The end of the season has left me feeling a little confused – not sure if we should see it as an overachievement because we got record points (for the Premier League years at least) and our most prolonged stay (7 seasons and counting), or an underachievement because for large parts of the season both of these things seemed highly unlikely.
I never relaxed. In the end I suppose it depends on the expectations by which we are measuring the team.
I’ve been supporting Palace for nearly fifty years, and I’ve tried to distil down to the three biggest expectations I’ve formed during this time – not easy. I should clarify that these are not aspirations – just how I’ve become conditioned by watching the club through the highs and lows of many decades. They also represent a reasonably consistent view held by many Palace supporters I know. We’re all a bit fatalistic, we’re with the team through thick and thin, and we’re always getting ready for the next bit of thin.
Number 1 – if you support Palace then any successes are usually regarded as slightly undeserved anomalies and early signs of impending disaster, rather than a real turning point in our fortunes. When we’re three nil up, I’m still expecting the others to score four.
Number 2 – we generally frighten teams that have an overabundance of ‘gifted’ players. We always generate a few unusual results with no discernible pattern. We’re just willing to get at it a bit more with some of the ‘tippy tappy’ teams, as if we’re offended by their preposterous affectations.
Number 3 – we want our players to play well, but not so well that they’ll be targets of other clubs and we won’t be able to hang onto them. We’ve always tolerated the idea that our best will inevitably want to play at ‘bigger’ clubs.
So those are my measures – did our overall performance represent a sustainable upward trend, did we surprise the flashier teams, and do our best players regard us now as a better place to continue their careers? How did we do against these?
Starting with the numbers – taking three points for a win, the only other time Palace got more points (69) was in 1990-91 when the team came third. Since getting promoted in 2013, the team has always got more than 40 points, but never 49 like this season, 48 being the closest in 2014-2015, 44 was the points total last season.
To me the season has felt more like a typical one – prolonged and uncomfortable flirtation with the relegation zone and then a late flurry that has you wonder why you worried in the first place. It doesn’t feel that the team has yet ‘stepped up’ in the way that say Wolves have done, to become regarded as a real Premier League presence. I suspect that my support for the club has conditioned me, and many others, to low expectations. The obvious advantage of such a disposition is that you’re seldom truly disappointed. With the exception of the Brighton defeats, I’d say that was true this season too. We did okay. We had a slightly better season. No need to get carried away.
On the second one, the Manchester City win was their only home loss, and almost cost them the title. We scored three against Liverpool (they scored four – you see what I mean?) We beat Arsenal. All these teams were definitely unsettled by the determination in defence and willingness to continue to march towards the sound of gunfire. As the team’s confidence grew later in the season you could see the possibility of a strong, fast counter-attacking team emerging. However, let’s be honest, these were flashes of brilliance – not a real shift in the playing style of the team.
This brings me to the final part – are Palace creating a team and culture that has our best want to stay? I think the answer to this at this point, regrettably, is an emphatic ‘no’. Wilfried Zaha looks like he’s on his way, and we might get another season out of Aaron Wan-Bissaka – the two stand out players this year. We’ve been lucky that Andros Townsend’s career plateaued elsewhere before he came to Selhurst Park – he knows he’s onto a good thing here, but he’s at the end of his career, playing at the limits of his potential.
It’s interesting to listen to the manager to see the extent to which he advocates the ambition and ‘culture’ of the club. In many ways Roy Hodgson is the perfect Palace manager, in that he is the embodiment of the somewhat limited expectations that I have characterised above. When I hear Roy being interviewed, he has the persona of a Regional Sales Manager that has taken a few of the new sales trainees under his wing to show them the ropes, and pass on his considerable knowledge of suction technology before he finally retires. He’s respectable, a bit verbose, a safe pair of hands. He’s not an egocentric like Pardew, or a cold assassin, like de Boer. He doesn’t have the gittishness of Allardyce or Warnock. He’s the guy you nod to in the pub, without remembering his name. He’s ‘saved’ the club again, just like its been ‘saved’ by others at various points in the past. I don’t think he’s built a platform for sustainable improvement.
So, my overall assessment is that Palace have more or less matched my rather meagre expectations. I’ll continue to love them for this. It will be interesting to see the extent to which there is an appetite for ‘making the next step’ in creating a top half team. Money will be available if Wilf goes, but I think the biggest challenge to be faced first is the succession plan for the manager. This would be a bold step – he’s a likeable guy and he’s held it together, but that’s the heart of the problem – we need someone with way bigger expectations than mine.