I have to preface this article by saying I am basing this article on zero inside information and it is not based on careful journalistic research. I am not a professional journalist (risk of stating the obvious there) and even if I was, I am not sure how much information I could get about the Palace recruitment team’s methods and processes. I would imagine Dougie Freedman would not be too eager to share this information publicly with potential competitors.
So, what is my point?
Having recently watched the Premier League Productions video with Eberechi Eze and listened to the BBC Radio London interview with Tyrick Mitchell, I came away hugely impressed by the character of both of them. Given how young they both are they came across as grounded, honest and genuinely decent people. They are also clearly hardworking, ambitious and determined young men, otherwise they would not be regularly playing in the Premier League, but in each, in their different ways, made me very proud that they are wearing the red and blue of Crystal Palace.
I then started thinking about our recent recruitment since Dougie has come in as Sporting Director, and even back to his days as our manager. Clearly there are exceptions but many of Dougie’s recruits have had a character that is both steely but also human and relatable as people at the same time. When I think of Yala, Damo, KG, Muzza, Jedi, Rambo and Wardy from Dougie’s days as manager, they all had it. Each of them had the hunger and desire to make it to the top of their profession but at the same time each had characters that seem to separate them from your average footballer. Whether it was Yala’s smile, Damo’s tears at the playoff final or Jedi’s silent authority, they all had that special “something” about them.
When I think of our more recent recruitment: Eze, Guehi, Gallagher, Andersen and even going back to Kouyate and Guaita, each have that same mixture of decency and determination. Of course not every Dougie recruit has succeeded; remember Darcy Blake or more recently Alexander Sorloth? I have no doubt, however, that when given free reign (i.e. when not almost totally hamstrung by financial constraints) Dougie does seem to be picking mainly winners both physically and mentally. Edouard, Ferguson and Olise may well be made from this same mould but we have not yet seen enough of them to really form a view.
The big question is whether Palace’s methods here are really any different than any other club. Certainly the noise from the club over the transfer window was that the recruitment had been methodical and potential new players had been monitored for many months (or years in some cases) and that the character of the player had been a critical component of the analysis as well as the usual physical, technical and statistical analysis. Of course, we have no idea whether this is just club PR noise for the fan base, or whether Palace’s approach is any different than any other professional football club.
Of course, there are also players who have come from the Academy at a time when Dougie has had some connection with the club, whether as manager or Sporting Director. The names that spring to mind are Wilfried Zaha (of course), Jonny Williams, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and much more recently Tyrick Mitchell. The influence that Dougie may have had in the recruitment is much harder to see here and the personality and character of an eight year old (for example) is much harder to discern. The recruitment of Tyrick Mitchell may be a good example as he came to Palace as a teenager when the Brentford academy closed and according to the club video on Mitchell released in the summer of 2020, he was pursued and signed quickly presumably having identified those special “Palace” characteristics.
What is clear to me is that in the days when Palace were living more hand to mouth the ability to spot down on their luck talent like Damien Delaney and Yannick Bolasie was not the product of sophisticated data driven teams of analysts. It was the product, at least in part, of gut instinct of what it takes to be a successful Palace player. Dougie Freedman was one of those players and I like to think that he has assimilated those characteristics into the Palace recruitment strategy.
Of course there is a risk that I am viewing our recent recruitment through red and blue tinted spectacles and every club can point to players being recruited with these grounded characteristics. I have no doubt that this is the case but I am not so sure that the percentage of new recruits to other clubs with these characteristics is so high. In addition, I may be overplaying the role that Dougie has personally played in setting the criteria for assessing potential new recruits in terms of their character and carrying out those assessments.
In any event, if Palace’s strategy includes making sure that any new signing has the talent and the humility to make a Palace supporter proud of their performance both on and off the pitch, then Dougie and the whole management team have laid the groundwork for what could become a special squad of young footballers.