Championship – Phillips sends Crystal Palace into the Premier League
Championship play-off final, Wembley – Crystal Palace 1 (Phillips 105’ pen.) Watford 0 AET
Crystal Palace’s Kevin Phillips (R) shoots and scores from the penalty spot against Watford during their Championship play-off final
Crystal Palace returned to the Premier League as they beat Watford 1-0 after extra-time in the Championship play-off final at Wembley.
It was 39-year-old Kevin Phillips who scored the solitary goal from the penalty spot after 105 minutes and net the Eagles an estimated £120 million windfall.
It is a huge financial boost for Palace, who finished fifth in the table, and comes just three years after a group of local businessmen rescued the club from administration
The Londoners return to the top-flight for the first time since 2005 and join Cardiff City and Hull City, who were automatically promoted as champions and runners-up.
Some dazzling wing play from Wilfried Zaha, in his final match as a Crystal Palace player before a £15million switch to Manchester United, drew a foul from Marco Cassetti at the end of the first period of extra time.
And substitute Phillips rifled the ball into the top right-hand corner, giving Manuel Almunia – who had made a string of fine saves up to that point to keep the game goalless – no chance.
The former England frontman has only been at the club since January and finally tasted play-off final victory after three previous defeats with the goal coming against the club for whom he scored his first Football League goal 18 years ago.
Two days after Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund fought it out for Europe’s most prestigious club prize at Wembley, Watford and Palace took to the same pitch chasing an even more financially lucrative reward; although the quality on display could not have been more of a contradiction than Saturday’s Champions League final with neither goalkeeper tested for over an hour.
It took 65 minutes for a save to be forced and then former Arsenal keeper Almunia made a pair of good stops in as many minutes.
Zaha squared to Stuart O’Keefe, an early replacement for Kagisho Dikgacoi, and his fierce strike was saved by the Spaniard at the near post. The former Arsenal man was then called into further action to deny Aaron Wilbraham with his legs after a mix-up between Cassetti and Daniel Pudil.
Wilbraham, who has scored just one goal for Palace since joining from Norwich last summer and leading the line in the absence of injured Glenn Murray – the Championship’s 30-goal leading marksman – was also denied by Almunia and squandered other opportunities through indecisiveness.
Watford were also without their main goal threat in Championship player-of-the-year Matej Vydra who went off injured at half-time with an ankle injury suffered in their clearest sight of goal in normal time when Damien Delaney made a vital block to repel the Czech striker’s shot.
The Championship play-off final went into extra time for the first time since 2002 and almost immediately the Hertfordshire club, who only missed out on an automatic promotion berth to Hull on the final day of the season, had their best chance.
Troy Deeney nipped in ahead of Joel Ward at the back post but saw Argentine keeper Julian Speroni spring to his left to claw the ball away just as the big striker thought his first touch was going to allow a tap-in into an empty net.
Zaha had been a constant menace to 35-year-old Cassetti with his pace and trickery and it paid dividends when he lured the loanee from Udinese into a rash tackle on the left side of the penalty area.
Phillips, who will be turning 40 in the summer and could have played in his last game, dispatched the spot kick with aplomb to send Palace boss Ian Holloway, who was in charge of his third play-off final in four years and who had brought him to the club on loan from Blackpool, into raptures.
Holloway, who won the final with the Tangerines in 2010 and lost with them last season, had his heart in his mouth though in the final moments. Firstly Ward charged down Joel Ekstrand’s shot before the full-back headed Fernando Forestieri’s effort off the line.
But Palace held out to win a record fourth Championship play-off final and return to the promised land of the Premier League.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace – The winger showed he is as good as anybody in the Championship by giving Marco Cassetti a torrid time and earning the penalty in his Palace farewell.
Crystal Palace: Speroni 7, Ward 7, Gabbidon 7, Delaney 8, Moxey 6, Jedinak 8, Dikgacoi 6, Garvan 7, Williams 6, Zaha 9, Wilbraham 5. Subs: Phillips 8, O’Keefe 6, Moritz 6
Watford: Almunia 7, Doyley 8, Ekstrand 6, Cassetti 4, Anya 6, Chalobah 6, Hogg 5, Abdi 6, Pudil 6, Deeney 5, Vydra 5. Subs: Battocchio 6, Geijo 7, Forestieri 7