Crystal Palace: A Dream That Couldn’t Happen

by | Sep 13, 2017

There’s a lot of snobbery in modern Britain, and at the time that Crystal Palace appointed Frank De Boer as their new manager, there were those who said that Croydon didn’t deserve the sort of revolution that the owners of the club were planning for it. Seventy-seven days on from his appointment, De Boer has left Selhurst Park and a dream, of sorts, has died. Just a few weeks ago, there might have been some degree of hope that the club, having survived two successive narrow brushes with relegation, might have been set to turn a corner and turn its Premier League status into something. The appointment of Roy Hodgson, however, hints at this being another hand to mouth season on that fuzzy line between South London and Surrey. 

It is, of course, extremely difficult to draw too many broad brush inferences from four league matches and a scrappy League Cup match. Palace started badly, comfortably beaten at home by Huddersfield Town on the opening day of the season, but, whilst results haven’t sparkled since then, performances haven’t been uniformly dreadful since then. Away from home, they were beaten narrowly at Liverpool – no disgrace there – and last weekend at Burnley, where only a couple of calamitous individual mistakes prevented the team from grabbing its first point(s) of the new season. The team’s League Cup win against Ipswich Town is difficult to use as a barometer of anything much as both teams made so many changes from their regular first elevens, whilst the other home defeat, against Swansea City, was an admittedly bad result against a team that has hardly otherwise set the division alight so far this season. 

So, with four matches of the league season played Palace sit at the foot of the table with no goals scored and four consecutive defeats in the record books, the first time that this has been managed in the top division of English football for more than ninety years. The “project”, intended to sprinkle a little Ajax-tinted gold dust over Selhurst Park, lays in ruins, and the club has called on the services of the seventy year-old Roy Hodgson to try and rescue something from the burning wreckage of the club’s start to the season. This remains, with the current season being the club’s fifth successive in the top division, the most successful in the club’s history, but the aim for this season, with September not even two weeks old, is now most likely avoiding relegation from the Premier League. 

This is not the first time that aspiration has outstripped reality at Selhurst Park, though. At the end of the 1970s, such was the optimism around the club that the nickname “The Team of the Eighties” – coined by a slightly over-excited Jimmy Greaves – was permitted to be taken seriously, only for Palace to plummet back to the Second Division after just two seasons in 1981, having accumulated just nineteen points. Indeed, these short bursts of success seem to be a feature of the club’s history. At the start of the following decade, “Team of the Nineties” monikers were largely resisted following promotion back in 1989, but over the course of four seasons back in the top flight Palace reached an FA Cup final and finished in third place in the First Division before relegation followed again in 1993. Those amongst the Palace support with long memories could be forgiven for wondering whether this season might turn out to be a case of history repeating itself yet again for their club. 

When a manager is forced out of a football club, attention naturally tends to fall upon the individual who is being replaced, but when one is fired after four matches – five including the League Cup – of a new season, to blame the manager solely for what has gone wrong feels slightly absurd. True enough, Frank De Boer may have “lost the dressing room.” His tactics may have been unsuccessful in every Premier League match he’s taken part in. And those who cling to the narrative that the football managers have powers that border on the metaphysical will doubtless have spent the last few weeks clinging to the fact that de Boer lasted just eighty-five days in his previous position in Italy with Internazionale. We are, however, frequently quick to dismiss many individuals as somehow incompetent when this surely isn’t the case. Frank De Boer won four successive league titles with Ajax in the Netherlands. He is a much-decorated former international professional footballer. True enough, he may well not have been the right fit for Crystal Palace, but if this is the case there is a fundamental absurdity in the blame for this poor start to the season being laid entirely at his door. 

Those who work in structural engineering talk a lot about the concept of the “single point of failure”, and it’s difficult not to think of this phrase when looking at what as gone wrong at Selhurst Park over the course of the summer. If the manager “lost the dressing room”, then we might consider that the players who were so quickly disillusioned showed a lack of professionalism in allowing themselves to be so negatively impacted so quickly by the behavioural tics and strategies of the new manager. If the chairman made a great play of talking up the new direction that the club was going to take during the summer, then we might well question why Palace were so inert during the summer transfer window. Steve Parrish has already acknowledged that “every time a manager fails at this club, I fail, so if Frank fails it is my failure too”, so why was he tweeting about the need for “unity” the night before relieving him of his duties? The press has been reporting a breakdown between the manager and the directors of the club that became irreconcilable over the last couple of weeks or so, but what steps were taken on the part of the club to try and ensure that the manager’s job would be made as straightforward as possible? 

Perhaps the dream of turning Crystal Palace into a sophisticated central European-style football club could never have worked. Indeed, perhaps it can never work in the Premier League, where the pressure is too intense and thirty-eight league matches allow little to no room for error. Roy Hodgson has been called upon to fire-fight for the remainder of this season, but Hodgson is seventy years old so this cannot be seen as anything like a short-term (potential) remedy. Hodgson’s football is unlikely to win many critical awards, and his season is now truncated to thirty-four matches, with no transfer window to adjust his squad for more than three and a half months. And all of this raises the question: if De Boer and an Ajax-esque revolution was the “project”, what is the plan now? Relegation from the Premier League at the end of this season would be a financial disaster for the club, so what’s the plan to avoid that particular fate? This project might have failed, but having no contingency plan to replace it would, on the part of the senior management of the club, surely constitute something approaching a dereliction of duty. It’s not too much of a stretch to form the viewpoint that offloading Frank De Boer four matches into the season is attacking a symptom rather than the cause of Crystal Palace’s current woes. 

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