I used to love the play-offs. They kept the season alive for so many clubs for so much longer and the actual games over the years have provided epic levels of entertainment and drama with Albion playing their part to the full on two previous occasions. Who will ever forget that crazy second leg at the Withdean against Swindon in which Adam Virgo earned his legendary status? I’ve heard people say that the play-offs are great unless your team are involved but my previous experiences with Albion did not give any credence to that theory…I enjoyed both campaigns in equal measure despite their differing outcomes. My love affair with the play-offs ended at precisely 2.45 last Saturday afternoon when the footballing Gods decreed that we would face Palace over two legs in the semi-final.
It’s been one of the longest weeks of my life as time crept on at a glacial pace with every waking moment dominated by what lay in store come Friday night. Don’t get me wrong, I had faith in the Albion, we have been the best side in the division since the turn of the year, but in the back of my mind lurked a nagging doubt. Five bad minutes could end a season and give bragging rights to Palace for an indeterminate time. Four days to go, two days to go, twelve hours to go, one hour to go, fifteen minutes to go the nerves just grew and grew and despite the expectation my pensiveness was all consuming.
Then the game kicked off and all changed. Gus had gone for Ulloa as a lone striker backed up by Lopez, Buckley and Orlandi in midfield… exactly as I had hoped. The opening minutes were all it took to remind me of how far we have come and what a composed and talented outfit Poyet has fashioned during his time at the helm. My nerves dissipated with each completed pass and Albion looked what they are, the better side. Early chances for Ulloa were spurned before a delightful cross from Buckley was met full on by the on rushing Hammond whose header flashed goal wards only to be denied by a point blank, reflex block by Speroni in the Palace goal. Hammond should have scored, a foot either side of the keeper and he would have had no chance whatsoever at keeping the ball out. Time that had passed so painfully slow all week was now rushing by. The Albion was on top and it seemed certain that their domination would result in the opening goal. The defence looked rock solid and allowed Palace’s array of talented and prolific forwards neither space nor time to create anything of note during the opening period. It was going well. We knew it and Palace knew it…if nothing changed in the second half, Albion would win this game.
Football is rarely so cut and dried though is it? Whatever Holloway said to his troops at half-time it certainly put some fire into their bellies. Manchester United bound Zaha awoke from his shackled slumbers and gradually Palace started to threaten and impose themselves on the Albion forcing resolute and occasionally fortunate defending from all of our team. The closest Palace came to a goal however was a chance for Gabbidon that Orlandi cleared hurriedly off the line. The introduction of Lua Lua, perhaps surprisingly left out despite his two goal salvo versus Wolves, forced Palace onto the back foot again for the final fifteen minutes and helped considerably to relieve the pressure that had been mounting on Albion’s stoic back four. Praise must also be given to Liam Bridcutt. He really has blossomed into a quite exceptional player in the last two years and was well worthy of his man of the match award as he kept Albion ticking all game and made a couple of crucial blocks on goal bound efforts. Chances were, however, at a premium for either side and a goalless stalemate appeared inevitable, and so it was to be. Not that I am complaining about that. I would have bitten the arm off anyone who had offered me a draw before kick-off and would still have taken it during the first half when Albion were totally in control of the game. Many fans have complained all season about the number of drawn games we have had this season. Well, one more didn’t hurt did it?
The one low note of the evening was the gruesome injury to Glenn Murray that had those in the ground and watching on TV wincing in pain. I know Murray has his haters amongst us but I wouldn’t wish such an injury on anyone and whilst I’m glad we will not have to contend with him in the 2nd leg I do wish him a full and speedy recovery.
This is only half-time but the phony war is now over. Nothing was going to be decided last night, it was always going to come down to what transpires on Monday night at the Amex. We have the opportunity to cement this season as one of our greatest ever and as fans it is up to us to create a wall of sound the like of which the Amex has never heard. I want to see the emotion that accompanied the opening game against Doncaster coupled with the obstreperous atmosphere at the 3-0 demolition of Palace back in March. I’m not nervous anymore. I want to go to Wembley and I want to see Albion playing in the Premier League come August. I bloody love the play offs me!!!