Palace near end of a bumpy ride to Wembley

 

Crystal Palace will have covered some distance if they protect their advantage in the Carling Cup semi-final tonight; from administration to Wembley within two years. Between those two markers they avoided relegation from the Championship on the final day of the season and were saved from extinction by the CPFC 2010 consortium.

Given they faced Manchester United in the previous round, Palace's progress in the Carling Cup has been one of the surprises of the season. Dougie Freedman, the manager, believes his players have thrived on an atmosphere where they were simply happy the club had not slipped from administration to liquidation. "Nothing can happen to these guys now," said Freedman, whose team hold a 1-0 lead over Cardiff from the first leg. "They've been in a situation where they haven't been paid, didn't know if the club was going to exist, last-day relegations. They are a group of players hungry for success after being knocked down for two seasons in terms of on and off-the-field experiences."

Paul Hart helped Palace stay up in 2010, then the group of businessmen led by Steve Parish, the co-chairman, rescued them from the threat of liquidation. It allowed young players such as Wilfried Zaha and Nathaniel Clyne to flourish. Both are expected to play against Cardiff amid interest from top-flight clubs. "If a big club comes along for a young lad, we have no regrets to see them go because they deserve it," said the midfielder Darren Ambrose.

The new era has seen Freedman emerge as a manager of promise. The Scot, who has been in charge for a year, believes the pressure is on Cardiff after an FA Cup final defeat and two play-off failures in the past four seasons. "I think the fans' expectations could possibly get over to the players before the game," said Freedman. "The heartache they've had over the last four or five years is difficult to take.

"I've watched the play-off games and they have always been a nearly team, nearly getting there, so I think the expectation levels there are a lot higher there than we have. There is a different atmosphere at Selhurst Park. We can't believe we're here, it's one of sheer enjoyment and being proud of the team." Freedman's comments – he previously suggested Cardiff would be "scared stiff" of failure – appear to have angered the Cardiff camp. Their striker Kenny Miller said: "The manager has mentioned Dougie's comments. Mind games always come into things when you go into management but it means nothing to us. I'm not scared stiff, I'll be anything but scared. It's a massive opportunity for the players and the club to get to a cup final at Wembley."

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