Crystal Palace's manager Neil Warnock wrote in these pages on Saturday that his most enjoyable journey home this season followed a superb rearguard action at Stoke and that the worst was after conceding a late equalising goal at Bristol City in February. The trip back along the M4 following tomorrow night's second leg of the Championship semi-final play-off is likely to set a new high or low, depending on whether his team can overcome the advantage that City established on Saturday with David Noble's superb 30-yard shot in the third minute of added time.
It was an equally late goal at Ashton Gate that upset Warnock so much last time, eventually costing him a £2,000 donation to Football Association coffers for demanding to know why the match had not been ended earlier. The irony on Saturday was that Palace were delighted to see five extra minutes signalled, having seized the initiative by equalising Louis Carey's goal from a cleverly worked free-kick with Ben Watson's penalty in the 86th minute.
Instead of being able to claim an advantage from having the momentum of the tie back in his team's favour, however, Warnock had to resort to berating City's celebrations in front of their 2,000 supporters on the far side of the pitch and appealing to tomorrow's referee, the Premier League's Howard Webb, to be stricter in protecting his players. "I thought they were arrogant," he said of the victors. "We don't need any more motivation." As for Mike Jones, the referee: "I expect a lot more protection on Tuesday. They came to make sure our young lads got a few kicks early on. They did whatever they could get away with."
It was a good shot at psychological warfare, though his opposite number is no novice in these matters. Gary Johnson was, after all, brought up under none other than John Beck at Cambridge United, a master of the game's darker arts. Well aware that City were going into the tie in much worse form (two wins in 11) than a buoyant home side (one defeat in 12), Johnson accused his players of having had sand kicked in their faces in a 2-0 defeat at Selhurst earlier this season. A series of thudding challenges made it clear the point had hit home, though Jones booked only one player, Marvin Elliott, for a high tackle on Danny Butterfield.
"Neil Warnock's a perfect exponent of the mental side, but we're quite clever ourselves," said Johnson. "We know how to parry and riposte," he added. Touché.
Goals: Carey (52) 0-1; Watson pen (86) 1-1; Noble (90) 1-2.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Speroni; Butterfield, Fonte, Hudson, Hill; Soares, Watson, Derry (Lawrence 76); Sinclair, Morrison, Moses (Scowcroft 53, Ifill 60). Substitutes not used: Fletcher, Scannell.
Bristol City (4-4-2): Basso; Orr, McCombe, Carey, McAllister; Noble (Johnson 90), Elliott, Carle, McIndoe; Adebola, Trundle (Fontaine 90). Substitutes not used: Weale (gk), Sproule, Byfield.
Referee: M Jones (Cheshire)
Booked: Bristol City Elliot
Man of the match: Noble