The away end was exuberant, exultant but with six minutes of the ninety still remaining, liberally laced with tension.
Then a long ball was swung into the City area from the Crystal Palace left, substitute Yaya Sanogo leapt above the stumbling Paul McShane and sent a header bouncing past Steve Harper and in.
Heads crumpled into hands throughout the away end as referee Mark Clattenburg pointed towards the centre circle. This was a truly ghastly moment, as reeling minds instantly tried to weigh up the ramifications of this late leveller. Many dropped to their haunches in dismay. No-one in black was appealing for anything untoward. Not even a glance towards the linesman offered the solace of a raised flag. Bugger, bugger, BUGGER.
But…weren’t the Palace fans’ celebrations a little muted? And…was that City lining up for a free-kick? And suddenly the realisation dawned, and celebrations erupted. Mr Clattenburg has seen something, his whistle had gone unheard, and salvation was ours.
You’ve already seen the replay, and know it wasn’t a foul. Not really. We can all, City or Palace, can understand what the referee thought he’d seen, but he was still wrong. In a season of disappointment scarred by ill-luck but chiefly by underachievement, this was a Piece of Luck.
And of course, we capitalised upon it.
Oh, how we capitalised. For this was perhaps the single most enjoyable non-European trip of the season. There was so much to enjoy. A superb away following, a committed and skilful performance, a rare victory on the road – oh yes, this is why we get up at daft times and travel hundreds of miles at preposterous expense.
So what to do, Mr Bruce? He was bold. Alex was dropped in favour Robbie Brady, a single change from the previous outing. City therefore lined up: Harper; Chester, McShane, Dawson; Elmohamady, Livermore, Huddlestone, Quinn, Brady; N’Doye, Aluko.
An expansive-looking 3-5-2 then, with £10m record signing Abel Hernández only on the bench. Mohamed Diamé was still not fit to start, meaning Hernández was accompanied by McGregor, Figueroa, Sagbo, Rosenior, Bruce and Ramírez.
It was a bright opening by both sides, with Palace looking carefree after effectively having avoiding relegation weeks ago, while City sported an agreeably positive attitude.
Less positive were some of the sentiments about the club’s owner in the away end, with frequent anti-Allam chants in the opening minutes, accompanied by posters and banners urging “Allam Out”. This was far more organised than anything previously seen – indeed, our journey began by seeing a flag advocating that simple message hoisted onto the railway bridge over Newland Avenue. That those feelings were being aired so freely was significant; more significant was the widespread lack of demurral. If one takes the visiting fans’ views at Selhurst Park as a reliable guide, the owner’s popularity has plummeted close to zero.
Back to the pitch, and despite a good beginning by City we nearly slipped behind when a corner wasn’t dealt with properly and a chance presented to the ordinarily clinical Glenn Murray – luckily he smacked the ball straight at Steve Harper.
City then had two great chances to go ahead when James Chester wastefully headed over when unmarked from a Brady corner, while Dame N’Doye somehow failed to tap in when a low and very good Brady cross found him unattended about three yards out. A terrible miss.
Far from deflating the Tigers, it rather galvanised them. A marvellous curling shot from Tom Huddlestone (alert and energetic on this occasion) was met by a great save by Julian Speroni.
19’04” was met with a thunderous ovation of “City till I die” and more anger directed at those running our club, plus caustic criticism of the club’s refusal to spend the £200,000 given for the Away Supporters’ Initiative.
It’s worth noting that support for the team never dimmed during the protests either, though with the point about the owners having been made the more aggrieved sentiments gradually gave way. On the pitch, it quietened a little as well, though City continued to have the better of it.
The lead could have been taken before half-time when a loose ball broke to Jake Livermore with Speroni well off his line – sadly Livermore’s attempted chip was badly mishit and was easily caught by the relieved Palace keeper.
That took us to the interval and the cramped Selhurst Park concourses, where the overspill area was bathed in warm sunshine. We’re well into spring and summer’s promise is now easily to feel. Promotion and relegation issues are already being decided elsewhere, and with irreversible joy and terminal despair increasingly studding stadia across the country this game felt a possible season definer. Scores elsewhere were anxiously sought and digested. Burnley and Leicester: drawing. Not bad. QPR drawing, with a penalty miss to add to their woes. Good. Parity for Sunderland too. What an opportunity.
An opportunity taken.
Attacking the goal nearest to the City fans, Ahmed Elmohamady nearly opening the scoring on 47 when meeting a deep cross at the far post, however his header was well saved by Speroni.
