Thoughts of Crystal Palace at home invariably bring on the cold sweats if you’re a football fan of my vintage.
If it wasn’t Chris Armstrong wedging one in the stanchion, it’d be Bruce Dyer taking the pegs out the North Bank net. If Iain Dowie wasn’t bicycle-kicking my FA Cup dreams into obliteration, then Darren Pitcher would be pile-driving from 30-yards to make his own manager guffaw in disbelief.
For those not present for our latest Eagle-assault, this one was arguably the worst of the lot, because unlike those indelible, individual moments above, this was a collective shellacking from one-to-eleven (barring the magnificent Sa), with every Palace player superior to a Wolves one in speed, strength, aggression and acumen. For every individual battle, we came off a sobering second-best.
Such was the gulf between the sides that it shifted our own aspirations from top-six swingers to top-half imposters within the space of 90 minutes.
If Vieira’s bigger, stronger boys weren’t giving our deferential lads twisted blood on the pitch, they were giving us nightmares in the stands as the old memories of Neves and Moutinho being overrun in midfield – the like of which we thought we’d airbrushed – came flooding back.
We’d also forgotten the name ‘Sven Botman’ because we’d convinced ourselves that playing a back 4 wasn’t necessary anyway (despite it being integral in Bruno’s preferred formation), thanks to the form of Coady, Saiss and Kilman.
And up front, we’d come around to a new way of thinking that didn’t involve signing a striker of any repute because, well, goalscorers were overrated anyway and Fabio Silva was coming of age.
All those misgivings came flooding back in a ruthless dismantling of a Bruno-constructed façade that was so convincing for a time that some fans actually argued that investment wasn’t necessary. This ‘bald da’ knew better though, as usual.
If this mismatch wasn’t the most sobering sight since we returned to the Premier League in 2018, only *that* Huddersfield Town horror show in our first season trumps it, as it not only served to dent our own remote hopes of Europe but smash the barometer we’d been gazing into all season, leaving us with an empty space to cross-reference any success or failure with in future.
The optimists will point to an eighth place in the table and time to stem the tide. The realists will look at the seven point gap between us and Crystal Palace and wonder how the hell it’s there, when they’ve been so superior in every facet of the game for 180 collective minutes.
As another sporting saying goes, styles make fights, and the nagging suspicion was that Palace were all wrong for us from the moment the teamsheets were handed in, not least after bullying us all over Selhurst Park with similar set-ups in November.
Any fears were justified, as they boxed us into submission from the get-go, with an extra man in midfield making us look like the insipid side many of us feared we were turning into.
Our wing backs weren’t dynamic, our midfield suffocated into surrender and our front three so meek and deferential that if it was an actual boxing match, the referee would have stopped them after 10 minutes. And the back three – our bedrock for so much of this season – are crumbling under the strain of it all.
The end result was one of chickens-coming-home-to-roost proportions after it was deemed Bruno could work with a weaker squad than the paper-thin one he was begging to be strengthened back in August, because it was too weak before he even joined.
Seven-successive windows of inactivity and it took an upwardly mobile Palace side to finally shatter the glass we were looking through. It was a Bruno-inspired miracle that we held out until March.
But it could be a whole lot worse. It could have been 4 like it was in ’95 for a start.
We’re safe on 40pts, we could have been watching Chris Armstrong rearrange the woodwork and it is, after all, only a game.