Wickham books his spot in folklore as Palace storm to final
Alan Pardew had shown his Crystal Palace team a video of his own FA Cup semi-final winner from 1990 as part of his motivational tactics for this match and his players duly responded with a victory that will also be replayed for decades to come.
It was Connor Wickham who joined Pardew in Palace folklore by applying the finishing touch to a tense 2-1 victory, with the sense of symmetry only deepened by the looming prospect of a repeat of that classic final against Manchester United.
Pardew, himself, might have grown a few more grey hairs in the 26 years since Palace were beaten by Sir Alex Ferguson’s United in a replay but some of his touchline fist-pumping here was not so very different to when he was taking the acclaim of the fans after dramatically scoring in extra-time of the 4-3 semi-final victory over Liverpool at Villa Park.
It will be a second chance for Palace to win their first FA Cup and a third final personally for Pardew, whose West Ham United team went agonisingly close to beating Liverpool in 2006.
Victory was nothing less than Palace had deserved after a performance of passion and ambition against a strangely subdued Watford team. Watford scored from one of only two shots on target and, after a sequence of just three wins from 17 league matches, this was a display that will do little for manager Quique Sánchez Flores’s chances of keeping his job.
Watford owner Gino Pozzo was at Wembley and, while retaining their Premier League place must ultimately represent a successful season, the slump in form is understood to have become a concern to the club’s decision-makers.
An end-of-season review will be held and, while it is difficult to pinpoint whether this particular performance was the symptom of a wider malaise or actually the uncertainty that now surrounds Flores, something is clearly not right. The dip in the performances of Odion Ighalo is especially alarming and, from the first second to the last, it simply felt like Palace wanted this more.
Pardew was particularly vindicated in his decision to select Wickham rather than Emmanuel Adebayor alongside Yannick Bolasie in attack, with Palace starting the match at a frantic pace. They quickly forced a corner from which Yohan Cabaye’s delivery was flicked into the air by Damien Delaney.
With the ball looping dangerously towards the back post, Watford goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon was unable to scramble back across his line to prevent Bolasie outjumping Troy Deeney and heading Palace into a sixth-minute lead. Watford’s problems were then almost immediately compounded when Étienne Capoue went down clutching his knee following an accidental collision with Bolasie.
Prolonged treatment was required and it soon became clear that Capoue would require a stretcher to leave the pitch. He was replaced by Mario Suarez and, although Watford did begin to take a hold of possession, there was a general lethargy to their game and a lack of incision in their passing.
Allan Nyom was coming under significant pressure defensively but did at least remain a threat pushing forward and his curling cross was almost inadvertently turned into his own goal by Joel Ward after Wayne Hennessey had allowed the ball to flash across the six-yard box.
Palace, though, continued to force Watford back and had a plausible penalty appeal turned down shortly before half-time when Wilfried Zaha broke into the area and had his attempted cross blocked by Nathan Ake’s left arm.
Referee Craig Pawson judged that contact had been involuntary but Pardew and his players were again appealing shortly after halftime when Miguel Britos tangled with Wickham.
Subsequent replays confirmed that contact was just outside the penalty area but, as the last defender, there was an argument for a red card. It had also been a controversial decision by Flores to keep faith with Pantilimon in the FA Cup ahead of Heurelho Gomes but the former Sunderland goalkeeper then went some way to justifying that decision by brilliantly saving a powerful low Bolasie effort with his legs.
Watford’s threat remained only sporadic but, from another corner, they were suddenly level. Jose Manuel Jurado’s delivery was certainly precise but Scott Dann, who had also conceded a free-kick in the build-up to the goal, just lost Deeney, whose deft header left Hennessey with little chance.
Having weathered so much Palace pressure, the suspicion was that Watford’s goal might also prove pivotal in changing the pattern and rhythm of the match but Palace were inspired rather than deflated by the equaliser.
Papa Souaré drove forward down the left and delivered a superb cross from which Wickham rose brilliantly above Ake to head his finish back across Pantilimon and into the corner of the goal.
Palace still had half an hour to hold out and, while Jurado and Adlene Guedioura each had chances to force the game into extra time, a combination of poor finishing and brave last-gasp defending, epitomised by a moment when Dann, Jason Puncheon, Cabaye and Delaney were all on the floor after blocking shots, ensured Palace’s progress.
Glad all over: Connor Wickham celebrates heading Palace’s winner Palace repeat their semi-final trick 26 years on Palace won the 1990 semi-final when Andy Thorn flicked on a corner and Alan Pardew headed in.