Big Week Tests Palace’s Credentials
Having had the privilege of experiencing any number of high points with Palace Ladies in the last few seasons, it seems strange that two matches in four days, that yielded a solitary point, would be considered one of them.
Yes, the invincible season, two promotions and cup wins will remain an obvious testament to the development of the club in the history books, but as someone who has the honour of seeing what has gone into these achievements, week in and week out, it is sometimes the smaller occasions that generate the greatest pride.
An example, during the amazing efforts of last season, was the never say die attitude and team belief that saw the comeback to win against Luton and the last minute winner against Denham. Very much, small moments individually, but hugely symbolic of what our club has become and what draws you in, grabs your heart and makes you a part of it. This is what makes us Palace – the passion, the pride and the belief in what you can achieve, even if the odds are stacked against you.
It is this feeling, this belief and this unique sense of being a part of things that drives us all to be fans, but too often the very teams that we support are accused of not having the same levels of emotional investment. Perhaps, this is why those that know Palace Ladies are so committed. They know that those fortunate enough to pull on the red and blue shirts, fully accept the responsibilities upon them and will give their all.
So, to the past four days. A period of the season that, as soon as we saw the fixtures, we knew would show us and those looking on how far we have come and we stand in the newer, higher echelons of women’s football.
The fixtures had thrown the toughest possible challenge at us – title favourites Tottenham Hotspur and Charlton Athletic. Two vastly experienced and talented squads, well prepared for the newcomers. The sole consolation of the schedule was that both games would be at home.
Sunday saw Spurs arrive on the crest of a wave, following the hammering given to fellow premier league opposition West Ham United in the cup the previous week. The momentum carried into the game and Palace were forced into preservation mode for the first twenty minutes, during which the visitors took a 1-0 lead.
Slowly, the Eagles settled and brought themselves into the game, demonstrating a level of play that justified their presence at the higher level. Throughout what was an entertaining and intruiging game, both teams had opportunities. Whilst Spurs could claim the lions share of quality possession, Palace showed tenacity and belief that grew into more technical and productive periods of play.
The key moment of the game came, shortly before half time when Palace were awarded a penalty. The opportunity to draw level was denied by a fine save and saw the game progress with similar levels of shared possession and opportunities. The Eagles went close again in the second half through Bryan who rounded the keeper and fired goalwards. Almost at the point of celebration, a Spurs defender launched herself towards the line and spectacularly headed the ball, up and over the bar.
Despite the continued efforts, Palace were unable to equalise and dipped out by the odd goal, losing for the first time in twenty-six league matches.
Speaking after the game, Palace boss Dean Davenport knew it was a game of fine margins;
“Whilst missing out on a point is disappointing, we are greatly encouraged by the way we battled and grew into the game. The positive attitude of the girls and their ability to learn and react in a match scenario was very pleasing and bodes well for the future”.
As Wednesday neared, the usual mix of anticipation, nerves and excitement were almost tangible among the Palace camp. Everyone knew that the positives of how the team had handled their toughest test of the season stood them in good stead for the visit of their South London rivals, but it would mean nothing if it could not be enhanced over the forthcoming ninety minutes.
As on Sunday, the visitors hit the ground running and worked hard to break the Palace resolve. The Eagles suffered and were not able to bring themselves up to match speed soon enough. With history repeating itself, an early goal was conceded. Palace dug deep and worked incredibly hard to bring themselves into the game. The efforts were rewarded with some good spells of possession and a more positive looking Palace performance. However, their endeavours were undermined when a momentary lapse of concentration proved fatal, and Charlton hit a second.
Whilst the visitors were good value for a lead, Palace had the right to feel a little hard done by with the half time scoreline based upon the efforts of the first half. This feeling was expressed by the players in the dressing room at half time, who came out determined to prove their new found belief of belonging within established league company.
The Palace defiance and belief appeared to have been dealt a terminal blow on not long into the second half when Charlton broke away and scored a well taken third goal. Watching on, it would have been more than acceptable to hope for game management and respectability. However, it was clear that the on pitch mentality had not changed. This was not what the team or what their efforts to be a part of this league deserved. With a change in team dynamics through the introduction of the imperious Roschelle Shakes, Palace appeared to take Charlton by surprise.
Within a minute of joining the action, Shakes collected a loose ball following 50/50 challenge of immense bravery by Bryan on the Spurs keeper on the edge of the area, and fired home. Settle for a score line that gave Palace respectability? Not a chance. Wave after wave of attack ensued, with the visitors goal significantly threatened.
Minutes later, Bryan typified the Palace mentality when she showed her renowned quality coolly placing the ball around the advancing keeper to bring the deficit to one. Charlton appeared rocked by the comeback and the Eagles sensed it. Whilst leaving themselves exposed to the counter-attack and relying on the ability and agility of Yardley, who for the second game running had pulled out a variety of fine saves, Palace sought to maximise the momentum shift.
With just minutes left on the clock, a succession of corners for Palace finally paid off after keeping the ball alive in a goalmouth scramble, during which defender and captain for the night, Sarah Jones stabbed home the ball for what some would have thought an inconceivable equaliser.
The scenes at Hayes Lane were something that will live long in the memory. Incredibly, Palace were not done, and as injury time drew on, Bryan broke free into the area and placed a shot that was set to curl around the last defender and static keeper. However, the effort was denied by what appeared to be the most obvious of handball incidents, as the ball passed the defender, whose flailing arm appeared to prevent the inevitable. The sound, movemement of the ball and reaction of the players said it all. Frustratingly, the match officials said no.
Despite spells of last ditch defending from both teams, the scoreline remained unchanged as the referee blew the final whistle of one of the most incredible games in Palace Ladies history.
Quite understandably, the scenes at the end of the game were as if Palace had won. The elation within the home camp, matched by the obvious frustration and disappointment of the visitors.
A visibly pleased Davenport commented after the final whistle;
“For the first twenty minutes we struggled. We had the influential Holdaway missing from defence, but we took too long to establish a foothold and gave Charlton too much freedom. However, after that we did well and brought ourselves into the game. It was really frustrating to find ourselves three down, but the girls remained focused and together as a unit. What happened after that was down to their belief, ability and the sheer determination of this never say die team”
Ahead of the past four days and two games, it had been agreed that our season would not be defined by the results against these two higher level teams. The success of the season would always be measured on a far wider scale. Whilst this remains the case, what the two matches have done is provide far more than any points gained.
Having taken a position within a highly competitive environment where the differences between success and failure are slimmer than the team have ever encountered, Palace have shown those looking on, and more importantly, themselves that they are more than worthy of the position. Whilst there are plenty of hurdles ahead and times when the passion, pride, unity and belief will be tested, what they have proved time and again is that in addition to these traits, they have the one immeasurable quality, one that we should all be proud of. This team, without a doubt has the right to be called Crystal Palace.