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How Crystal Palace beat their own five-year plan to set up Wembley clash with Chelsea

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W

hen Crystal Palace walk out at Wembley on Sunday, those wearing red and blue ties in the directors’ box can take huge satisfaction in a job well done.

Their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea is two years in the making and reward for the preparation, and then execution, of their plan to transform the south London club.

Palace have a new identify under Patrick Vieira and increased hope for the future. They are confident of adding to a bad week for Chelsea — but it has been a long road to this point.

In 2020, during the first lockdown, Palace chairman Steve Parish and sporting director Dougie Freedman used the football shutdown to re-evaluate and look ahead. Between them, they decided that it was time for the club to kick on.

Roy Hodgson had brought some much-needed stability after Palace had reverted to a short-term policy after ditching the Frank de Boer experiment, but fans had grown weary of his pragmatic style, Palace had an ageing squad and a change was needed to take them to the next level.

Parish had long wanted to push ahead, but the time they had to plan at the start of the pandemic accelerated the first phase of the revamp.

A decision was made to stop new contracts for older players, with their high wage bill restricting their ability to make moves in the transfer market.

A new profile of player would be targeted. Instead of going for experienced players, such as Gary Cahill, who it should be said excelled following his free transfer from Chelsea, Palace earmarked younger signings.

Eberechi Eze and Nathan Ferguson were signed in the summer of 2020, while their transfer business last summer was almost flawless when you consider the impact of Marc Guehi, Joachim Andersen, Michael Olise, Conor Gallagher, Odsonne Edouard and Will Hughes.

Once Hodgson informed Palace that he would be leaving at the end of the season, Parish started the search for a figurehead to lead the overhaul needed in his five-year plan.

Palace started with a shortlist of 10 managers, split into two columns. On one side were the more experienced bosses, such as Lucien Favre and Nuno Espirito Santo. On the other, younger managers, including Frank Lampard and Steve Cooper.

Freedman had laid out a style of play for the future when he sold his vision for the club to players such as Eze, and wanted a manager to fit that mould, as well as the structure in place where the head coach did not control everything.

Freedman had built a recruitment team to draw up a list of players who would suit the new style based on data, before he would go and scout players in person. The Scot has been known to go and watch prospective signings more than 40 times before making a final decision on them.

Such was the effort put into the new structure that it was crucial any manager could work within it. Palace interviewed and rejected two managers over their demands to have full control of transfer policy at the club.

Vieira was well aware he was never first choice at Selhurst Park. He had his own demands, but was happy to work with Freedman and Parish and was pleased with the players being recommended.

Michael Olise

/ Getty Images

The appointment of the Frenchman has proved a masterstroke. Many doubted his appointed, but Vieira has thrived.

The first thing he noticed was the need for a change in mentality. The three-time Premier League winner sensed an acceptance of failure and immediately moved to transform that.

Palace now fear no one. They have beaten Manchester City away and held the champions to a draw at Selhurst Park, while thumping Tottenham and Arsenal in 3-0 wins at home.

Having slashed £30million off their wage bill with the departure of players out of contract, Palace were ready to move quickly in the transfer market once Vieira was in place.

A new-look central defence was formed. The signing of Andersen was considered a coup, but senior figures at Palace were more excited about the arrival of Guehi. Both have impressed, and Guehi has been made captain and took his bow with England in March.

Palace are already prepared to replace Gallagher and will be an attractive prospect for signings.

The real ace up their sleeve, though, has proved to be Olise. Palace signed the dynamic winger for just £8m, thanks to a clause in his Reading contract, and the Eagles believe there were as many as 25 other clubs interested in a move for the 20-year-old.

That they were also able to sign Gallagher on loan from Chelsea relatively unopposed now seems astonishing, given his sparkling season.

The midfielder, who cannot play on Sunday against his parent club, will return to Chelsea this summer and will leave a big hole in the Palace team.

But, thanks to the hard work behind the scenes, Palace are already prepared to replace him and will be an attractive prospect for any prospective signings.

Their trip to Wembley is another indication that everything at Palace is going to plan.

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