Although Darren Ambrose’s long-range screamer and Wilfried Zaha’s dazzling performance, which caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson, stole the show, goalkeeper, Lewis Price, played a pivotal role, keeping Palace in the game on a myriad of occasions throughout the nail-biting 120 minutes.
Lewis Price had been Palace’s designated cup goalkeeper that year and played an instrumental part in the early stages of the competition, helping Dougie Freedman’s team see off the then Premier League side, Wigan Athletic, in addition to knocking out Championship rivals, Middlesbrough and Southampton, on the way to the quarterfinals.
It wasn’t always the glitz and glamour of cup ties away at Old Trafford for Price’s Palace career. In 2010, he was signed by George Burley, who had to rebuild a squad that had been dismantled following the war of administration.
Price recalls how the move to SE25 came to fruition. “I was coming off the back of a loan at Brentford, and to be honest, having spent an indifferent year there, I didn’t really fit the club and the club didn’t fit me. George Burley was the manager, and the old goalkeeper coach was Malcolm Webster, who had been my coach at Ipswich, bringing me through into the first team and handing me my debut. The sell was fairly easy; firstly, because Malcolm had been such a massive influence in the early stage of my career, secondly, moving to Palace brought me closer to home and my family,”
He continues, “At the time, Palace had come out of administration, there were small bits and pieces which weren't quite ready, such as parts of the training ground, but that was to be expected, considering what the club had just been through. But even when I signed for Palace, the four new owners had done a fantastic job to get the club to where it was.”
Price signed knowing that he would be battling it out with Julian Speroni for the starting spot in goal. This would be no easy task, considering Speroni had just secured his third Player of the Year award in succession. “Jules was a fantastic keeper,” says Price. “When I signed, Darryl Flahavan was at the club and even though he was a brilliant goalkeeper, I think the management wanted someone younger who might push Jules a little harder for that number one spot.”
The ramifications of the financial hell that is administration also meant that if possible, any potential revenue of an added injection of cash would be welcomed with open arms, and with Speroni’s acclaim recognised by those higher up the football pyramid, there was always a slight chance he would be moved on.
Therefore, having the pedigree of Lewis Price, a goalkeeper who had played in crucial international qualifiers for Wales, in addition to having the prowess of Premier League experience to his game, Price would either prove a worthy successor to the Palace throne or fierce competition to Speroni.
The goalkeeper union
Speroni would remain at the club, which would see Price assume the role of number two, pushing the Argentine and challenging him to take his game to the next level. “My relationship with Jules was fantastic. Everybody knows how nice he is, It’s common knowledge! He is one of the few people in football that I really don’t have one bad word to say about. His work ethic, the way he trained, played, how he lived his life, on and off the field, it made it really easy to have such a good relationship with him.”
He continues, “However, I had to be there constantly, day in, day out, so that he knew if he didn’t play well, then I would try to take his place.”
Unlike an outfield player, life as a second-choice goalkeeper can be strange; a striker could shine in a ten-minute period and instill a belief in the manager that they should start for the next game. Price explains that the life of a goalkeeper is a “weird” one.
He adds, “You want your mate to do well. Especially for me, if I wasn’t starting, I always took immense pride in the other guy playing well. In my mind, and that’s maybe how I convinced myself, I was always saying, ‘If he’s playing, and he’s one of the best keepers in the league, then I have to being playing some role in that, because he’s trying to keep me out of the team.”
Having signed in July, Lewis Price would have to wait until March to pull on the Crystal Palace shirt, after being denied the opportunity by George Burley to gain valuable minutes in the cup competitions. Whilst physical fitness is a mandatory attribute for any professional footballer, it has become clearer in recent years that mental sharpness is also a key feature to any athlete's game.
Having waited 118 days to make his professional debut for the Eagles, Price believes that “I think a lot of people would struggle (to have stayed focused). As a keeper, there is only ever one position and it’s extremely easy to get distracted and disheartened."
He continues, "For me personally, I found it to a degree quite easy. I always enjoyed training and I would take a lot of pride, especially if I wasn’t playing, in being the best in training. That would really the focus me until Saturday. Don’t get me wrong, there was always a disappointment when you didn’t play; you give everything during the week, and the one thing every player wants to do is play.”
Dougie Freedman was entering his first full season in charge of Palace, after he had been trusted by Steve Parish to oversee survival the season prior, and he was looking to instantly create a legacy as manager, just as he did as a player for the south Londoners.
“I loved Dougie as a manager,” says Price. “When he took over, that’s what we needed at that time. He really brought a level of professionalism which every player bought into. George Burley had a different style; more relaxed, not so hands on and letting players look after themselves, which had brought him a lot of success before. But for the group that we assembled, Dougie was the perfect fit. He put more constraints on things such as prehab before training, extra preparation and team meetings. He was exactly what we needed and it showed in the results.”
Price’s hard work, ability and dedication to training, which helped bring the best out in Julian Speroni, was rewarded by Freedman, who unlike Burley, decided to entrust the Welsh shot-stopper with the duties of cup competitions.
Palace drew Crawley Town in the first round in what was then The Carling Cup, as a Selhurst Park crowd of just under 9000 watched Palace lay the foundations of a cup run that will go on to live long in the memory of the Eagles’ faithful.
After successfully by-passing Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic and Championship counterparts, Middlesbrough and Southampton, before the club realised, they were in the quarterfinals of the League Cup.
The cup Gods saw Palace drawn away to play at Old Trafford; the Eagles were about to test themselves against a side that had been meticulously placed together by Sir Alex Ferguson – a squad of players still basking in the glory of their Premier League title win the season prior.
