A goal in the last minute of extra time from Steve Claridge took Leicester City straight back to the Premiership here yesterday afternoon. It also sent half of Wembley mad with disbelieving joy.
The 30-year-old forward, who has endeared himself to the Filbert Street faithful since joining from Birmingham City in March for pounds 1m, justified that fee in a single moment as his mishit shot from the edge of the box flew past a wrong-footed Nigel Martyn to win the fourth Endsleigh League First Division play-off final Leicester have contested in five years.
Claridge admitted that he had "shinned" the ball; confessing this shin, however, cost him nothing. "It's just the perfect end," he said as the Leicester fans filled the stadium with noise. "I can't think of a better feeling in the world."
Seconds before Claridge's decisive intervention, Leicester had brought on their 6ft 7in reserve goalkeeper, Zeljko Kalac, in anticipation of a penalty shoot-out for which a weary Crystal Palace side - effectively down to 10 men after their last substitute, Simon Rodger, had been injured - were desperately hanging on.
As it turned out, Kalac's only contribution was to carry Claridge half- way up the stairs to the Royal Box for the presentation. But if Claridge was the player of the moment, the man who received the biggest cheer as he hoisted the trophy was the Leicester manager, Martin O'Neill.
He had suffered widespread criticism after taking the job in December as his side lost their first nine games in his charge. His two predecessors, Brian Little and Mark McGhee, had dismayed the club by joining other clubs in mid-season. O'Neill has said he would not do the same even if Milan were to come in for him, and his loyalty was rewarded as his players earned a play-off position with seven wins in their last 10 games.
O'Neill, who had guided Wycombe Wanderers to victory in the Third Division play-off final here two years earlier, believed that his side had been the better team. Certainly, after equalising Palace's early goal with a 77nd-minute penalty from Garry Parker, they seemed the team with the greater desire to win.
Palace, who like Leicester had been relegated from the Premiership at the end of last season, had also finished the campaign strongly. After the arrival of Dave Bassett as manager in February they had risen from 16th place, winning 14 and drawing four of their last 22 League games. But yesterday proved a challenge too far as they tired in the face of Leicester's enterprise.
Crystal Palace had an ideal start when Andy Roberts put them ahead with a cross-shot in the 14th minute after a characteristically canny pass from the 34-year-old Ray Houghton.
As Leicester's resolve wavered, Palace almost made it 2-0 when a sudden shot from the unpredictable George Ndah was tipped away by Kevin Poole. As the game wore on, however, Leicester, with Mustapha Izzet, Neil Lennon and Scott Taylor unquenchable in midfield, began to run Palace into confusion.
After 49 minutes, a header from the Leicester captain, Steve Walsh, was headed off the line by Ndah. And when Marc Edworthy's desperate challenge on Izzet conceded a penalty, Parker converted without fuss.
Palace had to play the last 18 minutes with their last substitute, Rodger, a passenger after Izzet's introductory challenge. But as the prospect of a shoot-out loomed, Claridge reacted first to a ball headed down by Ndah and crushed their hopes.
Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Martyn; Tuttle (Rodger, 101), Quinn, Roberts; Edworthy, Pitcher, Houghton, Hopkin (Veart, 69), Brown; Ndah, Freedman (Dyer, 99).
Leicester City (4-4-2): Poole (Kalac, 120); Grayson, Walsh (Hill, 117), Watts, Whitlow; Izzet, Parker, Taylor (Robins, 100), Lennon; Heskey, Claridge.
Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).
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