Brian Deane, the man who scored the first goal in the Premiership, struck with only 50 seconds remaining yesterday to deny Wigan Athletic the chance of completing a 26-year rise from the Northern Premier League to the company of Manchester United and Arsenal via the First Division play-offs.
Despite trailing to Neil Roberts' first-half goal, West Ham United were already assured of a place in the annual, end-of-season festival of frayed nerves when Deane equalised. The goal was a cruel blow for Wigan, yet no doubt cemented the high standing among Crystal Palace fans of Alan Pardew, the West Ham manager and former Palace FA Cup hero.
Pardew's side go on to meet Ipswich in a two-leg semi-final. Wigan must wait at least another 12 months, although there were plenty of moments when they looked capable of achieving the 4-0 win that would have squeezed West Ham out of the top six.
A year earlier, as West Ham slipped out of the top flight, Wigan were leaving the Second Division as champions. During the first half, however, Paul Jewell's team were vastly superior. Jimmy Bullard, who had started his career at Upton Park, dominated Michael Carrick in midfield.
Only wayward finishing and Stephen Bywater's fingertips kept Wigan out until the 34th minute, when Alan Mahon's deftly flighted pass sent Nathan Ellington racing clear. Christian Dailly performed one of numerous last-ditch blocks, only for Ellington to scoop the loose ball to Roberts, who fired his first goal since August.
West Ham had been time-wasting from the opening minutes, but they regrouped after the break, when Wigan tired and appeared increasingly nervous. Despite the efforts of their imposing captain, Jason De Vos, Wigan started to interpret their pop-song anthem "Let's Hang On" too literally for the comfort of their manager, Jewell.
Finally, from a free-kick harshly awarded against Gary Teale, Carrick floated the ball towards Deane at the far post. De Vos was beaten in the air for the only time all afternoon. Wigan were shattered, while at Highfield Road, Palace's travelling army started to extol the virtues of a 36-year-old substitute 100 miles further up the M6.
Pardew praised the "professionalism" of his players, and Deane in particular after his first league goal since 31 January. "A 1-0 result would have been OK for us, but you have to be fair to the other clubs," he said. "Also, I didn't want to come back to Wigan in the play-offs and face Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts [suspended yesterday]. I was very pleased for Brian because he hasn't been involved much lately."
Jewell pledged to strengthen the squad during the summer, citing Nottingham Forest's struggles after reaching the play-offs a year ago as a warning. "We battered West Ham but just couldn't get the second goal," he said. "To lose so late after playing so well was a kick in the teeth." Wigan had not lost, of course, but it certainly felt like it.
Goals: Roberts (34) 1-0; Deane (90) 1-1.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Eaden, Breckin, De Vos, Baines; Teale, Bullard, Farrelly (Jarrett, 71), Mahon (McMillan, 71); N Roberts (Liddell, 85), Ellington. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Mitchell.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Bywater; Mullins, Melville, Dailly, Ferdinand; Hutchison (Connolly, 56), Carrick, Lomas, Etherington (Reo-Coker, 84); Zamora (Deane, 73), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), Repka.
Referee: R Pearson (County Durham).
Bookings: Wigan: Baines. West Ham: Mullins.
Man of the Match: Bullard.
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