall Lane last night.
But at least someone's honour was satisfied as the prodigious Morris stole in to deprive Palace of their second win inside three days. Steve Bruce's team did not deserve to lose this First Division match, if only for the energy they invested in it.
Palace stood firm in the face of a fierce second-half onslaught in a wind-affected game, but goalkeeper Kevin Miller was unable to hold a swerving free-kick from the Blades' Paul Devlin, and Morris reacted quickest to strike an injury-time face-saver.
Palace's troubles were still not over. Steve Thomson, a second-half substitute, was shown his second yellow card and sent off for two time-wasting offences - and was then promised a fine by the Palace manager, Steve Coppell.
Yet earlier it had appeared that Palace, without an away win since they beat struggling Oxford on Boxing Day, were on course to lift their spirits.
Gordan Petric, a pounds 300,000 signing from Rangers last November, fired them in front after only 10 minutes with an astonishing 35-yard curler that caught the home goalkeeper Alan Kelly unawares. From that point on it was a defensive struggle for a team that currently plays without pay.
But Sheffield failed to find any first-half fluency despite a mountain of possession and were unable to muster support for their hugely talented midfielder Curtis Woodhouse, who is surely destined for the Premiership with or without his present team.
After the break Palace had to defend in depth to protect their lead, but it was a struggle that attracted yellow cards for Jamie Smith, Simon Rodger, and Petric, as well as the unfortunate Thomson.
Yet, though they rarely ventured forward, Palace almost claimed a second goal when another Petric shot crashed against Kelly's bar from a 35-yard free-kick.
Sheffield United (4-3-3): Kelly; Derry, Sandford, Holdsworth, Quinn; Ford, Woodhouse, Hamilton; Morris, Marcelo, Devlin. Substitutes: Twiss, Jacobsen, Henry.
Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Miller; Petric, Moore, Tuttle; Smith, Foster (Thomson, 45), Mullins, Rodger, Sun Jihai; Morrison, Fan Zhiyi (McKenzie, 67). Substitute not used: Evans.
Referee: G Laws (Whitley Bay).