Johnson verve fosters belief at Palace

Aston Villa 1 - Crystal Palace 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Crystal Palace last won a Premiership away fixture in 1998 - so long ago that David O'Leary was No 2 to George Graham at Leeds United and rated unlikely management material, while Andrew Johnson was just 17 and a year away from his Birmingham City debut. Palace are still waiting, but as the Aston Villa manager readily conceded, it was not for want of trying by the striker known as "AJ".

O'Leary made an exception to his rule about not discussing other people's players after Palace's lone front-runner had preoccupied his centre-backs with lung-bursting endeavour. "Olof Mellberg is a good player, but he had a really hard game," he said. "Johnson's a tough, game lad, a small player with a big heart, like [Paul] Dickov. He's not afraid to take a knock, and he's a threat all the time. His goals could make the difference to them."

The one which threatened to break Palace's duck until Lee Hendrie's riposte means that Johnson has scored four in seven Premiership outings. The tally is in keeping with his ratio over the 70 games since he arrived as a makeweight when Clinton Morrison relocated to the Midlands. It has been achieved, moreover, in a bottom-of-the-table side with two points out of 21.

Johnson's pace has often been wasted on the right of midfield, so the left-footed flourish that caught Villa cold was gratifying, for himself and the Palace manager, Iain Dowie (as well as for Birmingham supporters). "AJ was out with me on the training ground in the week, working on finishing with his left [foot]," Dowie explained. "He has played every game like that and has had just one poor half all season."

Collectively, Palace had probably had one good half before this match. However, Dowie had devised a strategy to make it hard for Villa to penetrate and enable his team to counter-attack. Even with three players who had never started a game in the top division, they made a mockery of those pundits who prematurely branded them the worst team in Premiership history.

Dowie deemed such judgements "disrespectful". Yet rather than using them as a motivational tool, he hinted at a more subtle psychological stimulus. "The mind is an incredible thing. In tennis you can lose the first set 6-1 and win the match. It happened in the US Open. Why is that when it's two players of similar ability? It's a mental thing. We must keep believing and being positive. If we're the best we can be as often as we can, we may be in with a chance."

Echoes, perhaps, of his pre-match exhortations, which Aki Riihilahti hailed as "a great speech". The midfielder added: "After something like that, you feel you can go out and beat anyone. We're used to being outsiders and proving people wrong. I think we can do it again."

Palace's next game, against Fulham at Selhurst Park a week tonight, comes into the must-win category if they are to make Alan Hansen and others eat their words. Dowie will have to revise his tactics to provide support for Johnson, for at home the onus is on them to break down opponents who sit deep.

Villa toiled in the face of precisely that challenge, O'Leary admitting they failed to summon the requisite quality as Palace took heart from Gabor Kiraly's safe handling and Michael Hughes' leadership in midfield. Hendrie proved the sublime exception, nut-megging Riihilahti before curling the equaliser.

The former England midfielder's build-up to the match was unusual even by the standards of one whose appearances in the red-top tabloids are not always confined to the sports pages. Last week, they splashed on the acrimonious end to his marriage, which "fell apart within hours". One headline read: "Love cheat Villa star left me for teenager so I scratched 'p****' on his Porsche".

Hendrie, far from being inhibited by having his lurid linen washed in public, regarded his exertions as a release of his post-marital burdens. "Things have been going on in my life these past few months, and it seemed to get me going out there," he said.

His ebullience contrasted with another below-par display by Gareth Barry, who would doubtless be rested if Villa did not have one of the smaller squads. "We need a few more players, everybody knows it," Hendrie added in yet another memo to the chairman, Doug Ellis. With that in mind, O'Leary will surely monitor the Palace predator making a strong initial impression.

Goals: Johnson (6) 0-1; Hendrie (36) 1-1.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Delaney, Mellberg, Samuel; Solano, McCann, Hendrie (Hitzlsperger, 55), Barry (Whittingham, 81); Angel, Vassell (Cole, 62). Substitutes not used : Postma (gk), Berson.

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Kiraly; Boyce, Hall (Sorondo, 79), Popovic, Granville; Routledge, Riihilahti, Hughes, Watson, Kolkka (Soares, 81); Johnson. Substitutes not used : Speroni (gk), Kaviedes, Torghelle.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).

Booked: Villa : Hendrie, Delaney, Angel. Palace : Boyce.

Man of the match: Johnson.

Attendance: 34,843.