The Curious Case Of Steve Mandanda
August 2016. A happy time for Palace supporters.
The club had made some astute summer signings, there were new flavours of pie in the concourses, and Wayne Hennessey was no longer the team’s number one goalkeeper.
Indeed, flying over from France wearing his figurative cape and magic goalie gloves was Steve Mandanda, swapping one of France’s biggest clubs for the bright (traffic) lights of South Norwood.
For a lot of Palace fans, the Frenchman was the most impressive acquisition the club had made. Sure,hristian Benteke came with the price tag, and James Tomkins was an upgrade on Damien Delaney, but Mandanda was the first instance in which the Eagles had plucked a player from the starting eleven of a club that is, on paper, bigger than Palace.
Mandanda wasn’t coming to SE25 with a point to prove. He’s a French international who plays second fiddle only to one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and played regular Champions League football for Marseille en route to becoming club captain and one of the club’s most popular figures.
So it begs the question – why did Mandanda leave Marseille for Palace?
It’s no secret that Marseille were forced to sell a number of key players last summer to meet financial obligations. Michy Batshuayi was sold to Chelsea, Nicolas N’Koulou moved to Lyon, and despite interest from Everton, Mandanda arrived at Selhurst Park. But having won Ligue 1 and three domestic cups with Marseille, Mandanda arrived in SE25 more accustomed to challenging at the top end of the league, which raises the question of whether or not the 31-year-old was oversold the Palace product at the negotiating table.
If Mandanda’s perception of what it was like being a Palace player had been a little hazy at first, the reality was about to become crystal clear as the team suffered an indifferent start to the season before sliding further towards the relegation zone.
Despite being an instant hit with the fans, Mandanda was growing incredibly frustrated with the ineptitude of those in front of him, and there were signs that the Frenchman was starting to believe that life in SE25 wasn’t quite how he had pictured it.
Even in the 4-1 hammering of Stoke in September, Mandanda reacted furiously to Marko Arnautovic’s late consolation goal, berating his defence for failing to close the Austrian down quicker, before storming straight down the tunnel at the full time whistle.
As Palace continued to falter under Alan Pardew, mistakes started to creep into Mandanda’s game, as he was culpable for two of the three goals in the 3-2 defeat to Burnley, clearly struggling with confidence having failed to keep a clean sheet for his new club.
That game at Turf Moor was the last time the Frenchman appeared for Palace. He returned from the subsequent international break with an innocuous knee injury, ruled out for an initial six weeks and set to undergo surgery.
However, over nearly five months have passed since then, and Palace fans have been left mystified by Mandanda’s continued absence from the match day squad.
The French stopper has been pictured in Palace’s recent training videos, and one can only assume that if Mandanda is capable of taking part in high intensity first team training, he must at least be fit enough to take his place on the bench.
More worryingly, perhaps, is that Mandanda seems to be linked with a move away from the club as often as he trains, and reports from France continue to suggest that he is nearing a return to his former club, which inevitably raises questions about his commitment to the Palace cause.
It’s worth noting at this point that Mandanda left Marseille after finishing 13th in Ligue 1 – the club’s worst league position in fifteen years. With Palace failing to live up to the Frenchman’s high standards, it might not be too farfetched to suggest that when the going gets tough, Mandanda goes missing.
While Mandanda’s future in South London remains clear as mud, what is obvious is that he is the best goalkeeper at the club. But what the Frenchman will be forced to learn is that talent means nothing in SE25 if you don’t show the pride and tenacity to go with it.
Although Wayne Hennessey may not have been the most popular Palace figure in recent years, he has never hidden. The Welshman is now growing in confidence behind a sturdier back four, and put in a man of the match performance against Chelsea on the back of three consecutive clean sheets.
Hennessey might not be the most gifted goalkeeper in the world, but Palace fans will be more than happy to see him starting ahead of a man who seemingly has little interest in adding a relegation battle to his CV.
If Mandanda continues to fester in the reserves without showing the proverbial stomach for the fight, it won’t be long before this curious case reaches a sorry conclusion, and when August rolls around again, Palace fans will once more be anxiously awaiting a new hero between the sticks.