“It was a Catch-22 moment,” explains Price. “We were pleased to have drawn Manchester United away and going to Old Trafford was fantastic. However, on the other hand, if we had drawn Cardiff, it would have been an easier route to the semi-final.”
He continues, “I think we played on a Wednesday night, and at the time, the Championship schedule was hectic and we were doing okay in the league. But once you turn up at Old Trafford and get over the fact of who you're playing, it sounds stupid really, but it just becomes another game of football.”
The 120 minutes
Freedman stuck with the core group of players who had guided Palace to this historic cup tie - a squad who had pushed the first team all the way in the league and deserved the opportunity to play against Manchester United.
Palace failed to let the occasion get the better of them and their determination was evident from early on. Wilfried Zaha picked up the ball in his own half and glided it across the hallowed Old Trafford turf - he beat Darren Gibson before unleashing a wild shot that saw the ball fly into the Manchester night sky. But it was a sign of things to come, “Wilf was unplayable that night,” says Price. “I still say to a lot of people I speak to today; Wilf had a few games where you were just in awe of what you had seen.”
The first half was a feisty affair, with the quality of United’s line-up, possessing the gulf of talent such as Dimitar Berbatov, Park Ji-sung, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, all struggling to handle the tenacious team that Freedman had assembled for the game.
Price was his ever-present calming self. He denied Antonio Valencia from opening the scoring in the early stages of the second half with a fantastic save low to his left-hand side. This was followed by a smart stop from Ravel Morrison’s arrowed shot, sticking a leg towards the ball and keeping Palace in the tie.
His heroics would be the catalyst for a goal that Gary Neville, who was a pundit for the match, described as ‘the best goal I have seen at Old Trafford from an opposition player.’
“Darren and I played in the same youth team and I have seen him do that before,” explains Price. “I knew he had that in the locker; most of the goals he scored were ‘worldies’. I don’t think I have ever seen him score a bad goal. I had a great view. At the time when he hit it, I thought, ‘Nah, come on’. It was so ambitious, before it instantly switched to, ‘Oh no, oh my God, that’s in!’ In that minute, it was just pure joy that ran through me.”
United would eventually get one back through a Federico Macheda penalty, taking the game to extra-time. The David vs Goliath story was on a knife edge, and it could have swung either way. In extra time, Palace had their fairytale moment as Glenn Murray met a Darren Ambrose free-kick and sent the travelling Eagles’ fans into raptures.
There was a grandstand finish to the game, as Ferguson ordered his side to create continuous, relentless pressure on Lewis Price’s goal. “I was always quite calm surprisingly,” explains Price. “Paddy McCarthy and Anthony Gardner were always rock-solid; David Wright and Stuart O’Keefe were sitting just in-front, so we were always comfortable and felt very secure that we could withstand most things. The way the whole team defended and stuck to the task they had been given meant that I was pretty confident towards the end.”
‘Back down to Earth’
The celebrations were ‘short lived’ says Price, “You can see the excitement on the pitch – perhaps a little bit of disbelief that we have just beaten Manchester United – but it came rapidly back down to Earth. We had to fly back home, come straight back and prepare for Derby at home two days later. We didn’t get time to celebrate.”
After the unbridled joy of knocking out the current Premier League champions, Price was content with the fact that Julian Speroni was still the resolute guardian of the Crystal Palace goal.
However, he had the mouthwatering prospect of a semi-final tie against Cardiff City as an incentive to keep pushing himself every day in training, until the bombshell dropped that Freedman would prevent the fringe players, who had done so well in helping Palace reach this position, from finishing the task. Price was dropped for the semi-final clash, “That was one of the few times in my career that I was disappointed in a manager’s decision,” explains Price.
Despite taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg at The Cardiff City Stadium, Freedman’s side would fall short, as the cup run was ended by the lottery of a penalty-shootout.
Price says that, “Freedman has spoken to me since and said, ‘maybe I should have played you.’ Nobody was denying Jules’ undoubted quality but, with the greatest respect, Cardiff were playing their number two at the time in Tom Heaton. For me, I thought I deserved that chance and I felt that I had earnt that opportunity to go out and play.”
“I loved it as a club, it will always hold a very special place in my heart.”
Price would make a handful of league appearances towards the end of the 2011/12 season and continue to push all the way for the number one spot.
The healthy competition, and Price’s tireless work ethic to training, would help Speroni elevate his game to the next level, as the Argentine goalkeeper would play one of the leading roles in the promotion season that followed. “When we got promoted, it was so nice to see Jules play well and get all the accolades he thoroughly deserved.” says Price.
Once the bright lights and glitterati of the Premier League reached Selhurst Park, Speroni amplified his performances to the nth degree, becoming one of the absolute best in the top-flight. Price would continue as a support act before loans at Mansfield and Crawley Town followed. Price says, “With Neil Warnock, I was coming into the last year of my contract at Palace and wanted to get out and play, so I went out on loan to Crawley.”
He continues, “I had been there for a month, and Neil Warnock tried to sign Jamie Ashdown, who I had come in to replace. That put my nose out of joint a little bit. I think he wanted an ally in the dressing room, someone who he had worked with before and trusted. But I did feel out of it all at that point.”
After being neglected by Alan Pardew, Price closed the book on his time at Crystal Palace, spending time at Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham United before retiring in November, bringing his 20-year playing career to an end and taking up a role at his hometown club of Bournemouth as an under-21 goalkeeping coach.
Price looks back on his time at Selhurst Park fondly, “I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Palace. I loved it as a club, it will always hold a very special place in my heart.”
He continues, “The change was massive. The culture and mentality had both changed; it was a great club when I signed, and it was a fantastic club when I left. There is now a certain level of expectation, coaching and the facilities in and around the club and what they want to achieve going forward. It’s brilliant.”