Crystal Palace 0 Watford 3: Palace can restore pride at Vicarage Road, says Dowie

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The Independent Football

There are very few former footballers who profess to enjoy managing more than playing, but Iain Dowie is one of them. And when he makes the point in the wake of the kind of juddering defeat his team suffered in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final, you have to believe him.

"I just enjoy it better than being a player," said the former West Ham and Northern Ireland forward. "Although it has not been particularly rewarding today..."

That was one way of putting it. In the space of 45 minutes, the season which Palace entered with such hopefulness following their relegation from the Premiership appeared to lie in ruins as their opponents as good as booked a place in the play-off final with a truly impressive team display.

Dowie accepted that tomorrow's second leg at Vicarage Road will represent the greatest challenge of his managerial career. "We are well behind on points," Dowie said. "If we get one goal, all of a sudden there might be a little bit of life in it. Then if we get a second, who knows ... never say never." The problem for Dowie is that Watford's young team, adroitly coached by another up-and-coming manager in Adrian Boothroyd, look eminently capable of sticking more goals past a back four that was made to look lumberingly inept on Saturday.

While Palace began brightly in front of their balloon-bobbing, ribbon-rippling fans, with Andrew Johnson exposing a lack of pace in the heart of the Watford defence, they were never dominant. One incident in the 24th minute might have changed the pattern of the match as Palace forward Clinton Morrison was prevented from running through on goal by Jay DeMerit. The referee saw no offence. Dowie saw a "blatant" foul. Such is the manager's burden.

But Dowie did point out that it was his own side's lack of concentration that had undone them. Central defender Darren Ward will not want to see too many replays of the way he let Watford's top scorer Marlon King put the visitors in the lead a with his 22nd goal of the season after controlling a punt from his own keeper and then turning to score with a shot in-off the post a minute after half time.

Dowie attempted to shake things up with a double substitution after 64 minutes, but within three minutes his team suffered another jolting blow as Ashley Young curled in a free-kick that transformed Palace keeper Gabor Kiraly into a vainly flailing figure. Palace looked down. And five minutes from time, they looked out as Matthew Spring burst into the box past Emmerson Boyce's oil-tanker challenge before thumping the ball into the roof of the net.

It was the signal for Palace's forlorn and silent fans to start streaming from the ground. But while their counterparts went wild at the sound of the final whistle, celebrations were conspicuously absent from the Watford players. They had been told good and proper by their manager that this was only half-time. That serious sense of purpose bodes ill for Palace tomorrow evening.

Goals: King (46) 0-1; Young (65) 0-2; Spring (75) 0-3.

Crystal Palace: (4-4-2): Kiraly; Hall, Ward (Butterfield, 64), Popovic, Boyce; Soares (Freedman, 64), Watson, Hughes, McAnuff; Morrison, Johnson. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Leigertwood, Reich.

Watford (4-4-2): Foster; Doyley, DeMerit, Mackay, Stewart; Chambers (Eagles, 83), Spring, Mahon, Young; King, Henderson (Bangura, h-t). Substitutes not used: Chamberlain (gk), Mariappa, McNamee.

Referee: M Jones (Cheshire).

Booked: Crystal Palace Popovic; Watford Spring, Chambers.

Man of the match: DeMerit.

Attendance: 22,880.

Ups and Downs

* CHAMPIONSHIP Champions: Reading

Promoted: Sheffield United

In play-offs: Watford, Preston North End, Leeds United, Crystal Palace

Relegated: Crewe, Millwall, Brighton

* LEAGUE ONE Champions: Southend

Promoted: Colchester

In play-offs: Brentford, Huddersfield, Barnsley, Swansea

Relegated: Hartlepool, MK Dons, Swindon, Walsall

* LEAGUE TWO Champions: Carlisle

Promoted: Northampton, Leyton Orient

In play-offs: Grimsby, Cheltenham, Wycombe, Lincoln

Relegated: Oxford, Rushden