Crystal Palace 0
Manchester United 2
There were less than 18,000 to see it, the lowest FA Cup semi-final attendance for 50 years, but it would have been better if Manchester United had reached their record 13th final behind closed doors last night.
Instead the faithful, and a television audience, watched a match which was already overshadowed by the death of a supporter, become disfigured by a double-sending off and a mass brawl.
It was not the way to remember Paul Nixon, who died during fighting before Sunday's drawn first match. Neither was the game much of a tribute. It was a scrappy, niggling affair, short on quality and won by United with some ease through first-half goals from Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce.
United now meet Everton, at Wembley, on 20 May. Roy Keane, who was dismissed for stamping on a prone Gareth Southgate, will probably have served his suspension by then. United should make a stand and ban him themselves. Do not bet on it. Alex Ferguson, his manager, admitted he deserved to be sent off but was not prepared to make any further condemnation.
Darren Patterson, who received the other red card, was more harshly treated after pushing Keane in the chest early in the mle. It was neither vindictive nor harmful but it was foolish. Raising your hands to a player is always risking dismissal and Palace, who have a relegation struggle, can ill afford to lose him. He is already due before the FA today having passed 41 points.
There were also five yellow cards as both teams seemed to forget Sunday's death; the wreath laid on the centre-spot before the match; and the appeal for peace made by both managers before kick-off.
The supporters, sombre to start with, also forgot. En route to the ground there was a sobering reminder as a van full of Palace fans was passed on the M40. On their back window was a poster, "Paul Nixon, rest in peace".
It had started well: an abbreviated minute's silence was observed. Yet, when the players lost control, so did the fans. The Palace supporters nearby screamed their abuse; when Keane left the United followers cheered him, then the absent Eric Cantona. As Patterson left he was accosted by a United fan who was grabbed by police.
Both sides wore black armbands as a further mark of respect but the most telling indication of supporters' feelings was the poor attendance. There were more empty seats than for any United match this season and the attendance was 8,000 lower than the previous post-war semi-final record set by Luton and Wimbledon in 1988.
The match itself began brightly with Nicky Butt testing Rhys Wilmot in the second minute. Paul Ince then headed a Lee Sharpe corner past one post and Ryan Giggs, playing on the right of a five-man midfield, volleyed another past the other upright.
Gary Pallister was soon booked for hauling down Chris Armstrong as he threatened to break clear after 12 minutes. Having gone all season without a booking Pallister has now been cautioned in consecutive games.
But then the passes became as badly timed as the tackles. With the crowd subdued it was more like a reserve match than a Cup semi-final. Then, on 29 minutes, Denis Irwin won a corner. Mark Hughes was booked for over- doing the jostling for position and, perhaps, Palace's concentration wavered. When Sharpe finally crossed Bruce headed powerfully in from beyond the far post.
It was the first time United had led in the tie and, 11 minutes later, they were two up. Irwin won a free-kick on the left, and again Sharpe hit a pacy outswinger to the far post. This time, however, it was Pallister who scored.
The game seemed over, but the drama was still to come. Nine minutes after the break, with the game opening up as Palace pushed forward, Keane was tackled by Gareth Southgate on the touchline. It was poorly timed, but not malicious. The response of Keane - who had required seven stitches in his ankle after a nasty first-half tackle by Darren Pitcher - was to stamp twice into the grounded Southgate. Within seconds there were a dozen players involved, some acting the peacemaker, others seeking retribution.
From the free-kick, hit long down the line, Sharpe brought the ball down and lifted it over his marker in one velvet movement. He then brought an excellent save from Wilmot. Beauty and the beast in one team, the paradox of Manchester United.
Last time they met Everton at Wembley, a decade ago, Kevin Moran was sent off before Norman Whiteside won the match with a marvellous goal. Maybe nothing has changed, but Moran went for a simple foul and, these days, there is a responsibility on players to behave.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs (McClair, 62), Butt, Ince, Keane, Sharpe; Hughes. Substitutes not used: Scholes, Walsh (gk).
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Wilmot; Patterson, Shaw, Young, Gordon; Houghton, Pitcher, Southgate, Salako; Armstrong, Dowie. Substitutes not used: Cox, Newman, Glass (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).
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