The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Crystal Palace's Zaha vs. Brighton, Play-Off Semis 2012/13
Despite only being separated by the A23, the rivalry between Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion is still an oddity to most outsiders. Yet the mutual hatred is very real. As soon as the Eagles and the Seagulls clinched Championship play-off places in 2013, fans of both clubs felt with grim inevitability that they were about to witness the most important derby games for generations.
Palace had a massive point to prove already. Less than three years earlier our club had been on the brink of extinction, in administration and fighting the drop. At the start of the 2012/13 campaign we were not just unlikely promotion candidates but widely tipped for relegation. Brighton, on the other hand, had been rising well since winning League One in 2010/11. Nevertheless, here we both were, within three games of the Premier League.
Throughout my years at Sussex University I watched the construction of Brighton’s expensive new home, the American Express Community Stadium, which makes Selhurst Park seem like a dilapidated relic. What was unused land at Fresher’s Week had become the finished ground by my graduation. The building work was a constant reminder of our biggest rivals and their growing ambitions.
Indeed, Brighton were favourites to progress to the play-off final having gone unbeaten for ten games at the end of the season, before drawing the goalless first leg in South London. They had even beaten us 3-0 down by the seaside earlier in the year; during one of the worst, wettest and most hungover away days I have ever attended (the early kick-off coming only hours after a messy St. Patrick’s Day night out had ended).
As the semi-final second leg finally got underway it was as tense and cagey as you would expect. After an excruciating hour of cut and thrust counter attacks, Yannick Bolasie picked the ball up on the left and embarrassed Inigo Calderon to hook a cross into the six yard box. Wilfried Zaha, who had essentially never even contested a header in his career, improbably thumped an assured headed finish into the Brighton net. We went mad.
Watching it back still causes shivers all over, but that's not my favourite ever Crystal Palace goal. To get to that I need to fast-forward past twenty minutes of clinging-on and slow-motion agony first...
In the 88th minute Joel Ward cut inside from the right and passed to Kagisho Dikgacoi. Receiving a quick ball on the turn, Zaha – the Crystal Palace academy product and local boy - span casually past Gordon Greer, composed himself, and rifled the ball past Tomasz Kuszczak, right in front of the travelling fans for the second time. No more tension and no more nerves.
The reaction around me was awe-inspiring. Roughly two thousand delirious travelling fans knew we had done it. People galloped down the stairs in sheer euphoria, impersonating Marco Tardelli after his World Cup final strike in 1982. Inebriated fans with mouths agape were frozen in mid-star-jump poses, like aerobics instructors feeling the hit of thick lines of ketamine. Anyone that wasn’t jumping or running was hugging, falling or laughing. My shins and knees took days to recover from the battering those football seats inflicted.
Zaha’s goal wasn’t a wonder strike, it wasn’t even the best goal he scored that season, but it was priceless. This was his goodbye gift before departing to Manchester "permanently". The perfect conclusion to a season of totally unexpected success that saw Zaha spearhead our transformation from relegation favourites to reaching the top flight.
It was the sort of sweaty, smelly, incomprehensible pandemonium that’s unique to a knock-out match against your bitterest rivals. I’ve never felt anything like it at a football match. The eventual promotion winning penalty comes close, but it doesn’t trump shattering the Seaweed’s dreams down in Falmer that night.