Ahead of tonight’s game for me it had all the echoes of when Sheff Utd were putting together an impressive run and came to face us at Selhurst Park in what proved to be Lennie’s promotion season. That day we did a job on them and came away with a 2-0 victory, one that said that the side he’d put together had the backbone, will and ability to get us up. I only have one truly warm memory of that place (it involved Paul Kitson; Dennis Rommadahl’s doesn’t really count as I was in The Crown watching that one), but if I look back on any game there with affection that was it. I didn’t want to tempt fate before by drawing comparisons, but tonight turned out much the same. A genuine rival, full of confidence, turned up at our place (this time) for a real top-of-the-table clash and to a man our team more than matched them. Sure, the last 20 minutes or so were a struggle; it’s hard to play the game when you’re winning 2-0 and only want the final whistle. It might even have turned out differently if they’d pulled one back. They didn’t, it didn’t, and the team deserve all the plaudits, especially for a first-half performance that had everything you could want.
With Jackson missing, Powell went for it by bringing in Ephraim from the start. The surprise was that the other loanee just arrived, Russell, also began the game, with Hughes unlucky to be on the bench. The first five minutes were a blur as I was waiting outside in the queue, having lingered too long over the pre-match wine. But once in the early exchanges were not surprisingly somewhat frantic, with both sides trying to establish some sort of dominance in the key areas. What seemed apparent was that Huddersfield could clearly cause us problems, especially from set pieces, but they lacked the pace or individual ability to turn the game. By contrast, when we made openings they either did or nearly did count. It wasn’t going to be a game for pretty football, there was too much at stake and no shortage of effort or commitment on either side. But by the break, in every department we’d come out on top.
The first real opening saw Wright-Phillips spring an offside trap (which he played with all night), but having cut inside opted to shoot instead of squaring it and the keeper made the save. Huddersfield had corners and a couple of shots, but they produced nothing to match that moment of quality. Then the ref began giving free kicks for 50-50 challenges; three to them, which came to nothing, then one for us, which Green curled in and Kermorgant made it all his own. The first goal was always going to be very important and we had it. The game continued as before, but once again we manufactured a decisive moment and made it count. A fair challenge – which seemed to be contested by them – produced a throw which was quickly taken to BWP, who turned the defender and despite a heavy touch got the strike in. It was well blocked by their keeper, but bounced out to Ephraim, who buried it.
Three moments, two goals. The rest was contested, but with our defence more than holding solid at the break they’d been restricted to some corners, a few shots, with Hamer having no shot to save. It was as close to the perfect performance as you could wish for at this level.
At the break Russell was replaced by Hughes (no idea if it was an injury or tactical) and nobody was in any doubt that there was still all to play for. Huddersfield had a very proud record to defend and had nothing to lose. The first chance – which had it gone in might have finished the game – saw a long throw in met superbly by Kermorgant, who managed to take a ball from behind him and get a meaningful header in, only to see it come back off the bar. They followed up with one off the woodwork too, although it looked to me like a cross which went wrong rather than a deliberate attempt.
As the game wore on it was hardly surprising that we came under more pressure. Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips, having worked their socks off, were tiring and looked increasingly disjointed; without a regular outlet we gave away possession too easily. Again, we wanted it to be over. The half-chances for them were becoming more frequent, with one ball across that somehow wasn’t converted, and then what proved to be the crucial moment. A ball in and for once our central defender (the TV can say whether it was Morrison or Taylor) slipped, allowing their forward to get in the shot. Hamer managed to get a glove on it and turned it on to the post and safety. He’d had no real saves to make before then, but when it mattered he – like everyone on the night – rose to the occasion.
Thereafter it wasn’t done and dusted, but their moment hadn’t produced a goal and it showed. Ephraim was replaced by Wagstaff and then Kermorgant fell awkwardly in the box and was stretchered off (have to wait to see if that was serious), with Hayes coming on. I’d been trying not to look at the watch and didn’t even realise we were playing stoppage time, so when the ref blew the whistle I was surprised – and delighted. No doubt the players are too (we know Sir Chris is, by the end-celebrations) and they have every right to be.
There’s no player ratings tonight as it would have to be a 10 for each and every one. Some may saw that Wright-Phillips wasn’t at his most effective, but he was instrumental in the second goal and worked hard until the last spell of the game. Kermorgant won headers all night, scored superbly and nearly had a second. Green provided telling contributions; Ephraim was excellent in the first half before tiring. And I just don’t have the time to sing the praises of Solly, who was almost inspirational, Wiggins (just another excellent game for him), Morrison and Taylor, who were magnificent, and Hollands, who worked tirelessly (as did Russell and Huges). Hamer made the save when it mattered. I think that’s everyone.