Watford boss Adrian Boothroyd hailed Marlon King for the outstanding performance that inspired a 3-0 play-off semi-final win at Crystal Palace.
The crushing first-leg triumph, achieved thanks to second-half goals from King, Ashley Young and Matthew Spring, puts them within touching distance of the Coca-Cola Championship play-off final - against Leeds or Preston - later this month.
Boothroyd refused to countenance talk of the final ahead of Tuesday's second leg at Vicarage Road but he found time to laud the contribution of King, whose career appeared to be heading nowhere before he joined the Hornets from Nottingham Forest last summer.
'Marlon has scored 22 goals this season, and his game has gone to another level,' said Boothroyd, who completed the permanent signing of King in January.
'He is a leader. Not only can he score goals, but he can make them for others as well.'
King served five months in prison four years ago for possessing a stolen vehicle, but Boothroyd continued: 'I knew about his background, but everyone deserves a second chance.
'I've known Marlon since I was first-team coach at Leeds, where he had a loan spell last season. He has done very, very well for me.'
Watford took considerable criticism when they appointed Boothroyd - who had no top-level management experience - to replace the sacked Ray Lewington in March 2005.
But their decision has been vindicated spectacularly. Watford - tipped for relegation last summer - finished third in the Championship during the regular season, and are within sight of the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Boothroyd added: 'Last year, I was picking up balls and cones for Kevin Blackwell as his first-team coach at Leeds.
'So I know that anything is possible. Palace have an England striker in Andrew Johnson, a terrific manager in Iain Dowie and we will take nothing for granted.'
Palace boss Dowie admitted it would rank among his greatest achievements as a player or a manager were his side to overturn this deficit on Tuesday.
The former Northern Ireland international was left to rue the first-half chances that Johnson, Jobi McAnuff and Clinton Morrison wasted with the match still goal-less.
Dowie said: 'If this were a poker hand, you would not bet too heavily on it.
'We had a mad minute after half-time when we conceded a foolish goal, and from then on we were chasing the game.
'Watford's second goal from Ashley Young was a great free-kick, but after that we lost our team discipline.'
Morrison was furious with referee Mike Jones for not penalising Watford defender Jay DeMerit, who had appeared to pull back the Republic of Ireland striker when he was clean through during the first half, and Dowie added: 'That was a major decision, and the officials didn't get it right.
'We have to go to Vicarage Road and win, but whether we can win by enough is another matter.'