KEVIN Phillips grabbed the golden goal to fire Crystal Palace into the Barclays Premier League and end his play-off final hoodoo.
Scorer: Palace - Phillips 105 (pen)
Referee: Martin Atkinson
The evergreen striker, who turns 40 in July, kept his nerve to blast in an extra-time penalty and dash his former club Watford’s dreams of promotion. It was a special moment for Phillips, who had lost all three of his previous play-off finals.
“To come on and get the winning goal against the club where it all started 20 years ago is a fairytale ending,” said the goal hero. “I thought we certainly deserved to win the game. We created good chances and their keeper’s pulled off some great saves.
“Going into extra-time it becomes a lottery, cramp sets in and players are tired but we were magnificent today and you saw how well they defended at the end. From my experience you’ve certainly got to enjoy the day and we’ll enjoy tonight.”
It was special too for Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha, the young winger who signed off as a Palace player by winning the penalty and ensuring they will join him in the top flight next season. Special too for manager Ian Holloway, whose Blackpool side were beaten by West Ham in last year’s final, and who has been the fiercest critic of Watford’s controversial use of loan players. “How much you spend on your group isn’t always what gives you,” Holloway said. “It’s what’s inside their hearts and how much they work for you. I’ve been very fortunate that both teams have done it for me, I was privileged to have worked with them. To me they’re Palace heroes.”
And it was special for Palace chairman Steve Parish and his co-owners, who saved the club from going bust three years ago and can now look forward to a windfall in the region of £120million. Those high stakes seemed to overwhelm Watford, whose key performers this season simply did not show up at Wembley.
The Championship’s player of the year Matej Vydra, one of the ten players Watford borrowed from sister clubs in Italy and Spain, endured a miserable first half and limped off at half-time. Instead it was Zaha who caught the eye throughout, and he lured Marco Cassetti into the clumsy lunge which ultimately settled the match in the 104th minute. Cassetti, by now dizzy having been twisted and turned by Zaha yet again, brought the winger down in the area and Phillips duly crashed the penalty high into the net. “If I had to put everything I own on someone smacking it in the net, then I’d put it on Kev,” Holloway said.
Phillips is on loan from Blackpool, where his contract expires imminently, and Holloway would happily sign the striker once again. “I’ll keep signing him until he’s nearly 50 or 60, if he keeps putting the ball in the net,” the Palace boss said. “The difficult thing for Kev is living in a hotel once or twice a week because he doesn’t need to move his family any more.” Watford manager Gianfranco Zola plans to remain at Vicarage Road despite the Hornets’ near miss. Zola was magnanimous in defeat, conceding Palace were the better side on the day, but felt his team deserved a second-half penalty when a Palace defender blocked the ball inside the area.
Zola said: “This game doesn’t take anything away from our season. It’s been a very good season. It’s a very unfortunate thing we didn’t play our best game. They played better and they deserved to win.”
Crystal Palace: Speroni, Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey, Zaha, Jedinak, Garvan (Moritz 84), Dikgacoi (O’Keefe 17), Williams (Phillips 65), Wilbraham. Subs not used: Price, Richards, Bolasie, Ramage.
Watford: Almunia, Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Anya (Forestieri 86), Chalobah (Battocchio 74), Hogg, Pudil, Abdi, Deeney, Vydra (Geijo 46). Subs not used: Bond, Hall, Yeates, Briggs.