Preparation and luck key ingredients in push for promised land

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The Independent Online

One of the signs at West Ham United's training ground reads "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity". That moment, for Crystal Palace also, has arrived.

One of the signs at West Ham United's training ground reads "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity". That moment, for Crystal Palace also, has arrived.

The First Division play-off final is the most lucrative game in English, and probably world, football. That is no idle boast - the winner will receive an immediate £14m next season from television revenues alone. That is before the extra cash from ticket sales, merchandising and so on is calculated. The total should easily reach £25m.

Before it is thought that this report belongs to the business pages it should be remembered that it all comes down to one football match at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium this afternoon. Both West Ham and Palace are prepared. Both have the opportunity. Both will hope that the luck follows.

The scene for the contest is set by West Ham's former caretaker manager, Trevor Brooking, who said that Palace's "impetus is a big consideration". "But it's not just good fortune," added the FA's new director of football development. "They obviously have terrific spirit and self-belief and will be very difficult to overcome.

There are delicious ironies all over this fixture - not least that Palace, despite their extraordinary form since Iain Dowie arrived as manager in December, would not be in the play-offs at all but for a last-minute goal scored against Wigan Athletic by the head of West Ham's Brian Deane.

Then there's the fact that Dowie is a former West Ham player, and a self-confessed fan - while his opposite number, Alan Pardew played five seasons at Selhurst Park, and scored the goal that took Palace into the 1990 FA Cup Final.

Both young managers are similar - they are highly driven characters. Dowie's stock is particularly high at present and he has embraced modern management techniques. His team is undoubtedly the fittest in the division but Dowie also admires Pardew. "Alan is cerebral in the way he thinks about the game," Dowie said. "He did a magnificent job at Reading. He pushed on at a club that needed to be pushed. Now he's proving himself to be the man for the occasion at West Ham."

Pardew is no less complimentary, saying that, like Dowie, for him "the bottom line is I always try to be positive". "The way Iain and I look at the game is not too dissimilar," he said. "He has done a fantastic job so far at Palace and he makes sure his team is always well prepared. I think it will be a tight game. They like to play on the front foot and Iain has instilled a positive attitude."

The price of failure is high. West Ham have made hard economic decisions - selling £27m worth of talent after being relegated from the Premiership last season and reducing their debt, though that still stands at £33m. They claim they can survive on present budgets but players would leave including Michael Carrick. Fans would become more disenchanted, revenues would fall.

Palace depend more on the patronage of one man - chairman Simon Jordan. He is desperate to see a return on the £32m he says he invested. Seven managers have been employed since 2000 and Jordan's patience has run thin. Debts - at £9m - are less than West Ham's but Dowie admits the club is playing "a risky game" in not yet offering contracts to key players such as Julian Gray, Tony Popovic and Michael Hughes.

It is a defining moment. "For one of us tomorrow is going to be a fantastic day of triumph," said Brooking. "For the other it'll be a day of despair." It depends which way the luck falls.

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