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Champagne stings, swimming flippers and slogan t-shirts: Powell reveals path to promotion

29 May 2020

Darren Powell was focused on one thing as he strode onto the Selhurst turf for Palace’s first play-off semi-final in 2004: playing a part in his club’s promotion.

Seven months earlier, he’d been sidelined by a thigh strain deep between two muscles that was near-impossible to treat. 

Shortly afterwards, new manager Iain Dowie and sport psychologist John Harbin took over at Palace and implemented a gruelling change of routine.

From the medical room, Powell’s journey to the pitch suddenly became a lot more demanding.

“Every time I would get myself back to the level to train at, I would break down again,” Powell recalls.

“The regime they [Dowie and Harbin] set up - the physical nature of it was intense. We had three sessions a day; boxing, swimming and all sorts. One day, early in the morning before even breakfast, we went swimming and then did some training and after training I remember seeing Gary Borrowdale bombing [off] - he was just gone. The training was so intense.

“Our warm-ups were almost a whole session; they’d last 45 minutes to a bloody hour. Then we would train. But the positives were that when I came back from injury, I felt fit and I was ready to go. 

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“That was due to the amount of sessions you’d do as an injured player and the amount of swimming. I was an okay swimmer, but I reckon after that I became a near-pro! Seriously, the amount of swimming we had to do with John Harbin - it was good, it was just a different scene. He’d have the swimming gloves and flippers on in the pool…”

Away from the comfort of the Beckenham David Lloyd’s pool, Crystal Palace was transforming. Dowie’s intense regime began to show results, and the Eagles were fast switching from relegation scrappers to promotion hopefuls. In Dowie’s first eight games, Palace won six times and transformed the aims of their campaign.

Powell had to watch from the sidelines, but, he says, felt part of the squad regardless.

“John Harbin tried to keep injured players in and amongst what was actually happening, the momentum of it all. I remember his words were ‘One more round’. Going in to the play-offs or the last few games before the play-offs, he kept [saying] this slogan, this: ‘Come on, one more round. One more round.’ 

“Up to the final, I remember him drafting these t-shirts with ‘one more round’ on them and that just kept everyone involved. It kept the whole team as a family, as a unit. We were all geeing everyone on. However short or long your contribution was, you just wanted to be part of it.”

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Finally, by May, Powell had recovered just in time for Palace’s last three steps towards Premier League football as Dowie’s Eagles secured their berth in the 2004 play-offs.

First up was a clash with Sunderland at Selhurst Park. Palace were 3-2 up, with both sides having scored in the last four minutes, when Dowie told Powell to change into his kit and replace frontman Neil Shipperley in a defensive switch.

He was focused on one thing as he strode onto the Selhurst turf: playing a part in his club’s promotion.

But the cameo didn’t quite start as planned: “The first thing I remember doing was tackling Tony Popovic, my own player! I just studded him in his ankle with all this enthusiasm to try and win and get back to it.” 

Thankfully, Popovic’s ankle intact, Palace held on and travelled to the Stadium of Light three days later with a one-goal advantage.

Disaster struck when Kevin Kyle and Marcus Stewart netted a goal each to hand Sunderland the lead. Palace were tumbling from the play-offs.

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Powell changed into his kit from the sidelines for the second time in four days, but now his intentions weren’t defensive.

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He took to the pitch in the 72nd minute: an aggregate-equalising goal at the forefront of his mind. He wanted to play a part in his club’s promotion.

Again, the cameo didn’t quite start as planned, and Powell spooned his opening shot over the Black Cats’ crossbar.

“It went out the stadium!” he laughs 16 years later. “That, again, was: I saw what the boys had done and getting back to full fitness, I needed, or wanted, to play some part of it - I didn’t care what it was, I wanted to play my part.

"Every single one of them [players] contributed to getting to that point. There was frustration of not being involved and just seeing this team escalate. 

“I said to myself when I was injured and coming back: I want to be a part, however long, however short. I came on and said - excuse my language - ‘eff this, I’m having a shot.’

"I wasn’t the best of shooters but let me just have it, any opportunity. I was just driven to try and help this team. The story we created from that halfway point onwards - we couldn’t go down without a fight after what we’d done.”

By the 90th minute, Palace still trailed, as Shaun Derry ran forwards to take an uncharacteristic, last-ditch corner.

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Powell surged into the box, noticing how little time was left. He watched Derry place the ball in the quadrant and said to himself: “‘Wherever that ball’s going, I’m going to follow it.’”

And follow it he did.

“I nearly pulled my quad jumping into the crowd!

“One guy, he was in a wheelchair, and apparently I knocked him out of the wheelchair and then at a later home game, I presented a signed shirt to him. It was all good-humoured, to be fair. He was alright, thank God.

“After the goal, I would say for years down the line, I didn’t know Neil Shipperley threw the goalkeeper to the ground. I didn’t even know. He had a punch-up with the goalkeeper as the ball was travelling!”

Moving on, we apologise for asking Powell about the goal ‘for the 500th time.’

“500th?” he quips back. “5,000th! Working in and amongst Palace [as Under-18s assistant manager], with older supporters, I do expect people to bring it up and I haven’t got a problem talking about it. I tell all the Academy staff every day anyway. So they know about it - just little reminders.”

Powell’s crashing equaliser teed-up a tense period of extra time on Wearside and, eventually, penalties.

Seven players were forced to step up. “It was nervy,” Powell recalls, “and I was saying to myself: ‘I haven’t practised a penalty.’ But it just kept going, back and forth.

“Then obviously Hughesy [Michael Hughes] scored. I was like: ‘Flipping hell, thank God for that.’ But, to be fair, going past the fifth [penalty], you’re not really thinking: ‘Who’s the sixth, seventh and eighth?’ It did come to my mind that I might have a penalty and, if need be, I’d take it - God knows where the ball would have gone but I would take it.

“I was so relieved. So relieved that we had done it. There was no personal triumph for me, it was the team. What we - or they, because I was injured - what they managed to do was fate. We all believed, we all kept believing. As John Harbin was saying: ‘One more round.’ 

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“I remember after, when we got back into the training room, the physio - Steve - opened a bottle of champagne and sprayed it right into my eyes. It burnt, it effing burnt. I turned round and it went right in, burnt like hell.”

Spooned shots, champagne stinging his eyes and the guilt of colliding with a supporter weighing on his mind, it couldn’t have seemed like the perfect night for Powell.

But the centre-back had recovered from a career-threatening injury with one ambition: to play a part in his club’s promotion.

Two weeks later, Crystal Palace celebrated its return to the Premier League - and Darren Powell had scored the crucial goal to secure it. 

One more round? Not any more.

You can watch all three legs of Palace's 2004 play-off heroics via Palace TV this week! For more information, click here now.

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