I hope nobody expects a blow-by-blow account of tonight’s game; there had to be glasses afterwards. Let’s just summarise the main points. First, it was a triumph of character and determination. Second, we deserved it. Third, the crowd were magnificent. There was a realisation that out of necessity we were putting square pegs in round holes, perhaps even a thought that a message needed to be sent that Sir Chris has the backing of the fans, and the impact on the team was a true turning point. That and some iffy decisions by the officials, which in the end balanced out.
Faced with another selection poser, with Wilson and Evina out of the picture and Razak having been recalled, Powell opted to move Morrison to right-back, with Dervite dropping into the back four and Solly again switching flanks. Stephens was recalled to pair Jackson in the centre, with Pritchard and Kerkar providing the width and Haynes getting a start alongside Hulse. Against a fluid and confident Cardiff side, and on the back of another home reverse, it could have fallen apart – and nearly did.
The game had barely begun before Cardiff conned the officials to take the lead. A corner was sent into the near post, but as it was taken Helguson shoved his marker out of the way. It was a blatant, deliberate, and practised foul, let go by an indifferent linesman and tolerant ref. Suddenly he was all alone to deflect the ball past Hamer. But the tone was set by the reaction of the crowd, even though it got worse before it got better. Another corner resulted in the ball going back and forth, hooked back from perhaps beyond the goal line (although this time you have to give the linesman the benefit of the doubt from being in a better position), and eventually falling to their guy. This time the defence looked calpable, having failed to deal with it, and suddenly we were 0-2 down.
At that point the crowd could easily have turned. The team seemed to expect it and heads looked like dropping. Instead the fans’ response was sustained singing for the team and for Powell. There might have been an air of desperation, but so what? It was true support when it was needed most. And at least it sent the message that they were in it with the players and, with Cardiff taking their foot off the pedal (it had for a while seemed so easy), the game turned, dramatically.
A neutral, even perhaps the Cardiff manager, might be inclined to suggest that we got back into it through a foul on their keeper. A ball in seemed to be his, but Hulse did the job that Helguson had done before and prevented him from getting it clear. The loose ball dropped to Jackson to finish off. And with Cardiff a little stunned we drew level before the break. Another corner and Jackson rose majestically (and seemingly unmarked) to head home.
At the break, what to think? We had been level at half-time against Middlesbrough and went on to lose 1-4. We knew that the team was patched up, that Cardiff going forward would cause problems for most teams in the league above, and that a point taken then might not have been a bad outcome. We also knew that sometimes, just sometimes, other qualities win out.
Enter Madam Fortune. Because when Stephens hit a free kick in from the left I hung my head and said he’d overhit it. What do I know? Their keeper had come off his line and ended up flapping at the ball as it sailed over him into the net. If he meant it I apologise. Long way to go in the game, but you could sense from their reaction that a game they thought was won had suddenly turned and the onus was on them to respond in the same way that we had. In that they failed as we showed that there’s ability too, alongside character.
I’m really not sure about the build-up to our third, but eventually the ball went into the box and Haynes seemed to be falling over. If he can score when falling down that’s fine with me. With Cardiff not quite sure how to react, we went on and scored again. This time the build-up was more measured and threatening, with a near miss followed by a good ball in and Hulse getting on the end of it.
5-2 and ecstasy. We’ve been deprived at home for a long time and the final whistle would have been welcomed. We didn’t switch off, but there followed a period when Cardiff might have got one back, only this time they didn’t get the breaks that others have had at The Valley. I even commented, going into a daft six minutes of stoppage time (we even had two at the end of the first half following no substitutions and one trainer’s appearance), that I felt comfortable. Not for long.
I don’t want to dwell on just how we conceded twice in stoppage time, or how we allowed a minute or two when they might have levelled. I just know it would have been somewhat hard to take had they equalised. They didn’t. The goals and the frantic final seconds took a bit of the gloss off what should have been a merited ovation at the end, with Sir Chris not milking it from the tunnel either. But I don’t care. We won a game tonight that at one point you probably could have got 20-1 against. Turning points only come with hindsight, but as a reminder of what it takes to win at this level – and what can be done when you have the crowd behind you – let’s enjoy it. I don’t even care that we sent Palace top.
Player ratings tonight would be inappropriate. Suffice to say that Jackson proved his worth with a couple of goals, Haynes showed Wright-Phillips what extra is needed at this level (and BWP when he came on seemed to realise it and put in a proper shift), and Hulse was superb. But any Man of the Match award goes to the crowd.