Rotheram United (11th August, 2001)

Another season and another long train trip for the opening game.  It was with the hope that this campaign wouldn’t follow the script of the last which, despite the amazing twist in the tail, was not one you’d want to be involved with every year – for reasons of health if nothing else.  Even if earlier trains couldn’t manage it ours did leave on time and even more surprisingly arrived at the other end on time.  Hopefully a good omen.

Rotherham’s ground was a reminder that not all grounds have yet reached the status of soulless stadia.  The tin roofs were most noticeable although very welcome as this would allow a lot of noise to be generated.  The main stand to our left was similar although the executive boxes broke up the solid masses of home spectators.  The one on the right looked like three small stands bolted together into one large one, as if they had been found in the scrap yard next door and placed there in lieu of anything better to do with them.  The gaps in the crowd in that part of the ground indicated it wasn’t the most popular area but, in general, the whole ground was fairly full.

A minutes silence before the game was marred by a couple of idiot Palace supporters who were told in no uncertain terms by those around them to be quiet.  That finished, it was time for the team who had won promotion in successive seasons to kick off.  The Palace formation was the 3-5-2 that had been used frequently during the pre-season and involves Mullins in the centre at the back, Fan on the right, and Austin on the left.  Smith and Gray were the wing-backs, Riihilahti and Hopkin were in central midfield while Kirovski (finally signed the previous day) sat behind the two strikers of Morrison and Freedman.  

Rotherham put on the early pressure down the left before a Smith tackle put it out for a throw.  A half-hearted challenge from Fan allowed Rotherham to drift along the edge of the area for a sighter of goal but this was closed down and a free kick awarded to Palace before it went any further.  A long ball into the Palace half saw Mullins head clear over near the touchline.  On receiving the rebound he went to volley it upfield but it was rudely stopped by cannoning into a nearby player from whose knee it flew straight into the face of the linesman.  He collapsed, much to the amusement of the crowd although when he finally arose after treatment he did get a good round of applause – probably the only time he’ll get clapped in his entire officiating career.

A long clearance from Austin was immediately returned with interest and allowed Rotherham in around the back.  A sliding Hopkin cleared that but the following thirty yard speculator was always going wide.  The first corner of the match went to the hosts after a deflection of Gray.  With all Palace players except Freedman in the area there was still trouble clearing it and only a sliced kick from Mullins stopped further danger but at the expense of another corner.  This was treated with the same amount of panic as the previous one and Kolinko managed to grab a lucky rebound off a Rotherham player.  Obviously rattled by that his clearance sliced straight out for a throw.  A neat passing move from the home team proved effective in getting forward.  It should have been ended when Austin won a tackle but he then needlessly leaned on the player who promptly fell over and was thus awarded a free kick on the edge of the area.  This was floated across and caused problems as Kolinko stayed rooted to his line and Mullins was beaten to the ball but the glancing header was nothing more and Palace escaped with a goal kick.

That allowed Palace’s first real attack as the kick upfield saw Freedman try a shot that was blocked by a defender.  The ball screwed out to the right where Morrison pulled it back into the area for Riihilahti  but his attempt met a similar fate to Dougie’s and the momentary excitement ended there.  For some reason not readily apparent Hopkin went down injured while Rotherham were waiting to take a free kick.  The referee looked at him and then waved play on.  Although deep into the area it dribbled out for a goal kick which allowed Hopkin time to continue hobbling off.  While he was still off two crosses were sent into the Palace box, neither of which were dealt with very well.  The second saw yet another glancing header go wide.  Three minutes after going off Hopkin re-appeared to return us to our full complement of players.

After about twenty minutes Palace finally gained their first corner.  A bit of trickery from Morrison on the right saw him put a cross into the centre but this was wasted as there were no team-mates waiting there.  The Rotherham defender with his back to everyone else wasn’t aware of this and put it out for another corner.  This one was handled easily.  Soon after Rotherham put a long ball forward for Robins to chase.  Mullins was always a half-step behind him but got lucky when the ball fell a little short of where the players were running and hit the Palace man on the shoulder.  He had no idea what had happened and was still looking confused when Robins reached thee ball first and crossed.  Kolinko came for the ball but flapped and was relieved when the glancing headers continued and this one went wide.  Although Kolinko, now airborne, kept going.  He cannoned into the Rotherham player and left the Millers man feeling slightly the worse for wear.  Unlike at Oxford he didn’t managed to do it to his own player this time.  The Palace keeper continued to ride his luck and was fortunate when Robins hooked the ball across the area and over the Latvian standing off his line but sent it wide again.  

