Eagles take flight in football's richest match

Eagles take flight in football's richest match

Billed as the richest match in world football, it was an occasion which demanded a calm and experienced head.

It appeared destined for penalties as the extra-time interval approached, but in the end, only one spot-kick was required.

And Kevin Phillips, in his 40th year and his fourth Championship play-off final, against the team where his career began, finished with aplomb to send the Eagles of Crystal Palace soaring into the Barclays Premier League for a fifth time.

Phillips, more than anyone else, will know the feeling endured by the inconsolable journeymen of Watford, having lost three times, with Sunderland, West Brom and Blackpool. His fairytale was complete.

Watford lost out on promotion on the final day of the regular season, reached Wembley courtesy of Manuel Almunia’s double penalty save and a winner 20 seconds later from Troy Deeney, who began the season in prison.

There was to be no dream end for the Hornets; no sting in the tail.

Instead it was Palace manager Ian Holloway who danced a jig of delight following his third play-off final in four years.

Agony and ecstasy have been familiar feelings for supporters of Watford and Palace, both of whom have flirted with financial disaster and the Premier League.

Fans travelled from the north of London and the south to meet in the hope of completing the journey from the precipice to the promised land, not to mention securing the £120million windfall to accompany promotion to the top flight.

The fixture attracted Sir Elton John, Eddie Izzard and Jose Mourinho.

If the allegiances of the musician and comedian were obvious – John is a former Watford owner and Izzard wore a blue and red tie – Mourinho’s presence in London served only to heighten speculation of an imminent return to Chelsea.

The two teams were bidding to play at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge next season, rather than Yeovil’s Huish Park, in another illustration of what was at stake on a sun-kissed afternoon.

Only £15million winger Wilfried Zaha, whose Premier League place with Manchester United was already confirmed, shone in the first half, his pace and power down the right offering the most likely route for glory.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing as Manchester United boss looks like a good one, as Zaha was the game’s one true star.

The right flank was also an area in which Watford were strong, with Ikechi Anya’s bursts attempting to ignite his fellow journeymen.

One of seven loan players in the Hornets’ starting XI, Anya typifies Watford’s cosmopolitan identity – born in Glasgow and on loan in Herfordshire via Wycombe, Oxford, Halesowen, Northampton and Seville.

And with Gianfranco Zola as manager, Watford have one of the most cultured of bosses.

The Italian has won at Wembley before, with Chelsea and Italy, but there was more at stake in his first play-off final as Watford sought to climb into the Premier League for a third time through the play-offs after successes in 1999 and 2006.

The arrival of a man experienced on the big occasion coincided with Palace’s best spell.

Phillips entered the fray with 24 minutes to go and his mere presence ignited the Eagles.

Almunia saved from Stuart O’Keefe, Aaron Wilbraham (twice), Danny Gabbidon and Mile Jedinak.

Zaha’s brilliance created the best opening for Wilbraham, who was denied as the former Arsenal goalkeeper saved brilliantly with his legs. How Palace fans must have wished one of those chances had fallen to Phillips.

Julian Speroni, Palace’s one Premier League survivor from 2004-05, was a spectator by comparison at the other end until his crucial intervention at the feet of Deeney in the third minute of extra-time.

Palace and Zaha’s persistence continued.

Zaha’s energy continued to trouble Watford and Marco Cassetti’s over-eagerness in the area presented Palace with a chance in the 115th minute.

The moment needed a calm head. It got one in Phillips, and the delirious celebrations followed.

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