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      20 years on: The 2004 play-off final – in their words


      It’s 20 years to the day that Crystal Palace completed the seemingly unthinkable turnaround of winning promotion from the First Division to the Premiership.

      It is safe to assert that, as late as the 9th December 2003, Palace fans did not expect – following a first-ever home defeat to Crewe Alexandra – to be recalling the 03/04 season with any great fondness.

      Having won their opening three First Division matches – including with a Dougie Freedman hat-trick at Burnley on the opening day of the season – hopes were high under new permanent manager Steve Kember.

      But just two wins from their next 19 league matches – a run which included a 5-0 loss at newly-promoted Wigan, which cost Kember his job – left the Eagles just a handful of points above the drop zone.

      Step forwards, on 21st December, 2003, Iain Dowie, whose rigorous training schemes paid almost immediate dividends.

      Following a loss, a win and a draw at the start his gruelling tenure, Dowie’s Palace – powered by the goals of a free-scoring Andy Johnson and Freedman, who hit 32 in all competitions – would go on to win five consecutive matches, overcoming Watford 5-1 and Stoke City 6-3, and ultimately 17 of their remaining 23 clashes that season.

      It was a sequence of results which saw Palace rise from the brink of the relegation zone to the edge of the play-off places; they secured their spot, ironically, thanks to West Ham, as the east Londoners nicked a draw against Wigan Athletic on the final day of the season.

      The Eagles faced Sunderland in the play-off semi-finals, and won the first-leg 3-2 at Selhurst Park. The second-leg came three days later at the Stadium of Light and the Black Cats levelled the scores on aggregate, only for Palace to somehow pull through on spot kicks.

      THE FULL GAME! Crystal Palace vs Sunderland | First Division Play-offs Second Leg 2004

      The final was a cagey affair, though Neil Shipperly found the breakthrough just after the hour-mark after pouncing on an Andrew Johnson shot that Stephen Bywater spilled in the West Ham goal.

      In typical Palace fashion, the team didn’t make it easy for themselves and West Ham pushed on to see goals from Bobby Zamora and David Connolly disallowed for offside.

      Palace held on, however, to secure promotion to the then-Premiership – and 20 years on, give us the wonderful stories we've heard from behind-the-scenes ever since...

      Michael Hughes

      Former West Ham midfielder Hughes captained Palace on a number of occasions that season and memorably scored the winning penalty against Sunderland in a dramatic play-off semi-final. Hughes spoke about 2003/04 back in December, having played the full final against his former club…

      “We’d got off a bit of a rocky start [in 03/04] under Stevie [Kember]. I mean, we had good players, but we were underperforming, there's no doubt about that. Then Iain came in and he got us really, really fit basically – I mean, hyper fit! We did a lot of running – and that’s how we won those matches. We were scoring a lot of our goals towards the latter end of games.

      “When people ask me about my career and they ask, ‘what club did you enjoy the most?’, it’s very difficult. Because you have so many memories, good and bad, of every club you’ve been to, for very different reasons. Each club holds a special kind of place in your memories.

      "But the thing about Palace, for me, is that we had that season. We worked so hard and got that success in the play-offs at the end of it.

      “That was such a special moment for all of us, for everybody at the club: the players, the management, the staff, and the supporters, of course. That was a monumental achievement.

      “You look back and, even though we got relegated the next season, I just felt that that was a pivotal moment, a springboard for Palace at that point to say: ‘right, we can compete here with the big boys. We can get people that can do something.’

      “Nowadays, the club's really gone from strength-to-strength. I know a lot of the guys who were involved in the play-offs at that time are no longer there, apart from maybe Dougie [Freedman, Sporting Director] and the ones who are maybe still doing a bit behind the scenes and whatnot.

      “But the players, the managers and the different people who have come in have taken the club to a whole new level. It's great to see. And when you look at a team like Palace, you'd never really consider them to be one of the three teams likely to go down from the Premier League. That in and of itself is a magnificent achievement and shows how far the club has come.

      “It’s a credit to everybody involved there, how far they've taken the club, and it's nice to feel that, in some small way, you've been part of that success along the way.”

      Darren Powell

      Current Under-21s head coach Powell scored a crucial late equaliser at the Stadium of Light en route to the final – his story comes from 2020

      “The regime they [Dowie and John Harbin, sport psychologist] 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.

      “John 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.

      “Working in and amongst Palace [in the modern day as Under-21s manager], with older supporters, I do expect people to bring it [my goal at Sunderland] 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!

      “It [the semi-final penalty shoot-out was nervy, 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.’

      “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.”

      Danny Butterfield

      Full-back Butterfield featured a total of 269 times for Crystal Palace over eight years, etching himself into the annals of the club after experiencing both the 2004 promotion in Cardiff and 2010 dive towards administration; he recalled his Cardiff tale in 2019….

      "I remember walking out of the tunnel, [and] West Ham had this pristine white tracksuit top. We had this mucky yellow kit that we’d worn in the semi-finals and Brian the kit man wasn’t quite able to get the stains out from the celebrations at Sunderland.

      “At the same time, that was us, that was our identity and nothing was going to stand in our way.

      "You looked across the line and saw them and we were hearing stories that they’d got celebration parties lined up back at Upton Park, flights back for all the players and wives. When you hear those sort of stories, you know it’s going to be your day.

      “I remember it being quite tense, I remember it being ridiculously hot. The application and desire from everyone meant it was always only going to be our day.

