Ian Holloway is off-the-wall enough to drop Glenn Murray at the height of the season but even he must lack the nerve. The Crystal Palace striker has bloodied almost every Championship club and Saturday’s draw at Selhurst Park added Leeds United to the list.
“Tired,” said Holloway of Murray last week in what was either a euphemism for three games without a goal or a monumental bluff on Holloway’s part.
Murray started against Leeds and scored first and last, rescuing Palace by hitting United where it hurt in the 85th minute. Yet again, those in white shirts walked away with a crestfallen air.
Holloway, Palace’s manager, likes to use a statistic which shows that in the highest two divisions in each of Europe’s five major footballing nations, Murray’s strike rate – 30 goals and counting – ranks second only to Lionel Messi, but the forward is not alone in finding Leeds prone in the dying embers of a game.
“I’ve seen it all before,” said Neil Warnock after Murray snatched a 2-2 draw.
Indeed he has; a 93rd-minute equaliser at Wolverhampton Wanderers last month and an even later equaliser at Leicester City as recently as last Tuesday.
Warnock’s players are devoting more time to kicking themselves than they are the opposition. Murray’s volley, taken with the touch of a striker as prolific as him, was the most painful, averting a highly-significant result.
There was nothing fine about the fettle of Wolves or Leicester but Palace are a team in vogue: high-scoring at Selhurst Park and close enough to automatic promotion for Holloway to think that his squad can cover the ground in front of them.
Warnock was pleased to see them scrambling for a point but well aware of the price of the two surrendered by his side with five minutes to play.
“Unfortunately, that’s us,” he reflected ruefully. “We had great chances. Paul Green had one in the first half and Ross McCormack could have made it 3-1 in the second. Palace wouldn’t have come back from that.
“But David Norris had a great chance to make it 2-0 in injury-time at Leicester and we ended up conceding. Think where we could have been. It’s obviously disappointing.”
Victory over Peterborough United at Elland Road tomorrow is paramount, a game in hand over Nottingham Forest, Bolton Wanderers and Middlesbrough.
Two goals from Steve Morison, a striker who will take time to endear himself to Leeds as Murray has to Palace, dramatically altered the balance of a match which was end-to-end in its entirety and seemingly destined for a predictable outcome once Murray opened the scoring in the 28th minute.
Holloway described himself as “bewildered” afterwards, saying Palace “might have won comfortably”, while Warnock insisted that Leeds were worth no less than a point.
Good friends in uncompetitive circumstances, they would have struggled to agree on the colour of the sky at full-time.
Tempers were strained if not quite frayed.
Warnock rolled his eyes at Holloway’s suggestion that Luke Varney and Stephen Warnock deserved red cards early in the second half, though United’s boss agreed that Varney’s booking for a dive inside the box on 55 minutes was warranted. The inept and cynical fall made Gareth Bale look like butter wouldn’t melt.
“I don’t condone that,” Warnock said. “You know me – I think players should get banned for six games if they get caught diving. That would soon put a stop to it.”
The situation as it is, Varney is nonetheless likely to start against Peterborough.
Holloway was so incensed by the dive and an earlier foul by Varney on Jonathan Williams that he confronted the winger on the pitch afterwards, provoking a confrontation with United captain Lee Peltier and forcing Warnock to intervene and act as peacemaker.
“I had a set-to with Luke Varney because I know what he did,” Holloway said. “He got a booking for a complete waste-of-time of a dive and he was laughing about it but he basically tried to get a penalty and that ain’t funny.
“And where was the referee with the blatant foul on Jonathan Williams? Varney should have been off.
“We should have killed the game but we also relied on the referee being brave enough to give yellow cards. He was so lenient it was frightening.”
Leeds carefully navigated the first 28 minutes, limiting Palace to two chances which Murray struck directly at Paddy Kenny, but the forward scored at the third attempt after Wilfried Zaha, the Manchester United-bound winger, switched flanks.
In no time, his pass into United’s box found the run of Williams who matched Zaha’s skill with a hanging cross to the far post. Murray was almost underneath the crossbar when he met the ball and drove a header into the roof of the net.
Half-time was almost upon Palace when Paul Green slipped through the home defence and drove a shot against goalkeeper Julian Speroni, spraying the ball into an empty box. Varney reached it first but found home defenders throwing themselves in front of his shot, deflecting it to safety.
Zaha dragged a shot wide with only Kenny to beat as the visitors emerged sluggishly for the second half and Stephen Dobbie’s finishing struck everything but Kenny’s goal.
But the tone of the atmosphere changed completely in the 55th minute when Varney carried Norris’ pass down the left wing and cut the ball back to Morison who controlled it neatly and beat an unsighted Speroni.
Thirteen minutes later, Morison punished Palace again as a long clearance by Kenny bounced through an inanimate defence and sat up for the striker who lashed a left-footed volley into the same corner of the net. It felt for Leeds like the Red Sea opening in front of them.
Already angered by Stephen Warnock hacking down Zaha as the winger sprinted towards Kenny – a foul which drew only a caution – Holloway could hardly believe his luck. But it held in the 78th minute as McCormack dragged a low finish wide with Speroni exposed and improved immeasurably five minutes from time when Murray slipped the attention of Stephen Warnock and met Damien Delaney’s high cross with a sharp, first-time volley under Kenny.
There was no love lost in injury-time and less still when Holloway moved aggressively towards Varney on the pitch at the final whistle.
“You know how well you’ve played when you see Ollie going off like that,” Warnock said.
“But it’s like anything. You get frustrated in their position if you don’t win. They’re used to winning here.”
Crystal Palace: Speroni, Dikgacoi, Ramage, Delaney, Parr, Williams (Wilbraham 87), Jedinak, Zaha, Dobbie (Moritz 83), Bolasie (Phillips 74), Murray. Subs (not used): Price, Richards, Butterfield, Moxey.