Crystal Palace go into the new Premier League season, with their first match at Arsenal tomorrow, without a manager. As disasters go, this is right down there.
Tony Pulis, the manager of the year after dragging Palace out of what seemed certain relegation when he took over last November, has walked away from the club over irreconcilable differences over transfer policy.
The club announced that the decision had been “by mutual consent”, but by the end, as was noted by one national newspaper, it was more a case of “by mutual contempt”.
Pulis had sought a budget of around £30million to re-shape the playing squad to cement Palace’s Premier League status; since May, he’d been able to spend about £2.3 million.
On social media, Steve Parish, the club’s hands-on executive co-chairman, was quickly condemned for allowing Pulis to slip away following a three-hour meeting at a West End hotel which reached a conclusion that for Palace fans was the worst imaginable. Parish, and even his daughter, were subject to widespread abuse, with many fans threatening to burn their season tickets over the club’s failure to keep Pulis at Selhurst Park.
The end came quickly. In the past week, Parish had spoken encouragingly of how martinet manager Pulis had supervised the squad’s toughest ever pre-season training to ensure the players were as fit as possible for the coming challenge, and that they were still working on pursuing a couple more transfer targets. The manager had worked as a pundit at Wembley on Sunday at the Charity Shield and given media colleagues not the slightest hint that he might be about to leave Palace. Even yesterday afternoon, Pulis was supervising training ahead of tomorrow’s match.
Having seen Ian Holloway, the manager who got them up, leave, Palace have now lost the man who kept them up. For the daunting challenge of taking on Arsenal at the Emirates, coaching stalwart Keith Millen will be in charge. Malky Mackay, who was acclaimed for what he did to turn Cardiff, albeit briefly, into a Premier League side, is reckoned to be the obvious replacement for Pulis.
But Pulis’s departure points up a more worrying, deep-seated problem at Palace, which stems from the club’s troubled financial history.
It is, after all, less than five years since the club went into receivership (for a second time). Parish and three businessmen fans saved the club in 2010, and were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But last night, among the insults hurled in his direction, Parish was being compared to Simon Jordan, the former owner who was seen by fans as having run the club in the interests of his ego, rather than the Eagles.
Now, disagreements between the manager and the executive chairman, stretching back to the turn of the year, appear to have soured any working relationship: Pulis, the old-school hands-on manager with a reputation for nutting troublesome players who did not toe the line, believed he deserved greater autonomy over playing matters. Parish is unlikely ever to cede control of the club’s very tight purse strings.
An interview with Parish in the South London Press three months ago summed up the differences. For a traditional, old-style football “gaffer” such as Pulis, who expected last season’s achievements to give him more control, his exec chairman was a self-confessed “pain in the arse”.
Then, Parish said, “Tony has got an unblemished record in the Premier League and that is very, very important to him. He took a big chance coming to Crystal Palace on a verbal promise that I and the club would support him financially…
“I’m a bit different to the way other people work. It’s quite unusual to have an executive chairman of a club who is an owner… I’d like to think I’m straight with people. I said we’d do this and we do it. But I like my money to go as far as possible. I never run away from anything. If I make a bad decision then I make a bad decision. And when I make a good one then I don’t get carried away…
“There is a perception that just because you spend you get better value because you’re paying more… Often it does work that way – that you do have to pay… I’m planning all the time. I’ve got a great manager to help me do that. He can teach me a lot. There are a few things you get from business that are good – that let you see another way around.
“I don’t want to pick players. I want the right answer for our football club. The manager has built a fantastic credibility with the fans, and with me as well.
“I’m a pain in the arse sometimes. I know I am – because I want to make the right decisions – not just go ‘alright’ because I don’t understand it. I need to understand why it is right to spend that money there, then I do it.
“It’s easy to spend money – you can do it really easily. But if you want to get value for money it’s a lot harder.”
IF ANYTHING, when Holloway inspired his bargain-basement squad to win promotion to the Premier League through the play-offs in May 2013, it came too soon for Parish and his colleagues. Financially, they were not ready.
Most of the £15 million promised from Wilf Zaha’s sale to Manchester United was given to Holloway for transfers last summer, and frankly was ill-used. Much of Pulis’s transfer business this June was focused on unloading unwanted players, finding takers for those who did not figure in his own plans. The club was not making any multi-million-pound profits from sales to other Premier League clubs: tellingly, almost without exception, those who have left Selhurst Park this summer have gone to clubs in lower leagues, or out on loan.
Palace have the smallest wage budget of any club in the Premier League, capped at £40,000 per week.
It is the inability to offer players, and their money-grubbing agents, the sort of pay packages they expect which has seen moves to sign the likes of Michu, Steven Caulker and Gylfi Sigurdsson break down, as much as the cost of the headline transfer fees.
Any deal to secure the loan return of Zaha to Selhurst Park may now be a litmus test of the club’s future direction.
Such a deal would be sure to appease some sections of Palace fans, but would cost the thick-end of £1.5 million a year in the player’s wages, the salary that the England winger has been receiving for his year spent on the bench for Manchester United. In the past week, Parish had said that any decision to re-sign Zaha would be the manager’s.
Even under Pulis, the 2014-2015 season was going to be a “challenge” for Palace, although they might well have taken comfort from being joined at the top table by three palpably weaker teams promoted from the Championship, by West Ham’s continuing lacklustre form, and by the panicked fire-sale of quality players at relegation favourites Southampton.
Yet the club has now wasted its last two summer transfer windows, opportunities to quietly build a squad capable of maintaining the mid-table respectability which Pulis engineered after taking over a side which had won just a single league game in four months. Continuity? No chance.
As first days in a new job go, Martin Kelly may have had better. He joined from Liverpool yesterday, with question marks still over his long-term fitness after what many believed to be career-ending injuries. Undoubtedly, this was factored into the transfer fee paid; Brendan Rodgers is not known for letting promising young players out of his grasp if they have much of a future.
Kelly was Palace’s fourth signing of the summer, joining Fraizer Campbell’s £900,000 move from Cardiff and the free transfers of Brede Hangeland and Chris Kettings. In total, Pulis spent less than £2.5 million on summer transfers, hardly a spending spree even by League One standards. Pulis may now follow-up the interest of the owners of Cardiff to take over there, though if he wanted a club where the directors don’t interfere with the manager’s job, he may need to look elsewhere.
One thing that is known for certain is that what was a much-anticipated new season for Palace fans will begin tomorrow with many Eagles supporters once again fearing the worst.
- Zaha pleads for a return to Palace to help revive his career
- Campbell soups up attack as Pulis seeks more signings
Coming to Croydon
- Mind-Loosing Workshop, Aug 16
- David Lean Cinema: The Love Punch, Aug 16
- Cinema Ruskin film show, Aug 16
- RAF Kenley Battle of Britain fly-past, Aug 17
- Mythical Maze stories, Crystal Palace Maze, Aug 20
- David Lean Cinema: Stop The Pounding Heart, Aug 21
- Mythical Maze stories, Crystal Palace Maze, Aug 27
- David Lean Cinema: Frank, Aug 28
- Upper Norwood Library well-being groups, Aug 30
- Warlingham rugby dinner with international Richard Hill, Sep 12
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Cinema Ruskin film show, Sep 20
- Streatham Common 6M race, Sep 27
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Cinema Ruskin film show, Oct 18
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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