Back came City, dominant in the second half’s opening skirmishes, and on 51 Aluko sent in a cross that Brady controlled with a variety of limbs, not all of which were directly designed for bipedal locomotion, before eventually smuggling the ball right to N’Doye to blast home from a couple of yards.
Fifteen hundred heads swivelled to the referee, then to the linesman, and with neither quarrelling, a goal celebration of memorable proportions engulfed us all. Remember Ian Wright at the same ground in 1997? Not quite that. But worthy of featuring in the same paragraph. It was glorious, truly glorious. (and yes, a bit lucky – on another day, that’s handball and a hard luck story, not a cause for bruised shins and a traumatised larynx the next day)
Crystal Palace didn’t look especially inclined to rescue the situation, and had we been of a red and blue persuasion, that lack of urgency may have somewhat galled. That needn’t detract from City’s good work, for they were ahead on merit, but it’s worth noting.
By now it was all City. N’Doye could have doubled the lead a few minutes later when a cute Huddlestone pass found him in space, however his low drive flew a foot wide of Speroni’s post.
Sanago came on for the oddly ineffective Murray on the hour mark, an event sandwiched by efforts from distance by Livermore and Huddlestone that also failed to test Speroni.
Displeased by their torpor, home manager Alan Pardew made a second change on 64 when Chung-Yong Lee came on for Mile Jedinak, but the direction of play remained broadly unaltered. City were playing with a confidence not seen since the middle portion of the Chelsea home defeat, and a certainty unseen outside of East Yorkshire for almost the whole season.
Gastón Ramírez replaced the ever-willing Stephen Quinn with 17 minutes to play, a surprisingly adventurous move from Steve Bruce. There were still occasional alarms at the back too, though Paul McShane seemed minded to single-handedly deal with all of them, one on enjoyable occasion smothering a Sanago shot and springing straight back up looking for another danger to quell, and looking almost disappointed at finding none. The past decade has brought many fine footballers to our club, but few will ever be cherished as much as the ginger warrior.
With the final ten minutes approaching Tom Huddlestone could have made the game safe but dragged a shot wide after neatly skipping into space. And with six minutes left – well, we were lucky that Mr Clattenburg misread some penalty area jostling involving Messrs Sanago and McShane. If there are any Palace fans reading, sorry about that. But I’m sure you’ll agree that our need was greater and, on the balance of play, our claim on the points stronger.
Liam Rosenior came on for Robbie Brady as Steve Bruce decided not to push our luck and perhaps seek to shut up shop a bit, yet the best chances continued to come our way. Elmohamady blatted one wide after being teed up by N’Doye before Alex Bruce replaced the hard-working Sone Aluko.
With three minutes left, Liam Rosenior nearly won the goal of the season award with a first-time volley from 25 yards that struck the astonished Speroni’s crossbar and bounced to safety.
Remarkably, City continued to threaten, and not just on the break either – after seeing their “goal” chalked off Palace had rather given this one up and N’Doye had yet another effort on goal, this time well saved by Speroni.
But a second goal was not to be denied, and in the 92nd minute a feeble Palace foray broke down, allowing Ramírez to break forward with N’Doye in support and just two covering defenders. Ramírez weighted his pass perfectly for N’Doye, whose clever half-dummy created just enough space to let him get a shot off, one that flew low and hard past Speroni and in.
Cue more mayhem in the away end, and the final seconds of the game were played in a stadium rapidly emptying on all sides but ours, where a party was going on. Mr Clattenburg, who we promise not to get cross with next time he does something mean to us, decided that was enough for one afternoon, and the players poured over at full-time to lap up the applause.
Well deserved applause too, because this really was a terrific team performance. From Steve Harper, who was alert on the one occasion he was severely tested, through a defence marshalled by Dawson and led by McShane, to Elmohamady’s tireless running and Brady’s invention on the wings, the midfield trio’s neat passing and positivity, Aluko’s willing and N’Doye’s finishing – this was close to the complete performance. Yes, Palace were poor and only sporadically interested. But they’re also higher up the table, were at home and against a side shorn of confidence and in desperate need.
That need was met. The danger us still with us, however. Sunderland’s travails were offset by Leicester’s ongoing resurgence, so at least another 4-5 points will be required, and testing games ahead.
However, we’ll worry about them when they happen. This was a great performance and a great day out in a brilliant atmosphere. Well played City, and well played City fans.