The £120 Million Question: Crystal Palace vs. Watford

By - Friday 24th May, 2013

After successfully dispatching rivals Brighton and Hove Albion, Tom Lickley examines Crystal Palace’s date at Wembley Stadium on Monday 27th May against Watford FC and speaks to Palace chairman Stephen Browett

Wembley Stadium. Photo by Martin Pettitt. Image used under Creative Commons license.

9:33pm on Monday 13th May. Former Selsdon High schoolboy Wilfried Zaha shrugs off his marker, turns sharply in the penalty box, and unleashes a devastating strike that slaps off the crossbar on its way into the net. The goal, his second of the match, directly in front of the 2,000 strong Palace following, sends the away fans into delirium and empties the shiny Amex stadium of Brighton fans. An away win in such a high-stakes game is paradise for Palace fans. The cry goes up, ‘Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley’ such is the universal chant of fans heading to the famous arch. And so to the Home of Football on Spring Bank Holiday, and the chance to earn the prize of competing at English football’s top table.

Well, that’s part of the prize, anyway. The Championship Playoff Final has often been cited as ‘the richest prize in football’ due to the obscene amount of money the winners will receive as a minimum. This year the prize is a projected £120 million, albeit spread over several years, much of the income coming from Sky’s broadcasting of the Premier League. Co-Chairman Stephen Browett, who amongst the other three members of the consortium of owners known as CPFC2010 has plowed a small fortune into the running of the club over the last three years, is more engaged than most.

Do the higher stakes that come with financial risk make this even more tense for him than otherwise? ‘Well, a little more pressure, I suppose. As a committed long term fan I was very excited at the previous four finals I’ve attended [anyway]!’ The debates for there being too much money in football are numerous, yet such a prize might transform Crystal Palace FC. The club is actively seeking upgrades to both their stadium and training ground, and such money could potentially transform Selhurst Park Stadium into a hub for the local community.

East Croydon, and much of central London, will be awash with the Red and Blue of Palace for most of the day

In my preview of the semi-final, I highlighted how form can be crucial to the chances of a playoff team. Coming into the playoffs, Palace was poor; however, following the two-legged semi-final against Brighton, Palace is now at six games without defeat, and the euphoric circumstances of winning a semi-final away to their arch-rivals is as great a confidence boost as any team can hope for. Palace’s opponents, Watford, completed an astonishing turnaround in their own semi-final.

Key players for the Hornets will include Czech Matej Vydra, on loan from Italian club Udinese, who was voted Football League Player of the Year; like Zaha, he scored two vital goals in Watford’s semi-final victory, ending a barren run of thirteen games without scoring. Fans of Arsenal will recognise keeper Manuel Almunia, whilst Palace fans should be wary of striker Troy Deeney and Chelsea loanee Nathanial Chalobah. Prior to the final, Watford’s form has been inconsistent; four wins and four defeats in the ten games leading up to the final. Make of that what you will.

Delighted Eagles fans celebrate victory at The Amex, Brighton. Photo by Tom Lickley.

And what of Palace’s chances? There is nearly a full squad to choose from; long-term absentee and club captain Paddy McCarthy will miss the game, as will Norwegian full back Jonathan Parr, both through injury. Perhaps more damaging to Palace’s chances will be the absence of goal-scoring midfielder Stephen Dobbie, ineligible as part of the deal to sign him from Brighton in January, and league top scorer Glenn Murray, who sustained ligament damage in the home leg of the playoffs and will be sidelined for upwards of six months – fans of all clubs will wish him well. Aaron Wilbraham, seldom picked to start matches this season, should have the chance to make himself an unlikely hero in replacement.

‘This team has stuck at it, and has done tremendously well to make the playoff final’

Tactically, Palace has been far more confident in attack of late. As seen below, the focus is on containment for the first hour or so of the game; possession football by the midfield five, particularly Jonathan Williams, Owen Garvan, and Zaha, followed by immediate pressing  of the opposition by Mile Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi when the ball is lost. Once the opposition begins to tire physically, Holloway allows flair players such as winger Yannick Bolasie, Brazilian Andre Moritz, and veteran striker Kevin Phillips, on from the bench to unlock the defence of the opposition and wear them down mentally.

Bolasie, combined with Zaha, pins back the opposition full backs, allowing Moritz space to thread through his trademark passes, or perhaps create space for Phillips to unleash shots on goal. This tactic has been very effective of late, and should Palace sustain their high level of performance in defence, which has improved markedly in recent weeks, then Watford will find it difficult to create chances against the Eagles. In particular, look out for Zaha. The England international will finally have the chance to play on a stage set for his considerable talents. In his final match for the club, don’t be surprised to see him play a defining role.

The feeling among Palace fans is that this is a genuine 50/50 chance; having drawn and lost to Watford already this season, (the loss, a 2-3 home defeat on the first day of the campaign, only came from Watford scoring two goals in the last three minutes) everyone is aware of the challenge faced. The fans have been magnificent this season, consistently praised by media and opposition fans alike for their noise and colour. Browett believes such support could make the difference at Wembley, suggesting, ‘The atmosphere and noise generated by the fans can help enormously.  I really believe that the Palace fans will out-sing the Watford fans and inspire the players.’

Indeed many are simply looking forward to a day out at Wembley; this is Palace’s first visit to the stadium in its modern guise, having last played at the old Empire Stadium in 1997, when playoff victory was sealed by a ninetieth minute David Hopkin winner, having lost in the playoff final of 1996 in the last minute of extra time. Many will remember Palace’s last outing at a playoff final, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2004, where West Ham United was vanquished. The sense of occasion is magnificent at these events; East Croydon, and much of central London, will be awash with the Red and Blue of Palace for most of the day, before fans take the historic walk down Wembley Way into the stadium, sing to the national anthem and roar their team on.

‘I really believe the Palace fans will out-sing the Watford fans’

Whatever happens, everyone involved with Crystal Palace should be bursting with pride. Browett concludes, ‘I’m incredibly proud. We were second favourites for relegation and had a terrible start. Then with the manager [Dougie Freedman] walking out just when we were doing well, and having a much lower budget than other teams… this team has stuck at it and done tremendously well to make the playoff final.’  To come from the brink of extinction, with fans campaigning for the survival of the club outside Lloyds Bank in Central London on 1st June 2010 following a last day Championship survival against Sheffield Wednesday a month earlier, playing in front of nearly 90,000 in a final at Wembley three years later is a richly deserved outcome. A win would be a fairy-tale ending.

Npower Championship Playoff Final: Crystal Palace vs. Watford, Wembley Stadium, London. Kick-off 3pm, Monday 27th May 2013. Live coverage on Sky Sports 1HD/3D (Programme starts 2pm) and BBC Radio.

Tickets are sold out.

Tom Lickley

Tom Lickley

Contributing a variety of roles to the Citizen since early 2013, Tom now focuses upon regeneration, urbanism and real estate writing. He is a strategic communications consultant specialising in the real estate sector, and counts a number of the world's largest investment and fund management companies amongst his clients.

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