It took Danny Dichio nearly six months to score his second goal of the season but only another 54 minutes to claim his third as the veteran striker sent Preston into the fifth round of the FA Cup last night. Dichio had not found the net since August until his 34th-minute header levelled the scores at Selhurst Park and his winner two minutes from time earned a meeting with Coventry City or Middlesbrough.
It was a scrappy match, played on a bumpy pitch in front of a pitiful crowd of 7,356, but if either team deserved victory it was Preston, who extended their unbeaten run to 23 matches and have clearly got the better of Palace.
This was the third meeting in 10 days between the teams, Preston having won 2-0 in the Championship at Deepdale four days after a 1-1 draw in the Cup. With both clubs occupying a Championship play-off place, it may not be the last they see of each other before the season is over.
By the end of the match Preston had four strikers on the pitch as they went all-out for victory, which was secured when Dichio converted Paul McKenna's free-kick at the far post as the Palace defence hesitated. The winner was almost an action replay of Dichio's first goal, a far-post header after another McKenna free-kick from the right.
Billy Davies, the Preston manager, was delighted for the striker, who has often been overlooked this season and would probably not have played had Brett Ormerod not been cup-tied.
"His contribution has been first-class," Davies said after the match. "He's been unlucky. He could easily have scored eight goals this season and his all-round effort and work-rate have been applauded by everyone at the club. He works his socks off."
Iain Dowie, Palace's manager, felt his team had dominated the match, although he agreed their performance in an increasingly fraught second half had not matched their play in the first 45 minutes.
Andy Johnson, watched by Tord Grip, Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant, and Dougie Freedman received patchy service from midfield and made little headway against Chris Lucketti and Youl Mawene. Preston have conceded three goals in their last eight matches and made light of the absence here of the injured Graham Alexander and the suspended Claude Davis.
Palace had taken the lead after 25 minutes, Darren Ward scoring his sixth goal of the season from close range after Carlo Nash stayed unwisely rooted to his line following Jobi McAnuff's driven corner from the left. Thereafter Dowie's team often threatened on the break, but all too often their final ball was poor.
Preston worked hard but for long periods seemed to lack the nous to make the breakthrough. Patrick Agyemang tried hard to make headway down the Palace flanks, but the promise of his storming runs was rarely fulfilled. It was no surprise that it took a set-piece to settle a contest in which both teams had fought each other to a virtual standstill.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Kiraly; Boyce, Ward, Hudson, Borrowdale (Andrews, 90); McAnuff, Watson, Riihilahti, Reich (Soares, 90); Johnson, Freedman (Macken, 72). Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Wilson.
Preston North End (4-4-2): Nash; Mears, Mawene, Lucketti, Hill; Sedgwick, McKenna, O'Neil (Hibbert, 87), Neal (Nugent, 74); Agyemang, Dichio. Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), Beattie, Parillon.
Referee: P Armstrong (Berkshire).