The talk beforehand was all about the money at stake but football should be about footballers and it was one of the game's great pros who stole the headlines.
Kevin Phillips, 39 years of age and three times a losing play-off finalist, came off the bench to score a nerveless penalty that sent Crystal Palace back into the Premier League. Phillips is unlikely to play in the top flight, he knows he is not as ageless as Ryan Giggs, but no one at Selhurst Park will forget his 285th career goal.
Palace deserved to win. They had the better of a game that took an age to catch light and would have won in normal time had it not been for Watford's former Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. With the Hornets lacking any sting it was the Spaniard who pushed the game into extra-time. Finally, after 105 minutes, Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha produced one trick too many for Watford's Marco Cassetti whose trip conceded the penalty.
Thus it was that Palace's two loanees – Phillips belongs to Blackpool, Zaha has been lent back by United – combined to defeat a team who used 10 loanees on the day, nine of them belonging to clubs controlled by Watford's owners the Pozzo family.
This reliance on borrowed players has met with criticism – but is it that much worse than clubs being funded by parachute payments or, as with automatically-promoted Cardiff City and Hull City, by sugar daddies?
What is undeniable is the impressive way Gianfranco Zola has sifted through his vast squad to find a winning team while playing a 46-match league season.
This, though, was a match too many for Watford who rarely produced the vibrant, attractive, passing football that has been their hallmark this season. They began, as usual, with three at the back but Palace's wide men, Jonathan Williams and Zaha pushed on so far that it quickly became five at the back with three men marking Aaron Wilbraham. That gave Palace a numerical superiority in midfield and they dominated possession for much of the first half-hour.
However, though Zaha looked a threat whenever he was in possession Palace were unable to translate their territorial advantage into chances. With Kagisho Dikgacoi limping off injured and Palace's other holding player, Mile Jedinak, constrained by a booking, Watford were eventually able to press themselves and created the only real chance of the half. However, not only did Damien Delaney block Matej Vydra's shot, but the Czech suffered an injury which prevented him returning for the second period.
After this soporific first half both teams emerged to show greater intent. Almen Abdi and Alex Geijo wasted good opportunities to at last test Julian Speroni before Almunia was forced into a brace of saves. First he denied Stuart O'Keefe with his legs after Zaha had released the substitute, then the veteran Phillips. As the chances came and went – Danny Gabbidon mis-cuing at the far post, Wilbraham and Jedinak denied by Almunia – it increasingly seemed the absence of 30-goal Glenn Murray would cost Palace. This seemed underlined when Watford roused themselves in extra-time.
Speroni, though, was as sure-handed as Almunia. The Argentine recovered well to palm the ball away as Troy Deeney looked set to tap in Abdi's cross and then held Cristian Battocchio's swerving drive.
Finally Zaha ran at Cassetti and induced a tired tackle. Phillips, a play-off loser as far back as 1997 with Sunderland, and also in 2008 (West Brom) and last year (Blackpool) took responsibility. His penalty was so clinical even Michael Owen, deadly from 12 yards himself, tweeted his admiration.
In the second period of added time Watford belatedly threw everything forward, forcing Palace to defend with growing desperation. Speroni held Abdi's free-kick but was then twice grateful to Joel Ward who blocked Joel Ekstrand's shot with his abdomen then headed Fernando Forestieri's shot off the line. That was in the final minute. There was time still for Watford to force two corners but even with Almunia in attack they could not rescue themselves.
Watford, then, must now retreat to Vicarage Road and find a way to adapt to new rules likely to be brought in to prevent the mass loans they have enjoyed this season. Palace have an even busier summer. If this match made anything clear it is that they will need significant summer investment to survive in the top flight especially as Zaha is off to Old Trafford and Murray, who limped around the pitch on crutches afterwards will not be fit for many months. Within seconds of the final whistle William Hill made them 8/13 to go straight back down.
How much will they spend? Bear in mind Palace were in administration just three years ago and should be cautious. There was the usual pre-match hype about the value of this fixture to the winning club, with the figure now inflated to £135m, but that ignores the reality that much of this income will drain away in increased costs, notably wages.
Hull City were on the brink of administration two-and-a-half years after winning this fixture – and that was despite spending two seasons in the top flight. No lasting benefit seems to have accrued to the 2010 winners Blackpool, despite a parsimonious approach to their season in the sun. Should Palace go straight back down the real uplift in income, even taking into account parachute payments, will probably be less than £50m.
But such considerations are for when the hangovers wear off. Today, for Palace, was for celebrating. Despite the over-powering pop music customarily forced upon Wembley matches – but mercifully absent on Saturday – the atmosphere had echoes of that created at the German Champions League final with the yellow of Watford occupying the Eastern end where Dortmund had congregated. Unlike Saturday the west end was the noisiest throughout and at the final whistle Palace were glad all over.
Man of the match Zaha.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
£120m guaranteed: How it breaks down
In broadcast revenue with the enhanced £1bn annual TV deal kicking in from next season. It equals the amount Manchester United made from TV rights this season.
Even if a club is relegated after one season in the Premier League, they will be entitled to parachute payments over the following four years of £60m, a £12m increase.Reuse content