A return to the direct approach almost paid dividends.  Austin hoofed one up the pitch and it dropped nicely for Dougie to have a one-on-one with the keeper.  Unfortunately the finish was a lot less clinical than at Stockport and it went directly at the Rotherham custodian who grabbed it as the second attempt.  That seemed to spark Palace and Kirovski made his first contribution of note with a lovely little run through the midfield before finding Smith.  Unfortunately the wing-back’s cross was aimed at three Rotherham players rather than any Palace ones.  An almost identical replay a minute later saw the Kirovski-Smith link-up continue with Gray who put in the first of a number of very good crosses during the match.  This one found Freedman at the far post but he was unable to get enough power when trying to head the ball back into the centre.  

Rotherham then broke down their right and caught the defence very flat.  An angled ball in found Sedgwick unmarked at the far post who mis-kicked and sliced it wide when it would have been easier to score.  Successive corners for Palace, the first fortuitously gained, provided some pressure although they were more noticeable for showing some of the training ground moves rather than unduly troubling the defense.  

Then the old Palace reared its head.  A dinky little chip fell in between Mullins and Kolinko.  They both waited for each other to deal with it which left things open for Barker to steal in behind Mullins.  There must have been the slightest of deflections off the keeper to carry it wide because Rotherham were awarded a corner which, I suppose, was better than the alternative.  Another corner followed that one after a Swailes free header was deflected wide.  This was taken with a logjam of players at the near post as the ball was delivered.  Branston won the header (I don’t think we’d actually won a header in our own area so far in the game) and directed it downwards.  Kolinko caught it but was falling back as he did so.  He fell over the line and carried the ball with him, despite his attempts to release it before being seen by the officials.  Shades of Cardiff yet again and flashbacks of far too many games for the Palace fans massed behind the goal.  

Hopkin, who had barely been seen since his injury finally disappeared at this point to be replaced by Rodger.  He gave the team a greater presence in the middle although his first action was to watch us concede a second goal.  Yet another cross and yet another Kolinko flap led to a header back over the defense camped on the six yard line.  Robins was there to receive the ball (albeit looking very much off-side) and calmly buried it to double the host’s lead.  At this point I think our keeper was wishing he could be anywhere else rather than in South Yorkshire with 1,600 very unhappy Palace fans a few feet behind him.  The feeling was probably mutual as a loud sarcastic cheer greeted the next time he caught a cross.  However, he partially redeemed himself with a huge and quickly taken punt forward that allowed Freedman to chase into the area.  He was forced wide to the right at which point the chasing defender scythed him down.  As challenges go it was quite stupid and I’m surprised he wasn’t booked for it.  On the bright side we were awarded a penalty.  And considering our recent performances from the spot on the downside we were awarded a penalty.  Freedman stepped up to take it, dummied the keeper into going one way and then slid it to the other side.

This had the effect of stopping Rotherham from the rampant attacking they had been doing since scoring and perked Palace up a bit.  When the next Millers free kick drifted in Kolinko even managed to catch his second one in a row.  He was starting to get a bit of practise because Rotherham had resorted to pumping in a lot of high balls.  Hard to blame them I suppose.

The ludicrous nature of the new directives on time added on (1 minute per injury and 30 seconds per booking along with the existing one for substitutions) saw eight minutes tacked onto the first half.  The referee must have thought he was at Old Trafford.  Rotherham used this time to go down the left and finally get past Jamie Smith who was hampered by losing a boot.  They eventually tried a volley from the other side which didn’t go too far wide.  Palace tried to equalise before the break thanks to some good work from Freedman in the corner and a Gray cross.  It fell to Morrison who fell over with a defender and the crowd was treated to the sight of two large men scrabbling around on the floor for the ball.  It finally skidded away back to Rodger who chipped the ball in the direction of the area but managed to hit the roof of the stand instead.  That provided a neat summation of Palace’s performance in the first half and was probably a good enough point on which to finally end it.

