Albion chief executive and deputy chairman Paul Barber reflected on the approaching anniversary since stadiums across the country were full for spectator sports, before the COVID-19 lockdowns brought an end to capacity crowds.
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We welcome the players, staff and directors from Crystal Palace to the American Express Community Stadium for tonight's Premier League clash – our second successive home match under the lights. We also welcome back Sky Sports who, along with BT Sport, Amazon and the BBC, have done such an excellent job for all clubs and our respective fans throughout the pandemic.
It's hard to believe that it's coming up to a year since Palace's last visit to the Amex unwittingly became the last time our stadium was full to the rafters before the pandemic brought Premier League matches and, soon after, just about everything else to a grinding halt during the first national lockdown. It's perhaps even harder to believe the terrible loss of life, and livelihoods, since then, leaving us in another lockdown.
Tonight's game will, of course, therefore be missing the usual edgy atmosphere created by the rivalry between our two sets of supporters, but the usual intensity on the pitch will, I'm sure, still be there as both clubs strive to climb up the Premier League table, and away from a pack of clubs looking to escape from the bottom three positions. We know, as we enter the final third of the season, the battle will only intensify.
It was, therefore, with slightly mixed emotions that we extended our unbeaten run in the Premier League to a sixth match, with a goalless draw against Aston Villa. In what was another impressive and dominant display from a team missing Adam Webster, Solly March and Tariq Lamptey, all of whom had started in our 2-1 win at Villa Park in November, we certainly deserved to record another win.
Nevertheless, we can take more confidence from the fact that Villa's visit here saw us record our fifth clean sheet in seven matches, and a club record – at this level – of 26 shots on goal. Unfortunately, though, the all-important breakthrough goal that would have also taken us to a record points level for this stage of the season didn't arrive when, but for an inspired goalkeeping display from Emiliano Martinez, it surely would have.
As we've said on many occasions this season, you don't always get what you deserve in the Premier League, but excellent wins over Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Leeds United, and draws with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley and Villa – and even the narrow losses away at high-flying Manchester City and Leicester City (in the FA Cup) – have all given us an excellent platform on which to come into tonight's match.
As is always the case with our matches against Crystal Palace, and following on from our dramatic draw at Selhurst Park earlier this season, we know we can expect another tough fixture tonight. Back in October, Alexis Mac Allister scored a 90th-minute equaliser to cancel out Wilfried Zaha's first-half penalty, only for captain Lewis Dunk to pick up a late red card in south London.
The match here last season saw the visitors victorious after a 70th-minute strike from Jordan Ayew separated the sides, despite Albion enjoying more than two thirds of the possession and 23 shots on goal. Palace moved up to 12th that day with 36 points. We finished the weekend in 15th position on 28 points. At the time of writing a year later, Palace were 14th, Albion 15th – with three points separating the clubs.
Finally, a big thanks to the fans that have written in to us in support of our club's – and football's – position on eradicating online abuse, discrimination and bullying. This is something that everyone at the club, from the chairman and head coach, to our captain and head of people and culture, feels very strongly about. It is simply not acceptable for players or staff of any football club to be abused or discriminated against at any time.
Enjoy the game.