Momentum, supposed to be with Crystal Palace after a storming finish to the Championship season, was lost, dramatically regained and then surrendered again when David Noble drove in a 30-yard shot that establishes Bristol City as favourites to reach the play-off final on Saturday week.
City, after winning only two of their last 11 League games, had been in control from midway through the first half until the last few minutes of the game, when Neil Warnock's decision to push his centre-half Jose Fonte into attack was rewarded with a penalty converted by Ben Watson. But with two of five minutes' added time played, Noble, once an Arsenal youth player, struck a magnificent effort into the top corner of the net.
The one consolation for Palace is that the Football League, keen as ever to do their own thing, do not recognise away goals. Thus City were denied an additional reward for their bold approach. The big striker Dele Adebola terrorised the home defence, while Noble and the little Australian Nick Carle ran midfield and the captain Louis Carey – apart from one late aberration – held the defence firm.
Needless to say, neither manager was taking anything as settled, and Tuesday's second leg could still be a feisty affair. Warnock, who was fined £2,000 for his comments about the referee after City scored an equaliser against his side in injury time three months ago, said this time: "Our young lads didn't get any protection. But their second goal was worthy of a Premiership match. And in the end I'm quite proud of our lads."
Gary Johnson, schooled under John Beck at Cambridge United and keen on the mental side of the game, felt it necessary to wind his own team up by telling them they had been "bullied out of it" when beaten 2-0 at Selhurst in the League this season.
They responded with the physicality he wanted and found a referee in Mike Jones willing to issue only one yellow card all game, for a high challenge by City's Marvin Elliott that Warnock (right) felt should have been red. In the altercation on the touchline that followed, Johnson said he received "a nice little cold shower of water" from Shaun Derry, whom Palace had taken off.
At the final whistle the manager made a point of gathering his players together to remind them that the job was not yet done. "I didn't want them celebrating as if we'd won the semi-final," he said. "I nipped that in the bud. Good players and managers learn from defeats and I told a couple of ours they'd let themselves get beaten up here in the League. They didn't like that and today we showed controlled aggression."
Victor Moses, the 17-year-old playing as one of Palace's two wide men, was a victim of much of that aggression, but still threatened the visitors early on with his dribbling and a long throw. Scott Sinclair, one of those loan players from the Premier League (Chelsea in his case) who can have such an effect at this level, maintained more sustained trickery but the moment when he failed to score in the 27th minute could be pinpointed as the one when Palace's momentum first flagged. Gliding away from Jamie McCombe and round the advancing goalkeeper, he slid the ball towards an empty goal with insufficient power, allowing the left-back Jamie McAllister to clear.
From then on Adebola began to make his considerable presence felt. Twice in a minute before half-time he escaped Fonte's clutches, his fierce header on the second occasion forcing Julian Speroni to make the first real save of the match. Another speciality of Johnson's is devising set-pieces, each of which have their own name. In the 52nd minute, the shout of "Weasel" went up, prompting a complex routine which worked a treat as Noble, instead of shooting, found Carle for a square pass to Carey, whose finish would have been admirable in a striker, let alone a centre-half who had not scored for two years.
Palace changed tack and seemed to have sprung themselves from jail in the 87th minute when Carey's tackle on Fonte was deemed a foul, Watson calmly putting the penalty away. But a Noble finish to an often ignoble contest had City tempting fate, and Warnock, with their wild celebrations.
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