Play-offs within reach for Palace down Holloway’s road

It is promotion High Noon – well, 12.45 – at Selhurst Park tomorrow, as Crystal Palace seek to secure a promotion play-off place. IAN LAMONT knows where he’s placing his money

Inside Croydon’s loyal reader will remember that I have a cheeky bet on Crystal Palace’s promotion bid.

Goal celebration: Glenn Murray after one of his 30 goals this season. But scenes such as this have been rare in the past two months

Goal celebration: Glenn Murray after one of his 30 goals this season. But scenes such as this have been rare in the past two months

Back in January, I bet on them, Bradford and Bournemouth to be promoted, with the feeling that at least two of them would need to get through the play-offs to go up. Bournemouth are up. Bradford, steaming into form, were favourites of the four candidates in League Two going into Thursday’s play-offs.

Palace? They haven’t even quite made it yet to the cup-style season finale. They should manage to do that. But on current form they could well struggle to reach the play-off final, let alone go up. Tomorrow’s game at home with relegation-threatened Peterborough is by no means a foregone conclusion.

And even if Palace do reach the Premier League and its promised riches, the chances of them staying up more than one season are about as bleak as the prospects for my own team, Aldershot Town, who were placed in administration this week.

The Eagles, of course, know all about administration. Three seasons ago, the club finished the season without knowing whether it would exist much longer. It was not the first time their future had been so bleak, either. So just to be in with a chance of the play-offs this season is a mighty achievement in the circumstances.

Ever since Steve Parish and Co took over the running of Selhurst Park, a more even temperament seems to have been applied, providing a slow but steady approach that saw manager Dougie Freedman depart because he couldn’t get extra funds and Ian Holloway, frustrated by a lack of investment at Blackpool, take over.

Holloway’s arrival prompted my little three-team investment at 23/1. And Holloway is still in optimistic mood, despite Palace’s recent form. Yesterday, he offered that three games unbeaten meant Palace were building “momentum” as they face their last match of the regular season.

Three games: 2-2 at home against Leicester, 1-1 at Blackburn and 0-0 at Millwall.

It’s hardly the stuff to strike fear into possible play-off rivals, never mind the Premier League giants. Especially if you consider that in the four games before that, Palace failed to score a single goal. Momentum?

It is a straw to grab at, but not much of one.

The Eagles have not actually won a game in nine attempts. Four of those nine have been defeats. Looking at the whole of the Championships over the last six games, they have the third worst form in the division.

Their last victory was against Hull, who are now in prime position for the second automatic promotion spot, so that is something. But the Tigers have only hung on to second place because Watford have failed to get their act together and make a sustained push for promotion.

At least Holloway has a full squad, apart from long-term injury victim Owen Garvan, who will need a fitness test, at his disposal.

“All you can do is try your best and we will do that but you can never guarantee what is going to happen,” said Holloway about the prospect of making the play-offs. “We have a great chance to do it.

“The players have come back well from the bad run of results and have the confidence within them to go onto the next stage. There is a fear we might not get there but we are not alone and other teams have slipped when expectations are there ahead of them.”

Palace sit fifth on 69 points and, realistically, can finish no higher, because Brighton, three points above them, have a far better goal difference. Below them sit Bolton on 67 points and, outside the play-off positions, Nottingham Forest, who need a five-goal swing to knock out Palace if Bolton, who have the best form over the past six games with 13 points, beat visitors Blackpool.

Ian Holloway: has a knack of emerging from the promotion play-offs

Ian Holloway: has a knack of emerging from the promotion play-offs

So Palace need at least a draw to secure their berth. Peterborough have lost once in 10 games, drawing five. But they are only above the relegation zone on goal difference and therefore will be fighting for their lives at Selhurst Park.

With both Bolton and Forest playing at home, Palace will not dare risk playing for a draw, or thinking it will be enough.

If everything goes to plan tomorrow, in all likelihood Palace will face a play-off against their old friends Brighton, whose form over six games is second best in the division with 12 points. Glenn Murray, the division’s top-scorer, a Seagull who became an Eagle, will enjoy that one.

Murray has scored 30 goals in 43 appearances for Palace this season, but notably he has not found the net in eight games, coinciding with Palace’s own loss of form. It may have been this that prompted Holloway to say: “We have relied too much on one man and need others to get in amongst the goals, we need to share out the responsibility.”

It’s a bit late in the season to start to drum that message into the rest of the players.

And if Palace should overcome the odds and go up? History suggests their stay will be short.

The last two times Crystal Palace were promoted to the Premier League, in 2003-04 and 1996-97, it was via the play-offs. Both times, they went straight back down.

Teams promoted via the play-offs have a poor record of staying up, often after muttering something about having fewer weeks to sign new players.

In the past 20 seasons, 11 play-off winners have been relegated again 12 months later – seven of them finishing bottom of the Premier League, including the Eagles in 1997-98.

The exceptions tend to be teams that have a history of being a top-flight side, like West Ham who were promoted last season, or clubs who are on the upward curve and make huge financial investments, such as Bolton in 2001 or as Blackburn did in 1993. Neither of those cases apply to Palace.

Holloway himself knows all about the difficulties. Blackpool, under his stewardship, went up in 2009-10 and, when they were riding high in October, he famously gave a downbeat assessment to the surprise of Match of the Day pundits, stating that they needed to secure a certain points target before they could be happy. Blackpool didn’t and were duly dispatched back from where they came.

If Palace do go up, I’ve got one bet lined up for next season already.

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