Football: Palace sing when they are losing

Crystal Palace 0 Leicester City 3
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The Independent Online
TO ANYONE who does not know what it is like to be a diehard football supporter the scene must have seemed surreal. Crystal Palace had just gone three goals down, their defence having disintegrated for the umpteenth time this season. On this inept display at Selhurst Park on Saturday nobody would have bet on their avoiding the indignity of becoming the first side in English professional football to go a whole season without a home win.

Some fans made quietly for the exits, but what did those remaining do? Barrack the team? Call for the manager/chairman/board of directors to be sacked? No, they sang. For the last 15 minutes the Holmesdale Road end faithful stood and chanted, cheered their team and sang their hearts out for the lads - all with hardly a hint of irony.

Maybe it was a way of letting off steam after another miserable afternoon. The more imaginative interpretation would be that it was the fans' way of expressing both their collective support - for their team and for each other - and their dismay at the way their club has been run this season.

The cynic would say that this Palace team do not deserve such supporters, but that would be too simple. While individual under-performing players have played their part in Palace's demise, evidence of the background turmoil in which they have had to play was there for all to see on Saturday.

Six weeks ago Mark Goldberg, Palace's prospective new owner, spoke to the press before a home game against Coventry (result: 0-3). He gave Steve Coppell, then the manager, and his team a friendly confidence-booster by saying that Terry Venables (whom he still apparently wants to employ as manager) was "the one man" who could turn Palace's fortunes around. On Saturday it was the turn of Ron Noades (who is still the Palace chairman) to twist the knife into Attilio Lombardo, now caretaker player-manager.

In the match programme Noades gave his views on Lombardo's team selection for the previous two games. "I was a bit disappointed that the side who played Tottenham was not the same team that had beaten Newcastle," he said. "Perhaps a few of our side would have been better suited to positions on the bench as some of them were clearly not going to be able to play 90 minutes. In a way I felt that we helped Tottenham a bit with our team selection."

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Ron. In that sort of environment it should have been no surprise that heads quickly went down after Palace went behind at the end of a first half in which they had played some decent football, though there could still be no forgiving the pitiful defending which once again cost them dear.

Leicester's second goal summed up Palace's performance at the back. Marc Edworthy failed to prevent Steve Guppy crossing from the left, Dean Gordon left Robbie Savage free to head the ball back at the far post and Emile Heskey was unmarked when he shot home from 10 yards. Heskey had beaten Valerien Ismael at the near post for Leicester's first after Edworthy had given Graham Fenton space to cross from the left, while Matt Elliott was allowed a free shot in the penalty area for the third.

Leicester, well organised, hard working and with a collective sense of purpose, are role models for all teams attempting to find their feet in Premiership football. Under Martin O'Neill's astute management everyone seems to play to his maximum potential. Although the dangerous Heskey and the impeccable Elliott were arguably their best performers here, it would have been hard to find fault with any Leicester player.

After this victory O'Neill has his sights on European competition again next season. "I believe seventh place will qualify for Europe and we can still achieve that," he said. As for Palace, the end of the season cannot come soon enough.

Goals: Heskey (44) 0-1; Heskey (60) 0-2; Elliott (74) 0-3.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Miller; Smith, Edworthy, Ismael, Gordon; Lombardo, Billio (Curcic, 55), Fullarton, Rodger; Warhurst (Bent, 75), Padovano (Dyer, 55). Substitutes not used: Hreidarsson, Nash (gk).

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Prior, Elliott, Kaamark; Savage (Wilson, 81), Zagorakis (Parker, 72), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Fenton (Marshall, 81). Substitutes not used: Walsh, Arphexad (gk).

Referee: A B Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Booking: Crystal Palace: Billio.

Man of the match: Elliott.

Attendance: 18,771.