The second half started with Palace looking a lot brighter and far more composed.  An early ball down the right saw Kirovski get ahead of his marker, albeit with the use of an arm unseen by the officials.  He lobbed in a ball to Morrison but the three players around him proved more than capable of handling the Irish international.  Down at the far end a throw proved a little too awkward for Austin to handle and this allowed Robins the chance to chip Kolinko.  Fortunately the ball was only about eight feet high which allowed the keeper to grab it with both hands.  

Then Julian Gray started getting into the game and causing merry hell down the left hand side.  A deep run and cross from an acute angle allowed Dougie to try a volley.  It cannoned into a defender which produced the usual cries for handball but no-one seemed to be too interested, least of all the referee.  Within sixty seconds Kirovski had produced an excellent pass that allowed Gray to gallop away again in that coltish gait of his and produce an almost identical cross.  This one caused far more trouble and produced a scramble that saw Smith storming in from the right and hammering a shot from a tight angle.  The keeper covered it and parried the ball away for a corner.  That was put too short but headed straight back to Gray.  Using his right foot he dropped it to the far post but Morrison was unable to get there before it drifted out for a goal kick.  

The passing game that had been promised was starting to make cameo appearances.  One started with a very timely interception by Austin and then flowed across the field, probing for a way through.  When one wasn’t found it went all the way back again.  Although it was only a dozen passes it was about ten more than usually seen in a move any time last season.  Considering we were also a goal down it was pleasing to see we were still looking to play football rather than resorting to unimaginative and panicked hoofs upfield.  Just to prove some of the old still existed the move ended when Morrison was caught off-side.

With Palace dominant in the first ten minutes a Freedman flick-on fell to Morrison who should have done a bit better than getting the ball caught under his feet.  Gray showed him how quick feet and ball control should be done by ripping down the left yet again and pulling the ball back to Rodger on the edge of the area.  He chipped it to the far post where Freedman had a header from an acute angle.  This deflected off the keeper back to him at which point he lobbed it across the face of the goal.  Morrison and Riihilahti  both went for it but the Finn got his head there first and equalised from a couple of feet out.  The Palace crowd, understandably, were a little bit happy.

The first yellow card of the game was soon awarded.  Jamie Smith was involved but, for a change, wasn’t on the receiving end of it.  His run past his marker brought a blatant shove that couldn’t go unpunished.  The free kick saw keeper Pollitt have a touch of the Kolinkos and drop the ball.  With Morrison lurking nearby he was forced to bat the ball away and the defense managed to clear it without further incident.  Rotherham then went on a rare foray forward which produced a corner and yet another glancing header that went wide.  I wonder where our back three were?  Normal service was soon resumed when Gray got the ball again.  The crowd were now rising in expectation each time he touched the ball and watched this time as he wriggled his way into the corner and kept two defenders away before earning a throw.  This was hurled into Morrison but his cross failed to find anyone in the centre.  Freedman tried going through the middle and was helped by their centre-half falling over but was eventually pushed too far to the right and saw the ball run out for a goal kick before he was able to get in a cross.  

A bad pass by Gray at the back caused Riihilahti some problems as he suddenly had to scramble to get near a ball at the edge of the area.  He failed but did enough to force Rotherham into a long shot that went well wide.  Palace then managed to win a header when Austin powered clear which allowed Freedman, Kirovski, and Morrison to combine in a fast break.  Freedman was brought down outside the area but the referee played advantage of which Morrison couldn’t maximise and sent the ball wide.  However, the offending Rotherham player was then called over and booked.  More fortunate was the player who almost ripped Austin’s shirt off his back to prevent him reaching a cross.  The referee had a perfect view of the offence but inexplicably neglected to give one of the more blatant penalty decisions.

