BY ADAM SELLS
These are interesting times in SE25.
On the pitch, Palace have found their form again under Patrick Vieira. While off it there appears to be, if reports are to be believed, a desire for two of the club’s main shareholders to purchase Chelsea Football Club.
Given that the west Londoners will face the Eagles at Wembley next month for a place in this year’s FA Cup final, it makes the plot in this Selhurst Park soap opera all the more intriguing.
A real return to the level demonstrated in the autumn has been most welcome. It may be a stretch to describe it as a ‘winter of discontent’ but it is fair to say that Palace’s inability to win matches, particularly against teams in the lower reaches of the table was becoming a cause for concern.
Along the way there were some excellent performances – most notably the home games against West Ham United and Liverpool – but the three goals conceded in both meant the attacking prowess demonstrated counted for nothing.
These games are not necessarily those that Palace would be expected to win, but the draws against the likes of Norwich, Brentford and Burnley very much felt like opportunities missed.
The victory over Watford was particularly crucial in the run of fixtures to soothe the growing anxiety.
After the victory against Wolves at Selhurst Park in early November, the team was playing with such a consistency that a certain South London Press columnist’s thoughts started to drift towards the notion that there may be European football on the horizon. Having beaten Manchester City on their own patch a week earlier, back-to-back clean sheets and only two defeats in 11 matches, at Liverpool and Chelsea, meant confidence was growing.
Palace had found a way to turn excellent displays into three points.
Despite a very favourable fixture list, with only two victories from the next 14 played – collecting 11 points from 42 available – started the butterflies in the stomach.
Three points at Vicarage Road, when it seemed that fate might see the ghost of Roy Hodgson loom large, was followed by the disappointing draw at home to Burnley.
Thereafter, the trip to Wolverhampton saw Vieira’s boys turn in a tremendous display, with the first half easily the best of the season. Next up was Manchester City, and a disciplined 90 minutes full of heart and desire underlined the recent upturn in fortunes.
Perhaps if the men from Molineux and the blue half of Manchester were the opposition every week the Premier League trophy would sit proudly in the boardroom!
THE SEASON SO FAR
Many people have described this as a season of ‘transition’ given the huge overhaul of the squad and have talked of being happy to finish 17th.
What does this really mean? First-hand experience with a coach from the Netherlands not so long ago tells us that despite the best intentions, a top level manager or coach is always six league games from the sack. Frank de Boer only made it to four. Fans will always have their views, but difficult decisions are often taken in the boardroom when Premier League riches are at stake.
Fortunately Vieira has shown much more than his Dutch counterpart, despite many pundits expressing concern and Palace, taking a step into the unknown, often referred to as being relegation contenders in August.
Most supporters seem highly satisfied with the season so far, with the team comfortably mid-table and through to an FA Cup semi-final.
Those that regularly listen to my own musings on the Five Year Plan podcast will know I was one that was concerned about the level of change and lack of experience after the steady hand offered by Hodgson.
If the current position had been offered then, I would too have been more than happy. Having seen it play out – and the talent pool at Vieira’s disposal – I would now say that I am slightly disappointed with the points return versus the high level of performance.
There are many positives, not least the change in style, with a younger, more dynamic group of players.
In addition to being very attractive to watch, there has been an overall consistency which has not been prevalent previously in any of the Premier League seasons.
There is little doubt that the players have enjoyed playing for a coach with great presence, who leads by example and seems a very likeable man.
Palace have only lost to three teams outside of the big six – Leeds United, Aston Villa and West Ham United. Four points have been taken from Manchester City and two clean sheets… maravilloso Vicente! From the big six, Tottenham were put to the sword at Selhurst and there was a very creditable result at Arsenal.
The real disappointment is that too many draws should have ended in victory and there is certainly a case to say that a good number of defeats could and should have ended all square, particularly those suffered since the turn of the year.
This has highlighted the lack of Premier League know-how in the technical area, with the ‘in-game management’ proving the Achilles heel. In particular, substitutions have often led to a loss in momentum, or a missed opportunity to change the game, like at Brentford last month or to see out games such as Arsenal and Brighton.
Goalkeeper coach Dean Kiely is the only member of staff with extensive Premier League coaching experience and that has been a huge factor when studying the number of dropped points.
Only the bottom three have won fewer games than Palace, who have seven wins from 30 matches. Given the attacking flair within the squad, that is a disappointing statistic.
