Monday, 21 April 2014

Palace, Pulis and thoughts on staying up

Please forgive this even more self indulgent that usual ramble. So Palace are staying in the Premiership, at as the press like to remind us, the fifth time of asking. So I have been thinking about what was different about this term, other than bald fact of survival, compared to the others.

So here we go. 1992-93
The suggestion that Palace have never stayed up in the Premier League was always a bit of a cheap shot. The relegation in 92/93 was in its inaugural year, and Palace had been in the top flight since 89/90. It was a once great squad that had declined steadily, so tells us little about the current vintage but may be a cautionary tale for what happens of one lets the grass grow under your feet. Though still a strong squad players had been allowed to go, most notably Ian Wright without the money being reinvested that wisely. Despite looking good enough to avoid the drop, a freak set of results sent us down on 49 points. It was also the first time when Steve Coppell betrayed a frailty that would reoccur every so often, and ultimately prevented him reaching the managerial heights he once looked capable of. It seemed he would reach a point of despair, when he no longer knew what to do. It would resurface during is brief stint at Man City and again at Palace in 97/98.

94/95 - The Cantona Year
The core of the premiership squad retained from 92/93 allowed CPFC to bounce back at the first time of asking, and being promoted as champions I expected us to make a decent fist of our return. Like the current team the problem was scoring goals. Chris Armstrong had scored 23 goals to get us up, but suffered a very public drought once there. Like the current squad there was a great keeper and a strong defence.  But unlike the current team there was also a lack of quality in central midfield. Southgate was played out of position (a mistake Keegan would later make as England Manager), and Ray Wilkins limped off during his debut never to return. Dowie's arrival up front and Ray Houghton were the right answer, but they arrived too late. At heart it was a team that should never have gone down. Alan Smith's limitations as a manager would be exposed on his return a few years later but it was a squad that deserved better. Making the semi final of both the League and FA cup in a season when 4 went down to shrink the Premiership the joke was 'Palace made the last 4 of every competition they entered' haha.

97/98 Brolin, Brolin, Brolin
This was the season I feared we would repeat. Up through the playoffs, our best player ( then David Hopkin) as this year (Zaha) was committed to moving on. The squad was hugely underpowered for a top flight now corn fed on foreign talent. Unlike this time frantic buying seemed to work at first, if only away from Selhurst, with Lombardo, Shipperly and Warhurst all playing well and us holding our own. Unlike this time, practically every quality signing (and a few that weren't) promptly got injured. I shudder to think where we would be now if Jedniak, Puncheon, Ward and Bolasie had all limped off like this lot did. Chaos descended as increasingly desperate throws of the dice brought in the likes of Brolin and Padavano. The sight of Brolin running around with a comedy bandage around his head, being laughed at by the away fans is still probably my most humiliating experience at Selhurst. We were a shambles. One huge difference this time has been home form. On 19th April 2014 we secured premiership safety, the bedrock of this had been wins at home. On 20th April 1998 I was there for our first home win of the season. On paper by the end of the season we had a great squad. Lombardo had shown some real affection for the club, and the likes of Marcus Bent and Matt Jansen had come in, and a young Clinton Morrison was coming through. But this was all washed away by the combination of fate, Mark Goldberg and Terry Venables.

2004/5 - Andy Johnson
Another playoff promotion, but one powered by a surge in form midway through the campaign. In many ways this was our most competent effort to say up until this year, and we ultimately took it to the final day. The squad that went up was not that strong, but in Andy Johnson we had be best striker to pull on the red and blue since Mark Bright. Unlike Clinton Morrison and Chris Armstrong, Johnson could score goals in the top flight, or with his incredible pace win penalties. That much of the first team (Routledge, Watson, Boyce, Soares and Johnson) went onto solid top flight careers suggest it was an opportunity missed. Unlike the current side it relied on one trick, AJ's goals, and lacked a mental toughness under pressure. Fitz Hall and ultimately fatally Leigetwood gave away too many free kicks around the box and games we should have won ended as draws.

I was afraid this season, however much it is good to go up turning up week in week out to watch your team get battered is miserable. With Glen Murray injured and Zaha sold all I wished for a the team to fight relegation bravely and retain its pride. It started as I feared. Our victory of Sunderland was indicative of just how bad DiCanio's regime was. Then, with Pulis in the wings we got a draw with Everton, maybe we could get more points. Pulis arrived and the rest is history. So what is different now. Starting at the top, the current Chair seems to have more about him than Goldberg or Jordan. His achievement in convincing Pulis to take the job has been key. Curiously the completeness of Holloway's failure worked in our favour. A marginally better start and we could be in the situation that Swansea and Norwich have brought upon themselves. If the right change had been made earlier in 92/93, 94/95 and even 97/98 there may have been an escape route.

But is was not all about Pulis. Previous managers (Dougie Freedman rather than Holloway) had bought well. The squad came up blessed with a central midfielder in the shape of Mile Jedniak who is of premiership quality. Not since Geoff Thomas left have we had a player of this quality to build around. Behind him Delany, Ward and Speroni were the core of great defence, that good signings have further strengthened. With Zaha grabbing headlines Bolasie was a bit of a secret to all but the Palace faithful. His partnership with Puncheon as given Palace a level of flair, especially in the last quarter of the season to hurt teams. As well as giving the team belief and a mental toughness Pulis's way highlight something very important. Top flight teams if you let them take the lead will simply keep the ball and watch you run around. But, keep the scores level, or even pinch a lead you can get at them on the break. We have never come from behind to win. This round head approach was beginning to look a bit wobbly until the turning point at home to Chelsea. Ultimately when the chips were down this is a team that now believes in itself. Despite at the huffing and puffing the difference between the teams outside the Europe chasing behemoths is small. The difference between the 1-0 and the 1-1 draw are small but crucial. The recent wins against the likes of  Everton and Chelsea with be remembered, but survival was chiselled out of 1-0's with Villa, West Ham, Stoke and Hull.