Mark Hughes began the match sitting quietly on the Manchester City bench, but after two erroneous offside calls he is simmering by the time the nearside linesman flags for shirt-tugging by Carlos Tevez. Hughes leaps to his feet and rushes to the touchline to remonstrate. To get within earshot he has to enter the Crystal Palace technical area already occupied by Neil Warnock.
"If it is too much for you, give the flag to him," shouts Hughes pointing in the direction of Warnock. To my right Matt Lawrence, Palace's veteran defender, says, "What, give it to the gaffer?" Warnock is a qualified referee, but Hughes actually means the fourth official who is standing alongside the Palace manager.
You don't hear these exchanges from the press box. I was privy to them because Warnock, a columnist for The Independent, had invited me to join him on the bench for Palace's most glamourous fixture for several seasons, the visit last week of star-studded Manchester City in the Carling Cup. This is the story of an eye-opening evening.
Arriving at the ground 90 minutes before kick-off I edge my way down the narrow, dimly-lit dressing room corridor past some very expensive football talent. This is no ordinary day at Selhurst Park: it seems not all the City players who have made the journey to south London, selected from one of English football's best-stocked squads, can fit into Palace's away dressing room.
I squeeze past and make my way to the compact coaches room where I find Warnock in despair. Craig Beattie, a signing he has spent weeks lining up, is going to Swansea. With five days left before the transfer window shuts, he is desperate to sign a striker. As he and Mick Jones, the assistant manager, discuss players they might be able to get in on loan, Keith Curle, the first-team coach, joins us.
"I've just seen [Emmanuel] Adebayor," says Curle, inadvertently rubbing in Palace's striker plight.
"They wouldn't bring him if he wasn't going to play," responds Warnock. Having already bumped into his bête noire, Tevez – "I told him, 'You cost me millions'" – it is dawning on the Crystal Palace manager that City are taking the Carling Cup seriously. Just how seriously becomes clear when the team-sheets are exchanged in the referee's room. City are at full strength, all £160m-worth, even Joleon Lescott, who has only just been signed, for £24m. Warnock studies the team-sheet with a mixture of pride and disbelief, "I've never been paid such a compliment," he says. Palace, it should be recalled, are lower-mid-table in the Championship, have not paid a signing fee for more than a year, and have just emerged from a transfer embargo.
Warnock heads off to do an interview with Sky TV, who are broadcasting the game live, pondering as he goes whether to say, "the fact they are playing all their stars means it will be even better when we beat them," or, "if we beat them."
Palace are one of those clubs where everyone wears boots and tracksuits on the bench, so I duly get changed into my kit feeling something of a fraud. A Palace top is found for me by Jack Page, the kit man's assistant, who is anxious to see it returned.
We head towards the adjacent dressing room, from which sounds of rock music have been coming. The players go out for their warm-up, Neil draws up some notes on the flip-chart, and one apprentice says to another, "Have you seen their team? It's unbelievable."
The players return, but not all the warm-up balls. Kit-man Brian Rogers is not happy. It is not just that they cost £37.50 each, the Carling Cup logo-ed balls are impossible to buy.
Then Warnock delivers his team-talk. This has been aided by a scouting report, prepared from City's last match, against Wolves. It makes such frightening reading the players are not allowed a glimpse, and Jones tells me he wanted to stop reading after a couple of pages. Particularly pertinent is the section headed: "Any outstanding players?" A generous few lines allowed on the form for the scout to scribble names of danger men. On this occasion, the scout has run out of space to list them all.
Warnock starts with set-pieces. Turning to young striker Alassane N'Diaye he says, "You're marking Micah Richards. You know him? Big strong lad? Don't let him score." On taking corners the point is made, "Miss out Adebayor at the near post, he heads everything." On another point he says: "It could be [Shaun] Wright-Phillips, or Robinho." There is a pause, then a profanity.
Then comes the pep talk, Warnock's speciality. "Somehow you have to get it in your mindset that it is 11 v 11," he commands, his voice rising. "For me these games are brilliant. We've made 200 grand but Peterborough on Monday matters more. The only thing at stake is pride, your professional pride and mine." Then he adds, "If things do go wrong I want to see us as a team. Don't get your heads down."
It is a masterpiece, balancing realism and inspiration, and taking the pressure off. By the end even I fancy my chances against Adebayor, Tevez and all. N'Diaye is ordered:"Work your bollocks off, you'll come off after an hour". Victor Moses, the young winger, is told: "If we are to get anything out of this tonight you have to take Richards, he's not a good defender." There is a technical detail about Tevez (over which I am sworn to secrecy) then the final word. "Don't let them have it easy, but enjoy it. You've earned it. And don't get sent off in the first minute."
By now the bell to summon the players has gone twice. Finally, they march out shouting words of mutual encouragement.
On the bench
Selhurst Park is unusual in that the tunnel is in the corner, so we emerge from the narrow corridor with the pitch stretching out in front of us. The arching cantilever Holmesdale End is full, and noisy, as it will be all night. A surprisingly small pocket of City fans are in the centre of the ancient Arthur Wait Stand opposite the dugouts.
