Having watched his side fall through the trap-door yesterday, Alan Irvine will probably have two wishes for next season. Firstly, he will hope that the Owls’ stay in the third tier is limited to a solitary season. Secondly, he will be desperate to ensure that the final day of the season is one of celebration, with their fate already decided.
In the same round of fixtures last season, Irvine’s Preston North End stole the final play-off place with 2-1 a win over Queens Park Rangers and the assistance of his current club as they defeated Cardiff City. The final moment of that game saw Darren Carter clear a goal-bound header off the line followed by the whistle and the predictable pitch invasion. Yesterday saw Wednesday lay siege to the Crystal Palace goal in a frantic scramble for a goal that would have meant salvation for them and possible liquidation for the visitors. As it was, the final foray was scrambled away for a corner and this time Irvine could have no emotional tie to the jubilant supporters who invaded the Hillsborough pitch. They say stress is a killer, and another afternoon like these two is likely to push the former Everton assistant’s cholestrol through the roof.
The truth is that Wednesday’s problem appears to have been down to a misdiagnosis of the cause of their poor results. Yes, a lack of goals has been a problem, but they managed two at Cardiff in their penultimate game and two more yesterday. That they harvested a return of just one point from those two matches tells you that focussing on their penalty-box profligacy distracted much-needed attention from issues at the other end. Tight, competitive games have been narrowly lost on a frequent basis, and yesterday saw two more concessions that go into the ‘avoidable’ category. Alan Lee, the stereotypical ‘target man’ who can claim aerial prowess as his area of excellence, got a free run to power in on a corner. Then having started the second half with energy and desire, a counter-attack saw three Owls defenders watching the ball and not those breaking forward. Give Darren Ambrose time and space eighteen yards out and he will punish you. His 20th goal of the season was a strike of real class, and arguably worth more than the previous ones combined. Goals from Leon Clarke and Darren Purse brought the Owls level twice, and demonstrated that spirit was not the issue here. The reality is that the league table does not lie, and while 49 goals scored is not a great statistic, 69 conceded is an even worse one given they have often been involved in close encounters. Irvine acknowledged after the game: “It has probably been fairly typical of us. We have had a lot of pressure, a lot of chances, not taken them and then been caught out at the other end. It has probably happened too many times.” This is indeed the case, but in a run of one win in the previous XI, the repeated complaint had been the former issue, with little mention of the latter.
For Crystal Palace, it is perhaps an ending to a traumatic season that neutrals would have wanted. Following their ten point deduction for going into administration earlier in the year, a club in the thick of the play-off battle saw themselves in on and off-field turmoil. The refusal of their players to wallow in self-pity is a tribute to their spirit and professionalism and is also a personal triumph for their manager Paul Hart, who has experienced a hellish season on a personal level. His unenviable task in keeping Portsmouth relatively competitive was followed by a five-game stint at Queens Park Rangers which ended with rumours of an outbreak of ‘player power’. Having essentially swapped jobs with former Eagles chief Neil Warnock, Hart can take personal credit from having kept a diminished squad above the line and ending the season with a winning record away from home. It is an unfashionable comment to make, but a word of praise has to go to the administrator who allowed the rest of Palace’s key players to remain once Victor Moses had been sold for a cut-price £2 million to Wigan Athletic. Attracting offers for Ambrose would have been far from difficult and allowing him to stay has given Palace a lifeline in terms of a brighter long-term future.
Their immediate financial issues are not over, and hopefully remaining in the Championship will make the necessary inward investment more likely. With new signings off limits for now, the much-heralded Palace academy that produced John Bostock, Moses and others will be under pressure to unearth further rough diamonds. Hart was non-committal about his future after the game expressing a willingness to stay but insisting, “that’s up to other people”. One would hope that Simon Jordan, their outspoken and perma-tanned chairman, sees sense on this and extends his stay. If there is one thing both Palace and Hart need right now it is some stability. The other winners of the final day were Blackpool, who emulated their deadly rivals late charge into sixth twelve months earlier. The realisation that the virtually impossible may actually happen appeared to deprive them of the rhythm and fluidity that has made them many neutrals team of choice in the Championship this season. Having gone behind to a trademark thunderbolt from Bristol City’s Nicky Maynard, the Seasiders dug deep to force an equaliser through Brett Ormerod, who was a hero in his first spell with the club and could yet surpass these efforts in his second.
The celebrations at the end of the game were a fitting expression of a sense of achievement, but Ian Holloway has got the most out of his team by demanding high standards of them and refusing to see his own side as underdogs. Nottingham Forest have had some wretched away results recently having gone on a 13-match unbeaten run on the road at the start of the season. Therefore ‘Olly’ will see an opportunity to gain a first-leg lead and more to the point, will be disappointed if they do not take an advantage back to the City Ground. A total of 19 points from 24 has seen them go into the play-offs as the form team, and Blackpool have previous in this area. A late charge saw Steve McMahon’s side emerge from the pack in 2001 and Simon Grayson’s team notched ten straight wins before the end-of-season roulette in 2007. On both occasions, they were promoted, so the beautiful image of Holloway’s incisive wit gracing the Premier League is very much alive. Commiserations must go to Swansea City, for whom a lack of goals really were the problem. A total of 40 from 46 games is always going to make winning games extremely difficult, yet it looked for nine tenths of the season as though their miserly defence would be enough to secure a play-off place and potentially an all-Welsh showdown with Cardiff at Wembley.
However, 18 draws, including 10 at home, ultimately proved their undoing. Another side who play football the right way, Paolo Sousa will know that having a midfield player, Darren Pratley, topping their scoring charts with 7, suggests their forward players have not contributed in the way that would have been hoped. Sousa saw the 0-0 draw with Doncaster on the final day as a microcosm of their season. As well as poor finishing in an otherwise commanding performance, the former Juventus man cited poor decisions by officials as a constant thorn in the side of his players. Perhaps this was frustration getting the better of a manager who intends to sit down with the Swans’ board and discuss serious squad strengthening for next season. On a brighter personal note, Sousa has at least rebuilt the reputation that was damaged by his own cameo in the Loftus Road soap opera. Alan Irvine will hope his doubters are silenced before the last game of next season.