NINE GAMES TO PLAY AND AN FA CUP SEMI-FINAL
With the recapturing of form and the demolition of Everton in last Sunday’s FA Cup sixth round (I can’t believe I’m using that term after the uncomfortable first quarter) an exciting finale awaits.
Though Frank Lampard didn’t quite see it the same way, last weekend’s game underlined the quality within the current squad.
Having seen 46 seasons of Crystal Palace Football Club, this is without doubt the finest squad of players in its entire history. Having spent £80million plus and adding some much-needed youth, Dougie Freedman and his recruitment team have not received enough credit for the summer overhaul.
The asset value of the squad is rising and with very few injury issues throughout, the club has never been in a better place.
The likes of Wilfred Zaha, Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze, Tyrick Mitchell, Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen would all fetch between £40-75m in the transfer market and you can add Conor Gallagher to the list, though he doesn’t belong to the club.
There is huge competition for places and a playing style that can only be enjoyed.
The challenge is now, with 27 points to play for, can this super-talented group eclipse the club’s best points total since returning to the Premier League nine seasons ago? The capability is there.
On top, there is the chance to win an FA Cup.
Palace have been favourites through each and every round so far but now things couldn’t be harder, with the remaining three teams arguably the best three on the planet right now.
But this group of players will give anybody a game. In a ‘one-off’ situation, a top performance, an ‘off’ day for the opponent and Lady Luck smiling on South London, means that despite being very much the outsiders, Palace are more than capable of upsetting the odds.
TIME FOR THE CLUB’S POTENTIAL TO BE REALISED
With my Palace-tinted specs on, I have always seen Palace as the club with the most untapped potential in the land. A huge catchment area for fans. With South London on one side of the stadium and the biggest town in Europe on the other, Palace could and should be big, very big.
Those of a certain vintage, such as myself, remember a night with 52,000 inside Selhurst 40 odd years ago. The first game I saw as a six-year-old was in the third tier of English football and attracted a 27,000 crowd. The sun is shining, now is the time to make hay.
It was a huge surprise to hear owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer linked with a bid to buy Chelsea. It doesn’t look or feel good.
Of course, we are not privy to the goings on at board level and I have no real detail or idea in terms of funding they have provided since 2015, together with their band of investors. I thought that given the potential, the billionaires were all set to take the club where it could go.
Reading about the possible Chelsea bid and the sums involved, I wondered about what they want or wanted to achieve with South London’s biggest club?
Many will disagree with my own vision, but my hope was that their involvement with the club could reach new levels both on the field and in terms of infrastructure.
Having seen what new stadiums have done for both Tottenham in the north of the capital and West Ham in the east, I truly believe the same is possible in the south. Both have added 20-25,000 plus fans inside the stadium on a matchday, with the latter now challenging for the top four and reaching the final stages of the Europa League.
Let’s not kid ourselves, Harris and Blitzer are investors and not long-standing fans of the club – but the opportunity to build the club and grow their investment is clear.
The stadium issues remain.
Trying to rebuild Selhurst Park is challenging. Although many hurdles would need to be overcome, the site at the National Sports Centre has always represented the best route in order to grow the club.
The land is there and the site is decaying. It is a terrible shame that this hasn’t been advanced. Transport links, council politics and residents who don’t want any form of disruption are some of the cited reasons.
Filling the stadium by providing young kids with low-price season tickets, at a time when the calibre of players on the pitch would excite, makes it all seem the perfect moment.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Hopefully Sadiq Khan peruses the South London Press sports section…
Maybe John Textor, who joined the board in funding the summer spend, can help make this happen. A dynamic and ambitious individual who appears to be very driven, he has been linked with increasing his stake should his fellow countrymen be successful in their Chelsea pursuit. If Harris and Blitzer remain, let’s hope they see the merits in backing the Palace project.
Again, showing my age, the club has had a couple of false dawns.
Whenever the club was on the brink of breaking the elite, the sale of first Kenny Sansom and, 12 years later, Ian Wright to Arsenal led to years in the footballing wilderness.
With Steve Parish at the helm, I have confidence that this will not be the case again. He has been the best chairman in the club’s history and I hope his 12 years will only be the start of his success.
Who knows what the future holds? Maybe the tube of silver polish gathering dust in the boardroom cupboard may yet see the light of day?
There is a fantastic squad, a new academy, a young charismatic coach, a recruitment team second to none and a man at the top who understands the club and is smart enough to move it forward.
It’s time to build, in every sense.
PICTURES: KEITH GILLARD AND PA