      "It was inevitable that Ships [Shipperley] was going to get the goal because AJ [Andy Johnson] had been the one banging in the goals all season and Ships was the one who was doing unbelievably hard work off the ball for AJ to benefit. So it was right he was the one to get the tap in from AJ’s work. Then we just hung on in there.

      "For celebrations afterwards, we just tootled off to our little hotel where we stayed before with our families and that just felt even more us, in it being a small celebration but such a massive thing for the football club."

      Danny Granville

      On the opposite flank, Granville was a key part of Palace’s promotion success in 2003/04 – as he recalled when speaking to back in 2018

      “I wasn’t actually playing in the first half of the promotion season but I remember I got in and we were third from bottom. Obviously Dowie came in and I would have run through a brick wall for him, he was really good. All good, good people and it was just a breath of fresh air when they took over. We managed to get on a wave really and didn’t look back.

      "Andy Johnson was flying. You had [Neil] Shipperley, Michael Hughes. It’s probably the fittest - and Andy Johnson said this as well - probably the fittest I’ve ever been in my career because we obviously did morning sessions but then, in the afternoon, we’d do boxing stuff [and] we’d go swimming. But we didn’t look back, we just kept winning, winning, winning."

      "[Sunderland away in the play-off semi-final] was a really feisty game and I thought one of them caught my shin, I had a massive gash and you could almost see the bone. Dowie was going mad and I threw my shin-pad down in disgust. Anyway, I watched back on the video after and it was Julian Gray! I went to play it up the line and Gray’s gone to back-heel it and somehow he’s lifted my shin-pad and just gashed me.

      "Dowie’s going mad, going ‘look at the state of his leg!’, but with your shin there’s not much skin and I think I had about 12 stitches. [We had] West Ham coming up and I think we had about a week to 10 days before the game and I remember just going on my own and really putting myself through the paces. No one saw it, I was just on my own training in preparation. In that game, I had the biggest, clumsiest shin-pad on!

      "We just did a job and managed to secure a win at West Ham at the Millennium [Stadium]. After what had happened that year, no one fancied us. The results went for us. There were so many twists and turns that season."

      Wayne Routledge

      Young winger Routledge was just 19 when he helped local club Palace secure promotion, as he later recalled speaking to the club website in 2017…

      “Looking back at my time at Palace I would say it was a period of my career where I can say that I really enjoyed being at the club. I loved every minute of it.

      “As a youngster it is everybody’s dream to play football and I was very lucky that I had the chance to play at such a young age at Crystal Palace, a club I knew well as it was local to my family and one that I was delighted to get the chance to play for.

      “As a squad we trained extremely hard under the management team. We did double sessions, worked hard in the gym and spent time making sure we were ready for the games, which came along thick and fast in that division.

      “As a player, though, when you see the benefits of your work on the training ground at the weekend, it makes it all worthwhile and it helps push you on. It was a different way of doing things in that second half of the season and again the following year in the Premier League, but I wouldn’t have swapped that experience.

      “It was a special time for everyone at the club to have won promotion in the way we did, and then to be pitting our ability against the best players and teams in the country. It ended in disappointment for us all, but we so nearly – and should have – pulled it off and stayed up, but it wasn’t to be for that group at the time.”

      Shaun Derry

      Speaking in 2020, midfielder Derry recalled a memorable campaign…

      “When Iain Dowie came in towards the end of December as manager we were 19th, and Iain obviously needed to find a new formula that was better than the one before.

      “Aki Riihilahti and I both played similar positions but Iain wanted one particular player to be in the holding midfield position. Therefore, I did find myself on the bench for about 60% of the remainder of that season.

      “The competition for places all across the team was fierce because Iain had come in with a new training methodology and our results were incredible.”

      “I got pulled to one side three days before the final. Iain informed me that he wanted me to fill in on the left-side of midfield but explained how he wanted me to play narrow.We played with two narrow banks of four and I think that’s why he picked me because, defensively, I’d be reliable. He could’ve picked a more out-and-out winger like Tommy Black but Iain had a game plan.

      “Palace were underdogs for the final and we were throughout the season. No one saw us coming up the league table and we slipped in the through the back door. Even when you consider the difference in our preparations: West Ham flew to Cardiff a few days before. Whereas we took our normal bus on that long journey.

      “I remember we wore our away kits and mine was ripped around the collar and the kit man had sewn it up. But that was Palace and that’s what helped us reach the Premier League. We approached the game as we approached any other match in the season.

      “When you look at standout performances, I don’t think you tend to get too many top-drawer finals nowadays; they’re all tense.

      “With the way that our group of players were, and the fact that the game plan changed due to Gray being unavailable, meant things were always going to be different.

      “When you lose the outlet of having him [Gray] and Wayne Routledge on both wings, crossing into the box as we had done for the previous 26 games or so, you have to readjust – and that meant that we needed to just make sure we were in the game constantly. And we were. We never really got broken down by West Ham; I never felt under pressure.

      “[The celebrations] were absolutely bizarre, because we hadn’t planned anything in particular, as we weren’t wanting to look any further than just the 90 minutes ahead.

      “We went back to our hotel, with no party arranged, and just ended up hiring a local DJ from the Cardiff area – you know the type: from a TV sitcom, it was something like out of Phoenix Nights with a party in the basement.

      “It was brilliant. I remember one of the lads being in the DJ booth after we’d paid the DJ to leave his equipment behind for us. He took control and led the party.”