Johnson double lifts Palace

Crystal Palace 2 - Birmingham City 0
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The Independent Football

Nearly all the attention was focused on Andy Johnson after two more goals from the Premiership's most prolific Englishman, but Iain Dowie was keen to pay tribute to other members of his team at Selhurst Park on Saturday. He talked of a "huge defensive display" and reserved his greatest praise for a midfielder who made his debut even before the Crystal Palace manager.

Michael Hughes played his first League match in 1988, three months before Dowie took his professional bow. His longevity is remarkable, particularly as he spent more than a year on the sidelines because of a contractual dispute between Birmingham and Wimbledon two years ago.

Even at the beginning of this campaign it seemed that Hughes's days might be numbered as he usually started on the bench. Since the end of September, however, he has started every Premiership match bar one.

"I played with Michael for Northern Ireland many times," Dowie said afterwards. "He's an outstanding talent. He's got a heart the size of a bucket. He's got great desire. He's a leader and he led from the front today."

Hughes played one of the passes of the match, a clever ball into space for Johnson, who was promptly brought down by Matthew Upson for the second of his penalties. Upson had also been responsible for the first, knocking over Tom Soares as he raced into the penalty area. Johnson converted both to bring his Premiership tally to 18.

Johnson might have had another penalty after going down under the challenge of Oliver Tebily, an incident that left Dowie and Steve Bruce, the Birmingham manager, exchanging words on the touchline. After the match Bruce described the penalties as "soft" and said Johnson "does very well at falling over".

Dowie insisted Johnson was "as honest a player as I've ever worked with". Dowie added: "He's very direct. He attacks you in the box. He's got a little drop of the shoulder. He has the ability to just touch it past you when you stick your leg out." Did Dowie see any faults in his striker? "He could do with being 6ft 2in," he joked. "He has faults, but maybe you'll have to ask his wife about them."

It was fitting that two penalties settled an ugly match in which Phil Dowd, the referee, rarely found the balance between showing a firm hand and letting the game flow. The mood had been set by the prolonged pre-match booing of Bruce, who upset Palace fans when he left for Birmingham more than three years ago.

Clinton Morrison wasted two early chances and thereafter Birmingham struggled to make an impact, despite Walter Pandiani's intelligent centre-forward play and Jermaine Pennant's threat down the right. Gonzalo Sorondo and Emmerson Boyce were outstanding in Palace's defence, while in Johnson they have a player who offers Dowie's men every chance of survival.

Goals: Johnson (41 pen) 1-0; Johnson (68 pen) 2-0.

Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Kiraly; Boyce, Hall, Sorondo, Granville; Soares (Borrowdale, 90), Hughes, Leigertwood, Routledge (Lakis, 90); Johnson, Freedman (Torghelle, 87). Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Kolkka.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Tebily (Anderton, 73), Cunningham, Upson, Clapham; Pennant, Johnson, Clemence, Gray; Pandiani, Morrison (Blake, 63). Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Diao, Nafti.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Crystal Palace Leigertwood, Hughes, Soares; Birmingham Pennant, Pandiani, Morrison.

Man of the match: Hughes.

Attendance: 23,376.

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