Crystal Palace would have gone second had they beaten Birmingham City at home this evening, and most expected them to do just that. But they failed emphatically, and were well beaten 4-0, their first home defeat since August and their worst home league loss since 2009.
It was a jarringly bad performance from Palace, a line-fluffing from the whole cast. Earlier in the afternoon Watford, one point ahead in third, had slipped up, conceding in the last minute to draw 3-3 with Burnley. That was bad, opening the door for Palace, but this – which Ian Holloway described as a “huge dent” in their ambitions - was far worse.
Palace could point to the lack of Wilfried Zaha, their best player, who was suspended. In his absence, though, Birmingham took it on themselves to provide all of the vigour, imaginative, pace and style that Zaha usually brings to Selhurst Park.
Holloway did have Jonny Williams on the pitch but Lee Clark’s youngsters were far superior. Nathan Redmond, Ravel Morrison and Shane Ferguson – 19, 20 and 21 respectively – all scored with the other coming from a Damien Delaney own goal to which all three contributed.
Redmond and Morrison were the two best players on the pitch. Palace had nothing as good as them going forward – Williams and Yannick Bolasie were poor and Kevin Phillips and Glenn Murray were isolated up front. More to the point, though, Palace could not stop Birmingham’s young attackers.
Palace should have been alerted when Redmond shot over after 10 minutes and, half-way through the first-half, he put Birmingham ahead. Taking a pass from Wade Elliot, Redmond shuffled past Mile Jedinak, beat Delaney, made himself space and fired into the far bottom corner from the edge of the box. “He’s a super footballer,” Clark said of the teenage winger, “he plays high-tempo, he can beat people, he’s playing really well.”
Redmond’s great friend Morrison, playing behind Nikola Zigic, was involved in all of Birmingham’s attacks. Six minutes after the first goal Morrison’s header from Redmond’s cross was well saved by Julian Speroni. Zigic met Ferguson’s resultant corner and Delaney deflected it in.
Palace started the second half better but could not score when they needed to. Birmingham were too sharp, and made the decisive goal after 63 minutes. Ferguson played in Mitch Hancox who crossed to Morrison, who waited for the ball to cross him – trusting his technique - and finished first-time in the bottom corner. The disappointment was obvious and five minutes later Mile Jedinak cut down Morrison 20 yards out. Ferguson punished him by curling the free-kick into the top corner.
“He’s a very, very talented young man,” Clark said of Morrison afterwards. “My voice is done in because I had to talk him through the 88 minutes, he’s like a kid in the park playing with his mates. He’s starting to produce performances and that’s all we can ask for.”
Clark, whose only frustration was that Birmingham had not played like that earlier in the season, said that a four-goal win did not feature in his “wildest dreams”. Holloway was equally surprised, and admitted he has a real job to do over the final seven games. Second-placed Hull can move four points ahead of Watford and six clear of Palace with a win tomorrow.
“It’s about what you’re thinking when the ball goes in the net and what are you going to do about it,” said Holloway, whose post-match press conference was interrupted by a Palace fan worried that their season is going wrong at the worst possible moment. “I have got to pick them up and get them going again. I think our lads are hamstrung by wanting it too much, we have got to make sure we remain calm.”
Crystal Palace (4-4-2) Speroni; Richards (Dobbie, 45), Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey; Bolasie, Dikgacoi, Jedinak, Williams (Moritz, 70); Phillips (Wilbraham, 70), Murray
Birmingham City (4-4-1-1) Butland; Caddis, Davies, Robinson, Hancox; Redmond, Fahey (Mullins, 67), Elliott, Ferguson (Ambrose, 87); Morrison (Reilly, 84); Zigic
Man of the match: Morrison
Match rating: 8