After a 10-point deduction and the cut-price sale of his most-heralded young player last month, manager Neil Warnock has remained philosophical about Crystal Palace's financial struggles but yesterday he lambasted the linesman who he claimed had cost his team a remarkable FA Cup fifth-round victory.
Warnock said that he hoped the linesman Trevor Massey would be "suspended for a very long time" after he wrongly awarded a corner to Aston Villa that led to Stiliyan Petrov's 87th minute equaliser. The goal denied Palace –mired in administration and with a future that is uncertain to say the least – a famous victory over Villa and a place in the quarter-finals.
The Palace manager described as "a disgrace" the decision by linesman Massey to award a corner-kick after Julian Speroni's save from John Carew hit Villa's substitute Nathan Delfouneso before going out of play. Warnock said: "We've got a Premiership referee and we've got Mr Massey who was laughing his head off all afternoon with the flag. The ball came off Delfouneso and neither of them wanted to make a decision.
"They wait and wait to see which way to give it then [they surmise that] a Premier League team are losing 2-1, so 'We'll give it to them'. That's a disgrace. He should be banned for weeks, Mr Massey, because all he could do was smile.''
Having sought an explanation from Massey, Warnock said that the linesman had told him that he faced a suspension had he got the decision wrong. "I said to him: 'Will you think about us when you're sitting and watching on your settee.' I don't feel any sympathy if he is suspended. I hope it's for a long time.
"Does he realise what it means to a club who can't afford this, that or the other? We're giving everything, and we're not let down by anything that's a football matter, we're let down by incompetence."
That was the worst part of the afternoon for Warnock but even he had to smile when it came to a performance from his players that defied the bleak situation of the club, nowhere more so than in Darren Ambrose's spectacular goal for Palace's second. They might be up for sale but judging by yesterday's evidence, the one thing that is non-negotiable is the spirit of the club.
It is 20 years since Steve Coppell led Palace all the way to the 1990 FA Cup final, where it took Manchester United a replay to beat them, and there was a certain symmetry in the performance of Warnock's players yesterday. Twice they took the lead in the rain and the mud and Villa only just reeled them in before the end.
They might have lost Victor Moses to Wigan Athletic last month by order of the administrators but there is still much to admire in this Palace team that will, in all likelihood, not be together for much longer. Neil Danns was exceptional in midfield and, in Nathaniel Clyne, they have a right-back who will surely play in the Premier League one day. For his goal alone, Ambrose was the pick of the lot.
This season has featured an FA Cup in which Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have already been disposed of and for a time it looked like Villa were going the same way. That they came back through Petrov, who very nearly missed it after being cut down by Luis Nani's red card challenge last week, said something about their durability.
Unfortunately for Villa, the replay falls on 24 February, just four days before their Carling Cup final date with United, which may yet influence O'Neill's team selection. In the quarter-finals, Reading or West Bromwich Albion await the winner and with so few of the big guns still in the competition this is surely too good an opportunity for the Villa manager to pass up.
Palace took the lead through the Austrian defender Johnny Ertl, then James Collins equalised before half-time. The goal from Ambrose was struck from a free-kick which O'Neill suggested was debatable, although not to the same extent as Warnock. "I could be totally wrong, and it could be blatant [the Ambrose free-kick award], but I wasn't sure at the time," O'Neill said. "If we got a little bit of luck from the corner [for the equaliser], I'll take that."
The bright side? Palace stand to gain financially from the replay, although only just. It would have been much better for them had they gone through to the quarter-finals and drawn a glamorous opponent such as Chelsea, which would have guaranteed a televised match. But those calculations are for the money men who are recouping debts – the romantics at Selhurst Park wanted Palace to win it.
Palace have been kicked so many times this season that there was a slight unreality to the way in which they twice took the lead. No more so than the second goal which was a free-kick from Ambrose that compares with any goal scored this season.
Ambrose is one of those players who Warnock has given a new lease of life and he has rewarded his manager with 16 goals this season. A former England under-21, Ambrose's career has known its own misfortunes. He was sold by Ipswich Town when they went into administration, rejected by Newcastle United and relegated twice with Charlton Athletic.
Yesterday, he was four minutes from being a hero. With the score at 1-1 he struck the ball from a distance of 36 yards with astonishing power. Friedel got a hand to it but could not keep it out. Palace deserved their lead but just could not hold on.
The opening goal came direct from Ambrose's corner which was headed in by the Austrian defender Ertl who had got well clear of Collins to nod the ball past Friedel. The equaliser came on 36 minutes when Stewart Downing's free-kick from the right was glanced in by Collins for the equaliser.
After Ambrose's goal, Villa piled forward but it was only after Massey awarded a corner-kick rather than a goal-kick as Warnock had insisted, that they scored. Downing struck the ball to the near post where Petrov stooped to glance it into the far corner. Party postponed at Selhurst Park, though there is hope for them in the matter of survival in the Championship.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Speroni; Clyne, Davis, Hill, Butterfield; Ambrose, Ertl, Derry, Danns; Lee (Andrew, 90), Carle. Substitutes not used: Scannell, Lawrence, Djilali, N'Diaye, Wynter, Mann.
Aston Villa (4-4-1-1): Friedel; L Young, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Petrov, Delph (Defouneso, 75), Downing; Milner; Heskey (Carew, h-t). Substitutes not used: Sidwell, Davies, Guzan, Beye, Cuellar.
Referee: K Friend (Leicestershire).
Booked: Crystal Palace Carle, Davis, Butterfield, Lee; Aston Villa Delph.
Man of the match: Ambrose.
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