The Sky TV cameras got the action-packed game they will have been hoping for at Selhurst Park, with a red card apiece and a first Town goal for Keith Southern meaning both sides had to be happy with a point from a fiercely contested match.
Hosts Palace dropped to ten men early in the contest when Damien Delaney poleaxed Jermaine Beckford, but they still took the lead in the first half through the dangerous Wilfried Zaha. However, Town never stopped going and a first goal in his 21st Town appearance for Southern looked to have set up a thrilling final 15 minutes – until a very harsh looking red card for Anthony Gerrard killed off the game.
Simon Grayson switched back to the usual 4-4-2 formation after last weekend’s 3-5-2 at Hull City, but his team did contain a few surprises – as he had hinted at during his pre-match press conference in midweek. Former Palace man Sean Scannell returned to the side for his first start in seven games on the wing, whereas skipper Peter Clarke was dropped to the bench for the first time this season. Jermaine Beckford partnered also returned to the side and partnered James Vaughan up front for only the fourth time this season.
Promotion contenders Palace had plenty of pace, strength and trickery down both flanks in Yannick Bolasie and the highly rated Wilfried Zaha and it didn’t take long for the former to cause a problem for Town, with Calum Woods rightly going into the book after just 45 seconds for a late challenge on the edge of the Town area. Half the ground thought the free-kick from Australian international midfielder Mile Jedinak was in, but the ball curled into the outside of the goal.
In the driving rain the Terriers fought back quickly; Adam Clayton’s cross from the right was met by a powerful Beckford header, but home ‘keeper Julian Speroni made the first of several acrobatic saves on the evening – tipping the ball over the bar in the third minute.
England international Zaha showed his prowess three minutes later, shrugging off Jack Hunt before driving infield and firing wide of the near post.
Palace had other threats – none more obvious that the division’s top scorer Glenn Murray. The big forward was tackled well by Anthony Gerrard barely a minute after Zaha’s snapshot but the ball fell into the path of Owen Garvan, playing just off the striker, and his low drive flew just wide of Smithies’ left-hand post.
It wasn’t one-way traffic though – the pace of Beckford and Vaughan was being exploited by Town, who were knocking clever diagonal balls in behind the full backs. One such ball – a clearance from Woods – caused a massive turning point in the game in the 11th minute. Beckford got goal side of Peter Ramage and prodded the ball forward before being cleaned out by one-time Town loanee Damien Delaney. Given the physicality of the challenge and the fact that Beckford would have been through on goal, referee Mr Scott had little choice than to flourish the red card.
Garvan was soon sacrificed for centre back Danny Gabbidon and Town started to enjoy some sustained possession in midfield. Another man enjoying his afternoon was Sean Scannell, who soon showed he had the beating of right back Joel Ward. On one direct run around the outside in the 19th minute, Scannell got goal side of the defender before going down – and referee Scott showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
That gave Adam Clayton the chance to net his third penalty of the season for the Terriers – but his tame effort was easy pickings for the impressive Speroni, who barely had to move to his right to smother the ball.
That setback didn’t deter Scannell from running at Ward again three minutes later and the winger turned on the afterburners to fly past the defender before pulling the ball back from the dead ball line, but Speroni came to the rescue again with a fantastic save low to his right to deny Beckford a goal.
Going down to ten men hadn’t blunted the threat of Palace’s wingers and Murray soon flicked a header wide after a good corner delivery from Bolasie before Zaha’s tenacity forced an error from Jack Hunt upon the restart. The easy option was to clear the ball into touch, but Jack tried to find ‘keeper Smithies with a long range back pass and Murray read it. Thankfully for Town the angle was acute after the striker had rounded Alex and he rolled the ball wide of target.
A useful shot from Ollie Norwood dipped and swerved wide of target just after the half hour before Murray nodded a tame header wide of target at the other end, but soon Palace struck the first decisive blow of the game.
More adventure from Bolasie down the right in the 39th minute forced a punch under pressure from Smithies and although he got decent distance on the clearance, the Congolese winger picked the ball back up and released fellow wide man Wilfried Zaha down the side with a brilliant bit of skill. The Palace Academy product jinked to the right to create a yard of space in the area and unleashed an unstoppable drive that flashed between Smithies and the near post before Town’s keeper had even moved.
Town had the better of the remaining minutes of the half without making a breakthrough of their own; first Beckford skied a snapshot in the area after a half clearance from Gabbidon and then Speroni tipped another good long ranger from Clayton over the bar as Palace went in a goal to the good at the interval.
Simon Grayson made an attacking change during half-time, with Hammill replacing Norwood and Clayton moving infield. Hammill was a man possessed in the early stages, releasing Beckford with a superb back-heel down the line before he cut infield and the ball ran to Vaughan, who drove just wide from the edge of the box.
A counter attack launched by Scannell five minutes into the half gave Town another opportunity; the Londoner overhit his cross but Hammill collected, turned inside full back Parr and forced Speroni to tip another shot over his crossbar.
Joel Lynch’s poor challenge on Zaha near the corner flag soon after earned him a fifth booking of the season and a one match ban for the upcoming game against Blackpool on Boxing Day, but Town continued to press and Hammill – now on the left – stood a fantastic cross up towards the back post that Gabbidon did excellently to clear behind with Vaughan ready to pounce.
Midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi’s foul on Jack Hunt as he stepped infield in the 65th minute presented Town with a good chance from a free-kick, but the unlikely figure of Anthony Gerrard stepped up and curled high over the bar.
Town’s pressure finally paid with quarter of an hour remaining, trough the unlikely source of Keith Southern. Substitute Dean Moxey conceded a corner by heading behind a cross from Town sub Danny Ward and when the winger’s corner flicked a head at the near post, the former Blackpool man played a first time volley with his left foot back towards goal; amazingly the ball evaded everyone in the packed area before trickling under the body of Speroni, who had been faultless to that point.
With 15 minutes left the momentum was with Town – but a seemingly bizarre decision from the referee took the wind out of the sails of the away side six minutes later. The ever-willing Bolasie ran at the Town defence and Gerrard – who had enjoyed another impressive display – stepped out and looked to win the ball with a perfect sliding challenge. However, the referee blew his whistle and produced the red card for the second time in the game to leave the Liverpudlian perplexed.
Neither side had another chance of note and the game petered out into a draw – with both sides probably feeling it could have been more.
Town’s Team (4-4-2):
Alex Smithies; Calum Woods, Joel Lynch, Anthony Gerrard, Jack Hunt; Sean Scannell (Danny Ward 71), Oliver Norwood (Adam Hammill 46), Keith Southern (c), Adam Clayton; James Vaughan (Peter Clarke 81), Jermaine Beckford
Ian Bennett, Paul Dixon, Simon Church, Chris Atkinson
Calum Woods (1); Joel Lynch (52); Jack Hunt (87)
Town Red Card:
Anthony Gerrard (81)
Crystal Palace Red Card:
Damien Delaney (11)