Championship play-off: Crystal Palace beat Watford to reach Premier League
London // The cliche says that life begins at 40.
Kevin Phillips celebrates the landmark birthday in July, but at the tender age of 39 years and 10 months, his footballing life has rarely been sweeter. So, too, Crystal Palace’s after the old stager scored one of the most profitable goals in football history.
“What a wonderful story,” said his manager, Ian Holloway.
Romantics and accountants alike can agree on that. Participation in next season’s Premier League is worth a minimum of £120 million (Dh666m) – some say as much as £145 million – and thanks to a footballing pensioner, borrowed from Blackpool, the prize is Palace’s.
Phillips’s 105th-minute spot kick defeated Watford at Wembley Stadium, ending Palace’s eight-year absence from the top flight and illustrating that his capacity to score goals has not faded with the years.
There is a temptation to call it priceless, except that his extra-time spot kick was worth a nine-figure sum. It was dispatched ruthlessly into the roof of the net, hammered beyond a helpless Manuel Almunia. It came because of the skill and speed of Wilfried Zaha.
Playing his final game for Palace before a £15m summer move to Manchester United, which was tied up in January, he was tripped by Watford’s Marco Cassetti.
“Games are won on little moments of genius,” Holloway said. “Wilf’s run was almost unplayable.”
Zaha can say farewell to Palace on a high and so, if his short-term deal at Selhurst Park is not extended, will Phillips.
“I will keep signing him until he is nearly 50 or 60 if he keeps putting the ball in the net,” pledged the ever-quotable Holloway.
Phillips followed Holloway south after the eccentric manager, promoted via the play-offs with Blackpool in 2010, swapped clubs in October. For Holloway, whose sole season managing in the top flight ended in cruel demotion, it is a second chance.
For Palace, it was a welcome action replay that, no doubt, will bring predictions of an unwanted one.
They were promoted via the play-offs in 1997 and 2004, and while Phillips joins David Hopkin and Neil Shipperley in the ranks of their final legends, the reality is they went back down straight away on both occasions.
A low-calibre final that formed a complete contrast with Wembley’s previous game, Saturday’s Uefa Champions League final, did not offer too many hints of Premier League quality. The South London club do, however, have the money to strengthen significantly now. In administration as recently as 2010, they are suddenly wealthy.
“I don’t really want to talk about money,” said Holloway, instead highlighting his side’s spirit.
Theirs has been a remarkable recovery. They ended the league season with a solitary win in the last 10 games. This was a triumph against the odds and not merely because Watford, the Championship’s top scorers, finished above them in the table.
Palace’s season was built on the 31 goals Glenn Murray managed, but with their top scorer injured and Phillips held in reserve, they began with a forward who had not struck in the league all season.
Aaron Wilbraham missed a trio of chances, with Watford goalkeeper Manuel Almunia in outstanding form, and it appeared every opening Palace fashioned fell to the man who could not convert any of them.
At least, however, Palace were creating something. Watford were sadly impotent.
“We didn’t play our best game,” manager Gianfranco Zola said. “Some players underperformed.”
Their top scorer, Matej Vydra, hobbled off at half time. The prolific Troy Deeney was equally ineffective, and until Joel Ward made a 120th-minute goal-line clearance from Fernando Forrestieri, Watford scarcely threatened.
“They played better and deserved to win the game,” Zola said.
Palace’s prize is huge, their task daunting.
“The minute we kick off next year, we are on a hiding to nothing,” Holloway said. “We need to make sure we can compete and stay there.”
But whatever happens, they can reflect on a glorious day at Wembley.
“They are Palace heroes now,” Holloway said.
None more so that the valiant veteran Phillips.
Published: May 27, 2013 04:00 AM