Another slick passing move across the area produced a couple of half chances for shooting but these were quickly blocked.  At the other end the yin-yang existence of Palace continued with yet another mis-communication between Kolinko and Mullins.  The former let a deep cross go while the latter, under no pressure at all, headed it out.  On the plus side Smith went for a couple of runs, the first ending when he was unceremoniously shoved over and the second resulting in a cross that saw Morrison just failing to get ahead of the defender.  Although Palace are pretty much in control of the game at this time there are still occasions where they look fragile.  The main problem is that a lot of them are problems of their own making such as hesitant keepers and a back three not being in the right position or watching the game properly.  Mullins showed this by letting a ball run out when he thought it came off a Rotherham player.  Everyone else disagreed and we conceded another corner.

With a quarter hour left Gray produced yet more work down the left and sent in a peach of a cross.  Freedman’s volley smacked into a defender who then stabbed the ball away rather than thump it.  This pushed it into the path of the on-rushing Smith and he side footed past the defender and keeper and gave Palace the lead for the first time in the game.  As part of the celebrations a couple of idiots ran on the pitch and were suddenly engulfed by half the South Yorkshire police force.  Rumours of a few nastier incidents came to light later on which is probably why we were forced to walk through a heavily policed alley on the way out which reminded me of the last scene in ‘The Birds’.  

In usual style Palace then dropped deep to try and defend the lead.  This allowed Rotherham time around the edge of the area from which they gained a corner.  This was defended and allowed Fan, who generally had a poor game, to run out with the ball.  He was tripped and was given a sly foot to keep him on the ground.  Mullins retaliated with a slap around the head of the Rotherham player but, not for the first time, the referee missed the events.

Rotherham had a chance near the end of normal time when they surprised the defense by drilling in a low cross instead of a high one.  Robins received the ball, turned and left his marker for dead but then skidded his cross-shot wide of the far post.  Asnother run and an increasing number of angled balls in behind the back line started causing problems which, except for the well placed foot of Dean Austin, could have proved far more costly.  Freedman had the chance to relieve all the pressure after a free kick but he snatched at the shot and sent it wide, condemning the Palace fans to surviving the final minutes protecting only a single goal lead.  Berhalter was brought on to aid in this, replacing his American compatriot.  He was guaranteed five more minutes than he would have expected as that was the time added on.  Which for a half that had more stoppages, bookings, and substitutions than the first half was a bit strange.

Rotherham were now allowed to do most of the pressing and it was Gray who headed one attempted cross away but it was Riihilahti who put in the more important clearance when the ball made it into the area.  A long throw to the near post was easily cleared and the returning cross was hit to the far one where it was shepherded out for a goal kick by Fan.  A silly challenge gave Rotherham a free kick just inside the Palace half that was lofted into the area.  Kolinko rose and punched it away but the referee blew for a free kick.  He was pointing at the offending Rotherham player but for one awful moment I thought he was pointing at the spot.  Kolinko was soon involved again after Pollitt made a huge clearance, grabbing the ball on his line and remaining firm as the Rotherham player barged into him.  Palace had one last chance at goal with an angled ball from Riihilahti finding Dougie twisting and turning on the edge of the area.  His cross just eluded Morrison and went for a goal kick.  As this was sent up the field the final whistle blew.

I’ve never seen Palace win after being two goals down so the third consecutive away win was a pleasant surprise.  The performance in general was not the best but was far superior to anything at this time last season.  Plus we don’t have Alan Smith as manager which has to help.  When we started passing the ball around we looked quite good and made our occasional use of the long ball far more effective by its rarity.  As individuals go Freedman and Gray were easily our best players and to see the latter start to display some of the ability he always threatened was a joy.  Kirovski also started to show some good running and passing in the second half.  Presumably when he’s match fit his contribution will be much greater.  The defense is still a worry.  Kolinko looks to lack confidence and at half-time the talk was of a new keeper.  The back three looked OK on the ground but barely won anything in the air.  Considering the quality of the opposition (and Rotherham will struggle) it was a good comeback but will do nothing to give hope to anything other than a mid-table finish.  But after the last few seasons I don’t think too many will complain about that.