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Football: Rough justice for Palace

IT WAS one of the most bizarre and luckiest goals you could wish to see, but at least Crystal Palace's injury-time equaliser ensured justice was done at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Nearly two minutes of added time had been played when Birmingham's Gary Rowett and Martin Grainger converged on a ball five yards outside their penalty area. Rowett attempted to clear the ball upfield, but it cannoned off Grainger, flew back over the head of Kevin Poole, the goalkeeper, and landed in the corner of the net.

While the goal gave Palace deserved reward for their industry, the greater justice was it denied Birmingham a win. On this evidence you could not imagine how Trevor Francis' side had got into a First Division play-off position, let alone stake a claim for one of the automatic promotion places.

It was hard to recall a single attacking move of note from Birmingham in 90 minutes. Their goal came from a hotly-disputed Paul Furlong penalty early in the second half, the Birmingham striker having gone down under an innocuous challenge from Craig Moore.

While their defence looked reasonably solid, Birmingham offered next to nothing going forward. Steve Robinson and Martin O'Connor never got a grip on the midfield, Jon McCarthy and Peter Ndlovu failed to provide any threat from the flanks, and Furlong and Dele Adebola looked cumbersome in attack.

Palace should have won the game in the first half, but Wayne Carlisle shot wide from six yards, Lee Bradbury's header was brilliantly saved by Poole and Gordan Petric headed against the crossbar. Steve Coppell, in charge following the departure of Terry Venables, said: "We deserved a draw. It was fabulous to see that ball go in in the end. After the way we played in the first 45 minutes and the spirit the players showed I can't be disappointed. The first 45 minutes was the best I've seen since being here but I'm not going to get carried away."

Coppell is well aware of the size of his task. Mark Goldberg, the chairman, having already torn the guts out of the side by selling nearly all the best players, is now warning that several more still have to go as he pays the price for his ill-advised appointment of Venables and for his poor record in the transfer market.

Goldberg inherited a first-team squad that featured players of the quality of Matt Jansen, Attilio Lombardo, Marc Edworthy, Dean Gordon, Neil Shipperley, Bruce Dyer, Paul Warhurst and Hermann Hreidarsson. Such a squad were rightly considered promotion material, but, with the players they have left, avoiding relegation is now Palace's only realistic target.

Of the 14 on duty here, three were youngsters who had one start between them and five more had made fewer than 20 first team appearances for the club. Even more tellingly, they had scored a total of just 16 goals for Palace between them; indeed, Palace do not have a player on their books who has scored more than eight goals for the club.

At most clubs such a situation would have the fans calling for the chairman's head, but Palace supporters are a docile bunch. Perhaps, perversely, they derive amusement from Goldberg's attempts to justify his actions. "People might think it strange given what's happened in terms of player sales and losing the manager, but we are getting stronger and more stable all the time," he said in Saturday's programme. "We are certainly moving in the right direction now." Well that's all right then.

Goals: Furlong (49, pen) 0-1; Grainger (90, og) 1-1.

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Miller; Smith, Petric, Moore, Linighan, Fullarton; Foster (Thomson, 78), Mullins, Carlisle; Bradbury, McKenzie (Evans, 82). Substitute not used: Woozley.

Birmingham (4-4-2): Poole; Rowett, Ablett (Grainger, 23), Johnson, Charlton; McCarthy, Robinson, O'Connor, Ndlovu (Forster, 85); Furlong, Adebola (Hughes, h/t).

Bookings: Crystal Palace: McKenzie, Bradbury. Birmingham: Johnson.

Referee: C Wilkes (Gloucester).

Attendance: 15,996.

Man of the match: Linighan.