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Football: Morrison's leveller eases Palace plight

Crystal Palace 1 Sunderland 1

IT WAS a case of glad all over at Selhurst Park yesterday afternoon. While Sunderland added a point towards their inevitable Premiership return Crystal Palace were able to chip a few flakes from their debt mountain with the receipts from their largest crowd of the season.

More pertinently, many in the 22,000-plus crowd will be back as they saw Steve Coppell's patched-up mixture of youth and experience show a spirit and verve which belied the club's off-field crisis.

Sunderland had hoped to seal promotion on the same ground at which they learned of their relegation from the Premiership two seasons ago. However, Palace's resistance, and results elsewhere, means they will have to wait until Saturday's home match with Huddersfield at least.

They looked set for victory when they went ahead after 23 minutes through Kevin Phillips' 18th goal of the season, a neat near-post header from Nicky Summerbee's corner.

But Palace, showing the confidence of an eight-match unbeaten run, and the fearlessness of youth, refused to buckle and Clinton Morrison equalised 11 minutes before the break. A blocked shot from Steve Thomson fell to Leon McKenzie, his shot was parried by Thomas Sorensen, and Morrison reacted first to the loose ball.

With Fan Zhiyi and Craig Foster linking well in midfield, and the precocious Hayden Mullins impressive as a sweeper, Palace deserved parity but Sunderland took control after the break. Summerbee sent over a stream of crosses with Naill Quinn going closest to scoring from them when he headed against the bar with 20 minutes to go. By way of variation Sunderland then broke down the left but, after Lee Clark set up Allan Johnston, Kevin Miller capped a fine display with an outstanding reflex save.

Sunderland were thus left with a point but their immediate future is assured. The team will need strengthening but, with the Stadium of Light regularly attracting 41,000, this should not be a problem.

Palace's future is less certain. They may have promising young players but they are also pounds 23m in debt and in administration. This week's Croydon Advertiser echoed many supporters' fear with the back-page headline: "Wake up: Eagles could really die."

The paper called for the departure of Mark Goldberg, the fan-turned-chairman who has overseen the slide into financial embarrassment. Before the match Goldberg gave a series of interviews in which he offered the usual promises about a brighter future. He had been in this situation before, with other companies, he said, and had gone on to prosper. He omitted to mention that this was not always the case since he has also had previous experience with the liquidators.

Goldberg promised that the wages for March would be paid in full today. He also said there was enough money to run the club until July. The season starts in August so Palace will doubtless be seeking a lucrative pre-season friendly or two.

They will at least still be in the First Division, largely due to Coppell's efforts. Since the crisis was revealed Palace have gleaned 15 points from 21 under him, despite releasing seven more players taking the total sold or loaned this season to 17.

This may have slashed the wage bill, but 11 men must still be found to fill the teamsheet every week and after giving three youngsters their debuts on Saturday (making it 41 players used this season), Coppell was forced to play Gordan Petric yesterday.

In the match programme the Palace manager spoke of the ordeal being suffered by Petric and his fellow Serb, Sasa Curcic.

"They have to ring home on a daily basis and there is almost a look of fear on their faces when they make the calls," he wrote, adding: "I will not, for the players' sake, play either... as long as the bombing continues."

However, since those notes were written Petric had spoken to his mother in Yugoslavia. He had been told that there was nothing he could do to help so he should try and live a normal life, said Coppell. Petric played and, though he took a while to settle - being booked for a tussle with Quinn early on - his experience was invaluable.

Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Miller; Woozley, Mullins, Petric; Austin, Thompson, Fan Zhiyi, Foster, Sun Jihai; McKenzie, Morrison. Substitutes not used: Burton, Martin, Carlisle.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin (Holloway, 68), Butler, Melville, Gray; Summerbee, Ball, Clark, Johnston; Phillips, Quinn. Substitutes not used: Bridges, Dichio.

Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay).