Ref: Mr N Atkinson
By Tony Leighton
An extra time penalty by super-sub Kevin Phillips, so often the last-gasp hero, took Crystal Palace up to the Premier League at the end of a hard-fought npower Championship Play-Off Final which brought a deserved Wembley victory for the Eagles.
Former England striker Phillips has scored more late winners than he can count, but none have surely been more important than the goal which won the so-called 'richest game in world football,' worth an estimated £120million to the winners.
The almost 40-year-old striker was as deadly as ever when striking home his spot-kick in added time of the first half of extra time following a foul on Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha by central defender Marco Cassetti.
Victory lifted Palace up to the Premier League for a record fifth-time while Watford, twice in the top flight in the past dozen years, must spend at least another season in the Championship.
It was a second Play-Off Final triumph in three attempts over the last four seasons for Palace's former Blackpool manager Ian Holloway.
But Holloway's joy was matched by the despair of Hornets boss Gianfranco Zola, who was contesting his first Play-Off Final.
Zola's team and Palace were the Championship's highest scorers during the regular season, the Hornets hitting 85 goals and the Eagles 73, but both started the game nervously and neither goal came seriously under threat in the first half.
A dangerous run and cross by Zaha brought a 20th-minute half-chance for Owen Garvan, but the midfielder's poor first touch meant the opportunity was lost.
Watford's first opening arrived in the 33rd minute, but as Matej Vydra raced into the penalty area to meet strike partner Troy Deeney's pass, central defender Damien Delaney dashed across to make a vital block.
Both sides came out with more intent at the start of the second half, though Watford did so without leading scorer Vydra after he had pulled up injured shortly before the interval.
The Hornets nevertheless produced the first attempt on target, but a weak 57th-minute shot by substitute Alex Geijo gave goalkeeper Julian Speroni an easy save.
Within a minute the Eagles could well have gone ahead but striker Aaron Wilbraham, after making space for himself, delayed his shot and keeper Manuel Almunia was able to make a block.
Spurred on by that near-miss, Holloway's team produced a flurry of attacks and went close again when substitute Stuart O'Keefe fired in a 20-yard drive that was turned for a corner by Almunia.
From the resultant flag-kick the ball dropped to Wilbraham six yards out, but again Almunia got down quickly to make another good save.
Garvan sent an angled 15-yard drive narrowly wide as Palace built up the pressure, then the midfielder volleyed straight at Almunia from a similar distance in the 80th minute.
Three minutes later Wilbraham was again denied by Almunia, the stopper this time keeping out the striker's 12-yard shot after Zaha had set up the chance.
And in stoppage time of normal time Almunia dived to save Palace captain Mile Jedinak's header from substitute Andre Moritz's corner.
Palace had done all the second half pressing but Watford might have gone ahead three minutes into extra time, Deeney sneaking in behind right back Joel Ward to meet midfielder Almen Abdi's cross but Speroni pushing the ball clear.
The decisive moment arrived when Zaha was brought down just inside the area and Phillips, cool as you like, stepped up to smash the ball into the top corner.
Watford pressed for an equaliser in the second half of stoppage time and went desperately close in the last minute, when substitute Fernando Forestieri's shot was headed off the line by Ward. But Palace held out to claim a place in the promised land of the Premier League.
Crystal Palace (4-1-4-1): Speroni; Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey; Jedinak; Zaha, Dikgacoi (O'Keefe 18), Garvan (Moritz 84), Williams (Phillips 66); Wilbraham.
Substitutes not used: Price, Richards, Bolasie, Ramage.
Watford (4-4-2): Almunia; Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Pudil; Anya (Forestieri 86), Abdi, Chalobah (Battocchio 74), Hogg; Deeney, Vydra (Geijo HT).
Substitutes not used: Bond, Hall, Yeates, Briggs.