Saturday was the afternoon it turned ugly at Selhurst Park.
Palace fans have shown remarkable patience during a miserable year in which last season’s FA Cup run merely papered over the cracks. The simmering anger at increasingly insipid performances finally exploded as they watched their team go belly up against Sunderland.
The headlines will concern the pitch invader whose anger prompted him up and over the barriers and within swinging distance of Palace defender Damien Delaney as the players trudged off for half-time having suffered what appears a terminal defeat.
But one man’s idiotic need to be the centre of attention should be of far less concern to the Palace hierarchy than the chorus of boos that rang out when Jermain Defoe secured the points for the visitors 16 seconds into first-half time added on, firing low past Wayne Hennessey with Joe Ledley trailing in his wake.
The boos went up in volume two minutes later as Defoe glided effortlessly past the lumbering James Tomkins to rub salt in Palace’s gaping wounds and segued into a roar of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”, at the team as the players jogged off between disgusted fans in the Holmesdale End and Main Stand.
Although Palace pinned their opponents back in the second half – whilst rarely threatening to score – there was fury etched on the faces of a gaggle of supporters who crowded to the edge of the Holmesdale End to jeer the players off at the end, the line of stewards that had been reinforced as time ticked down almost buckling and one fan taking a swing at a hi-vis jacket as another tried to clamber over the wall before being hauled back by his peers.
It’s the hope that kills you. The stadium had been bouncing at kick-off, a palpable feeling of positivity around the ground in anticipation that Tuesday’s win at Bournemouth – plus some new faces – could be the precursor to another Sam Allardyce Great Escape.
The hosts had started positively, tearing into Sunderland with spirit even if the execution wasn’t there but Jason Puncheon’s uncharacteristically poor distribution – the midfielder ceded possession three times in the opening eight minutes – saw the first nerves start to creep in.
Palace had a legitimate grievance over the opening goal with Sunderland wing-back Billy Jones appearing to unfairly challenge Hennessey after Lamine Kone beat Tomkins in the air to Seb Larsson’s free-kick before poking the loose ball home while grounded.
Andre Marriner was at it again in the 22nd minute, showing leniency to Larsson for a chop on Wilfried Zaha every bit as bad as the one that had seen the Swede booked for a foul on the same player with only five minutes on the clock.
It was to Palace manager Allardyce’s credit he only mentioned those glaring mistakes by the officials when pressed by the media afterwards but he was right to assert it was not the men, and woman, in black who had cost his team dear.
The moment Delaney gestured angrily to fans who had barracked him for a clearance into touch in the 26th minute felt significant and it was the Irishman’s hospital-pass header to Ledley that gave Didier Ndong the chance to bury a rasping 20-yarder for the second goal. There were louder rumbles when Hennessey hit a poor clearance and by then Palace were proving incapable of dealing with Sunderland’s simple tactic of compressing their three banks of players as tightly as possible, Scott Dann twice over-hitting attempts to send Patrick van Aanholt free down the left with crossfield balls.
The new signing is indicative of the problems Big Sam faces. He looks a very useful addition but his competency on one side shifted the spotlight to Joel Ward’s inadequacy on the opposite flank and the manager must feel he’s grappling with a wonky table that merely shifts on its axis when you bend a beermat under one leg.
Allardyce, of course, is all too aware of the deficiencies of his squad, as he illustrated when pointing out the fear that paralyses his side at Selhurst is an “all-season problem”, heavily emphasising the mistakes made before he arrived in a manner which, although inarguable, does nothing to help him in his current predicament.
The simple fact is – with Sunderland hitting their customary late-season surge, Marco Silva seemingly having given Hull the new-manager-bounce they needed and Aitor Karanka no slouch at the Riverside – if Palace do survive, it will only be because of failures elsewhere.
Keeping the Eagles flying would surely rank as the greatest achievement of Allardyce in a career largely defined by feats of escapology. But the odds are not in his favour.
Crystal Palace (5-4-1): Hennessey 5, Ward 5, Tomkins 5, Dann 5, Delaney 5 (Townsend 46, 6), van Aanholt 7, Zaha 7, Cabaye 5 (Ledley 26, 6), McArthur 6 (Remy 62, 6), Puncheon 5, Benteke 5. Not used: Speroni, Flamini, Sakho, Fryers.