Play-off Final: West Ham V Crystal Palace

West Ham United will have to wait another year to realise the dream of returning to the Premiership after a heart-breaking 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace in the Division One Play-Off Final.


Neil Shipperley's 62nd minute tap-in may not have been the most memorable of match-winners, but it was a goal that Hammers fans will sadly never forget, as an instant return to the promised land was snatched away in cruel, cruel fashion.


For the 35,000 loud and loyal supporters who had made the long, arduous journey to Wales, it was the darkest possible outcome to a day that had begun so brightly. As a sea of claret and blue swept into Cardiff for the club's first major cup final in 23 years, they carried a genuine and overbearing sense of optimism, no doubt fuelled by the fantastic scenes at Upton Park for the semi-final second leg victory against Ipswich Town 11 days earlier, and cultivated by the positive vibes emitting from Alan Pardew and his players in the build-up to the game.


Not surprisingly, the Hammers boss kept faith with the same 11 players that had started both legs of the magnificent victory over the Tractor Boys, although there was an added bonus in the return to fitness of Don Hutchison, who added play-off final experience to the substitutes' bench.


With the 72,523 crowd at the superb Millennium Stadium combining to create a truly spectacular atmosphere, it was down to the players once the first whistle blew, yet, sadly, the enormity of the occasion appeared to get to some of them.


In an understandably tense and nervy opening to the game, neither side managed to settle into the quick, accurate, passing game that had helped seal their passage into the play-offs at the end of the campaign, and it was clear that brawn rather than brain would be the order of the day.


However, it might have all been so different had fortune favoured Hammers in the 19th minute. After a couple of half-chances had fallen to Palace early on, Michael Carrick provided the game's first real moment of quality with an exquisite pass into the path of Bobby Zamora, who raced clear through on goal with the ball set up perfectly on his favoured left foot.


The young forward struck his effort well enough, but unfortunately straight at goalkeeper Nico Vaesen, who blocked with his legs and then saw Marlon Harewood volley the follow-up high over the bar.


Ten minutes later, Christian Dailly headed just wide of the post after rising unmarked to meet Matthew Etherington's corner, before the Hammer of the Year almost reproduced a carbon copy of his stunning goal against Ipswich when he collected Carrick's shot corner and cut in from the left before unleashing a fierce effort. This time, the ball flew over the bar but, as the first half wore on, it was Pardew's team who were definitely on top.


Seven minutes before the break, Palace provided a scare when former Hammer Michael Hughes saw a deflected effort run kindly for him in the box and then lifted the ball over Stephen Bywater, but Tomas Repka thankfully got back in time to hook it to safety.


That close call lifted Iain Dowie's side, though, and they began the second half in much more determined mood. Hammers were given a warning in the 55th minute when Shipperley chested down Popovic's header in the six-yard box and fired over, but had a measured, dipping volley from Steve Lomas just moments later found the net, it might have been a different story.


As it was, Vaesen pulled off a tremendous save to deny the Northern Ireland international and, five minutes later, Palace took the lead. Division One top scorer Andy Johnson - well shackled by Christian Dailly and Andy Melville until then - was given too much time on the ball in the penalty area and fired in a low shot that went through Repka's legs and was seen late by Bywater, who could only parry the effort into the path of Shipperley.


There appeared to be a hint of offside as the burly striker bundled the ball home from three yards out but the flag stayed down and, as the ecstatic Palace fans celebrated, their counterparts began to fear the worst.


Their despair almost turned to joy when Zamora latched on to Etherington's cross and hooked the ball home just a few minutes later but, this time, the linesman's arm was raised and the despondency returned.


Pardew responded by making a double substitution, sending on Brian Deane and Nigel Reo-Coker in place of Zamora and Harewood but, although the switch added extra enthusiasm and presence in attack, Palace defended resolutely to shut Hammers out in the closing stages.


The only effort on target in the final 15 minutes was a Carrick volley from 20 yards out that Vaesen saved well, while referee Graham Poll waved away appeals for a penalty when the Geordie midfielder went down under a challenge from Mikele Leigertwood in the 83rd minute.


An ankle injury sustained in the tackle meant that, with all three substitutes used, Carrick was a virtual bystander for the remaining minutes, and Hammers just couldn't find the spark of inspiration needed to rescue the tie.


The contrast in emotions at opposite ends of the stadium couldn't have been wider, and the irony that it was our last-minute equaliser up at Wigan on the final day of the season that handed Palace a play-off reprieve only added to the pain.


The feeling of sheer emptiness will take some time to go away but, when the dust has settled, Hammers fans will once again lift themselves and continue to support their club with unflinching loyalty.


Upton Park is likely to face another summer of change as the contingency plans for a second campaign outside the top flight are finalised and let's hope that, come next May, we are all sitting at home on play-off final weekend, safe in the knowledge that our Premiership return has been confirmed automatically.