So Ian Holloway has paid the price of success.
The Crystal Palace manager tonight left “by mutual consent”, which for once was not intended euphemistically when it was announced by the club’s co-chairman, Steve Parish at a hurriedly called press conference this evening at the Soho House Hotel in the West End. “It really is as honest, and as noble and as decent as that,” Parish said.
Holloway had lasted less than a year in charge at Selhurst Park. Now, he will assist Parish in selecting a successor, saying that he believed that “a change of approach” at this stage might help the club stay up. So Holloway clearly has not lost his old optimistic streak.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of working with Ian,” Parish said. “He brought us one of the best days in our history. He leaves our club with his head held very high.
“I think he’s a remarkable man, somebody that has come forward and done something that most people wouldn’t do and just said, ‘Look, we need to talk about the situation. I don’t think it’s working at the moment. I don’t like what I’m seeing. I think you might be better off with somebody who can play a style of football that the players might respond to better’,” Parish said.
“I think it’s an incredibly brave person who comes and says that. Most people would just carry on taking the money, frankly. We’ve never fallen out, we’ve worked together brilliantly. But we feel we need to move on. I think we both realised we need someone with more experience at this level.”
That this day has come was utterly predictable. Holloway’s fate was sealed not when his side collapsed to the 4-1 home defeat against Fulham on Monday, but when he managed to drag them over the line and into the play-offs and to that Wembley game back in May.
For all the nonsense spouted by some of the fans with trypewriters about the play-off final being “the richest game in football”, the reality is that the riches it endows are much diluted, slowly paid-out over a period of years, and they still leave the recipients in a different financial league to the Manchester Uniteds, Man Citys and Arsenals. Even the Fulhams. Palace’s financial frailties are all too obvious: it is not yet four years since the club was in administration.
Holloway’s squad, even by Championship standards, was thin, which accounted for the tired state in which they entered the final two months of the regular season, winning just twice in their last 10 games. Palace ended the season fifth in the division, five points adrift of third-placed Watford, who they would beat at Wembley.
Once into the play-offs, adrenalin, inspiration – whether from the manager or from playing two key matches against arch rivals Brighton – somehow carried them across the finish line. The players could barely believe it and Holloway, who had seen it all before, probably did not really want it. Well, not just yet anyway.
The consensus was that promotion was a surprise, even to the most devoted of Eagles fans in the directors’ box, and had come perhaps a year, maybe two, too soon for the club, its current squad of players, and its bank account. Only a small portion of the cash from the play-off success and the sale of the side’s outstanding talent, Wilfried Zaha, was no where near being made available for use in the manager’s playing squad budget.
By being in the play-offs, Holloway’s planning for the new season and recruitment began almost a full month after the likes of Cardiff and Hull, the two sides automatically promoted from the Championship. It showed in a recruitment policy which appeared increasingly desperate, and Holloway was undoubtedly ill-served by the club’s lack of a chief scout.
Take Holloway’s strike force for the new Premier League season: it includes a 22-year-old who a year ago was playing for Bishops Stortford, and Kevin Phillips, a “great servant”, as footballspeak might have it, but a forward who is at least 12 years past his best.
It spoke volumes about the sort of salary and terms Holloway had to offer potential players needed to replace Zaha – which he failed to do – or to strengthen the team elsewhere, that when Palace made an approach for Carlton Cole, a somewhat workmanlike but proven Premier League striker who was effectively out of a job, the player preferred to bide his time and wait for a better offer than sign for his home town team.
Struggling to attract Premier-standard pros, Holloway found himself “just buying any player who happens to drive past the stadium”, as one national paper put it somewhat unkindly. After 123 phone calls to his co-chairman on transfer deadline day, in total, 15 players (including Phillips, who was re-signed) joined the club, eight of them on frees.
“We changed too much too quickly,” Holloway conceded tonight. “We didn’t keep the spirit that got us promoted.”
It had been apparent, even in pre-season, that there were glaring holes in the squad, not least the back four, which at times in the Premier League had resembled a polo mint: nothing in the middle.
Conceding 17 goals in the first eight Premier League games highlights those shortcomings. By Monday, after a precious one-goal lead had been transformed into defeat after a couple of wondergoals from a Fulham side which had itself been struggling for good form, and Holloway’s time was up. “What I say at half-time normally has an effect on people,” Holloway said today. “On Monday, it didn’t.”
A 30-minute meeting with Parish immediately after that game suggested that the coup de grace might come sooner than it did. As Parish indicated, it was Holloway’s suggestion that he should leave. “We never had any intention other than maintaining the continuity at the club,” Parish said.
As one experienced Palace watcher said after Holloway eventually faced the press on Monday, he “looked broken post-Fulham. All the enthusiasm and normal vigour crushed out of him”.
Holloway said as much today. “I’ve lost the spirit of that group. I owe it to the players to admit that.” He also referred to his personal weariness, and his annoyance with the attitudes of some of the younger players in the squad.
Holloway spoke of his “pride in the job and what we’ve achieved”. Holloway also said, “If I hadn’t been headhunted, I wouldn’t be here.”
Now, it seems it is Holloway who must do the headhunting, with his replacement having little more than a month to get to know his squad before the last real chance to make significant changes – the January transfer window, although it will be just as important then for any new head coach to unload some of the players who are surplus to requirements or simply not up to the demands of Premier League football.
Neither Gus Poyet – who would have been hugely unpopular given his Brighton background – nor Nigel Clough, who have both taken on new jobs in the past fortnight, would have fitted Parish’s requirement for a manager with Premier League experience.
There has been some talk – as there always seems to be when the manager’s office is vacated at Selhurst Park – of another return for Steve Coppell, for what would be a fifth spell at the helm. Certainly, Coppell’s experience when he was at Reading is the sort of CV Parish will admire.
The very available Tony Pulis was installed as the bookies’ favourite. He would certainly fit the bill as far as “tightening things up” is concerned. But hands up anyone who has enjoyed watching a Stoke game in the past three years…
Roberto di Matteo, the man who helped Chelsea win the European Cup and then was unceremoniously dumped within months, is another name that has been mentioned, although whether the former Italy international will see south London as an ideal next job after being out of work for 12 months is debatable.
Ideally, Holloway and Parish might find a young managerial talent such as Mauricio Pochettino, who has transformed Southampton’s fortunes since taking charge in January, both in terms of getting the best from his existing squad and also being adept at making bargain signings of Premier League quality from Europe and elsewhere.
Either that, or a miracle-worker with the superhuman powers of a Clark Kent, the intellect of Stephen Hawking and the oratory skills of a Martin Luther King. And the decency of an Ian Holloway.
Coming to Croydon
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- Future Tech City: Nov 30
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