We walk along the touchline to the benches, in reality two bus-stop-like structures, barely two yards apart, with a cramped row and a half of bucket seats in each. I sit among the subs. Nigel Cox, the physio, sits on a medical box. Curle stands by the dugout and Chris Short, the fitness coach, parks himself on some steps. As for Warnock, he goes straight to the technical area and never leaves. As the night wears on the aroma, in this relatively confined space, is of Deep Heat.
The bench is, generally, quiet. Warnock and Curle constantly shout instructions to players and Cox gets involved at times but the subs restrict themselves to asides between themselves, of the sort you'd get at any workplace. There's a certain amount of humour, much of it black. When a long hanging cross is sent in the direction of the diminutive Freddie Sears, and he jumps for it with Richards, Curle says, deadpan: "Good luck Freddie."
Palace start well. Moses skins Richards to win a corner but, as Warnock warned, the kick is headed clear by Adebayor at the near post. Richards then clatters Moses and is booked. I expect to see Warnock raging at the foul, but he is impassive. On the City bench assistant Mark Bowen does most of the talking, until Hughes is upset by the linesman.
Curle's phone rings. It is Jones, up in the stand, with some tactical advice. Meanwhile, Sears and Darren Ambrose have chances but Richards is handling Moses better. After the England defender reads a trick, one of the subs says wryly: "I think he's seen that before."
By now the fourth official has spoken to Warnock about his reaction to a couple of throw-in decisions. But the City bench are far more irate when one of their stars is caught and the ref waves play on. "He played the ball!" shouts Cox as they protest. "Ball and fucking man," comes an angry retort. Then Palace suffer a tight offside call. "Ask Sky!" shouts Warnock to Curle in reference to the broadcaster's touchline man nearby. It's not clear if the coach enquires, but he soon shouts back, to the amusement of the subs: "He was offside gaffer." Warnock tells the linesman he was right – this time.
The interval comes with the tie goalless and Palace good value. The dressing room is quiet. Warnock praises them and makes some technical points. Over milky tea, Brett Starkey, the IT man, who has film of the whole match on his laptop, is asked to show Neil Danns an incident when Warnock wanted him to pass early to Moses. Danns is apologetic, but Warnock encourages him. Nick Carle asks for balls so the subs can have a kick-around on the pitch. Rogers carefully counts out two from his diminished hoard.
As we sit back in the dugout Craig Bellamy comes past and shouts out something critical of the facilities, to general bemusement.
The second half
Although Palace never lie down City finally impose their class with Wright-Phillips providing a spectacular finish for their first, then Tevez, of all people, stepping off Shaun Derry to head in a corner. Tevez has been excellent and there is admiration on the bench for the way he shifts his weight to wrong-foot opponents.
Moses limps off, victim of a rough challenge by Wayne Bridge. It takes a while for Carle to replace him, as City play possession football. As Bellamy comes past with the ball Warnock shouts out, in jest: "Kick it out Bellers, we want to get him on." Bellamy responds with a mouthful of abuse as he passes by prompting the City bench to shout out in complaint to the fourth official, "Oy, he's upsetting our player." Warnock's next involvement is lighter in tone as goalkeeper Julian Speroni sends a goal-kick straight to him. "Leave me out Jules," he shouts.
In the final minutes Palace have two good penalty shouts dismissed. Warnock, furious, asks Curle to ring Starkey about them. Curle cannot get through.
Back in the dressing-room area Warnock praises his team, especially the centre-halves, Paddy McCarthy and Jose Fonte, then gives them all the following day off. While he talks to Sky TV, Starkey and his laptop are in demand. Derry, mortified, watches a re-run of the second goal; Speroni seeks reassurance from Jim Stannard, goalkeeping coach, that he was not at fault for the first. Curle queries Starkey about his inability to get through on the phone and discovers Jones had been unsuccessfully trying to ring Curle in the second half.
"If this isn't working we'll have to get those headsets," says Jones, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Rogers gives Ryan Smith, the debutant, a telling off for swapping shirts with Adebayor. Smith's had only been printed that afternoon, now a new one must be paid for and printed up. "I wonder," says someone, as minds turn to the post-match buffet offered to Selhurst Park's visitors, "how the City players are enjoying their chicken wings."
While Warnock speaks to the press I change into civvies and return to the coaches room. The dressing room was warm but the air in here is roasting. Curle and Jones are entertaining City's staff with Starkey dispensing lager from a fridge in the corner. The few blue-and-red plastic seats are full and it is standing room only. On a table are platters of chicken goujons and chips. Suddenly the usual press-box sandwiches seem a whole lot better.
The managers come in, Palace's doctor gets up to give Hughes, who has been in a smart suit all evening, a seat he quickly sticks to.
"Was it hot in your dressing room?" asks Warnock innocently.
"The old air-con trick?" smiles Hughes.
"It's just as bad in ours," Warnock truthfully assures him.
"Who have you got next?" Hughes is asked.
"Portsmouth, then it's Arsenal and Manchester United. And you?"
"Peterborough, then Scunthorpe."
The merits of various players are discussed, and some football gossip, then City head off to Gatwick. Warnock makes his way upstairs to meet his family in the directors' lounge, where the air-con does work. He is starving – Warnock does not eat after midday on match day – but there is not even a bag of crisps to be had. So, after watching the goals on Sky Sports, we all head into the night, in search of a takeaway, with Warnock already thinking about Peterborough.
Neil Warnock's column "What I Learnt This Week" appears every Saturday in The IndependentReuse content