Sunday, 20 January 2013

Crystal Palace 0 Bolton Wanderers 0

The plan for the weekend had been to catch up with a dear old friend, sup a few delectable pints of Black Sheep ale in a few almost-forgotten haunts in York, watch Boston United thump Harrogate Town and breathe in some crisp northern air.

But then, as I strolled through Hyde Park late on Thursday afternoon, there was that cheek-numbing chill in the air and that merciless easterly wind that presages wintry conditions on the way. Lo and behold, when I woke up on Friday morning, there was already snow on the ground and swirls of the stuff in the heavy white skies. 

It would have taken a fool to even try to make it up North, even though the trains were running with reasonable delays. It wasn’t so much getting there, it was the getting back again. 

So, I spent Saturday gazing out the window as the snow tumbled down and coated my windowsills, balcony and the trees across the square in flaky, unspoiled white stuff. And then I got bored, so I referred to the fixture list. 

Most of the action beneath the Championship never stood a chance, but everything above it had survived. And so it gave me an opportunity to knock off one of the few remaining London grounds I hadn’t been to. I’m down to West Ham and Crystal Palace in the top five leagues. West Ham-QPR was sold out, so Palace it had to be.

Given the usual meltdown of all transport whenever Britain gets any snow, I was pleasantly surprised to see everything running as normal. Even the 15 minute walk from Thornton Heath to Selhurst Park wasn’t too treacherous although a fine snow was falling.

It’s always great this time of year to see mounds of snow piled up around the perimeter, but the playing surface in pristine condition. It’s a time when groundsmen really earn their money and the ones here had done an outstanding job of clearing the pitch.

I didn’t know what to expect from Selhurst but it at least had a roof to protect a large crowd from the elements. It was spine-chillingly cold though, exacerbated by the inevitable forgetting of the woolly hat (I never learn). The only hotness was supplied by the Crystals cheerleaders, who didn’t look too delighted to be out in the middle gyrating in their skimpy outfits with only a pompom for warmth. 

It was amusing to find the Crystals have a page in the programme with little pictures and profile - and that they can also be sponsored for the season. Some have been sponsored by genuine companies, others by seedy-sounding men like “Neil and Barry.”

Palace’s programme is excellent, by the way, with top quality coverage of both teams and a good dollop of interesting historical content as well. The atmosphere in the ground is superb too. I’m always quite sceptical of self-styled “English Ultras” groups but the backing from the Holmesdale Fanatics, just to my left, was first class. It was also interesting to note that not a single song was directed at the Bolton fans, they were all 100% behind Palace. 

The match took a while to warm up, with Chris Eagles becoming a pantomime villain after a deliberate dive which earned him an early yellow card. Otherwise, he was absolutely excellent - industrious and with a spark of genius that can unpick defences. He twice tested Julian Speroni in the first-half and was involved in a move which led to Tyrone Mears allegedly handling. The official looked the other way.

It took a good 35 minutes for Wilfried Zaha to do anything of note but once in the game, he was a constant thorn in the side of the Bolton defence. It’s the first time I’ve seen him live and, reflecting on the match afterwards, it isn’t hard to see why Manchester United, among other big clubs, have been scrambling for his signature. 

Using every inch of the pitch, he would miraculously beat two or three defenders when the odds were stacked against him, wriggling clear and finding the correct pass. He struck the crossbar after the break and set up a golden chance for Glenn Murray, the Championship’s top scorer with 22 goals, only for the striker to scoop the ball over the bar. 

If there is one criticism, it is that Zaha sometimes tries to do too much with the ball, to try and do it all himself when a pass would be more beneficial. This will be hammered out of him in the Premier League and it was noticeable that the Palace fans were showing him plenty of affection in the knowledge that his days in south London are limited.

Late in the first-half, Yannick Bolasie, who was also decent and swapped flanks with Zaha to try and rough up the Bolton defenders, forced a good save from Adam Bogdan. Murray pounced to put away the rebound, but was flagged offside.

At the time, it was astonishing to think this was the closest we came to a goal. It was one of the best goalless draws you’ll ever see, breathless and end-to-end. Bolton were every bit as good as Palace, despite their respective league positions, and both sides made light of the testing conditions to deliver a good spectacle. 

And even though the goal the game was screaming out for never emerged, I had no complaints about my afternoon at the Palace.

Next Match:  Should be soon, but hard to tell!