Palace fans were more than simply elated last night, as they saw their team take three points off the champions, Manchester City, with their 2-1 Premier League win at Selhurst Park. They were relieved as well, as their side is now all-but-guaranteed a third season of top-flight football.
It has been a breathless nine months, with a season apparently doomed to disaster after the departure of one manager before a ball had been kicked in anger, and the appointment of a replacement who did nothing to inspire the fans, never mind the players. A glance up north, to the club’s Wigan peers, suggests that maybe an even greater disaster was averted in the near-miss which was Malky Mackay’s eventual non-appointment.
But new year, new manager, and in 2015 things have been transformed, and history has been made in securing Palace’s longest stay in the top tier of English football in more than 20 years.
For Palace, with potential new owners and investors prowling around the club, that transformation has been worth at least £70 million income this year, and a golden ticket to be part of the £5 billion television deal which the Premier League has recently signed.
The club’s annual results, published last week, show the value of continued Premier League survival, with a club which has twice been perilously close to going under now able to report a pre-tax profit (for the year to June 2014 – which includes the club’s first season back in the top flight of English football) of nearly £23 million. That dwarfs the £3.5 million of the previous, promotion-winning season.
The alternative does not bear thinking about, if the Icarus-like plunge down the divisions of Wigan and Blackpool are anything to go by.
Yet just a couple of months ago, relegation looked a real possibility for Palace. After defeat on Boxing Day, Neil Warnock was shown the door at the end of his second spell as Palace manager in which the team managed just a single win in 12 league games, a wretched run which stretched back to September. Alan Pardew was formally appointed on January 2 and has presided over a transformation at the club not seen since… well, since Tony Pulis took over from Ian Holloway barely a year before.
When Pardew took over, Palace were one place above the drop zone and had just 18 points. Since then, 21 points and vital wins over relegation candidates Burnley, Leicester and QPR later, the Eagles have soared to 11th place in the Premier League table, the sort of heights that usually result in nose bleeds for Palace fans.
It is the stuff of fairy tales, and the success has been built in significant part on another fairy-tale story, of a player who was key to the side’s play-off promotion season two years ago but who couldn’t get a game for the club under Warnock.
Last night, Glenn Murray was named as man of the match for his all-round performance against the Man City multi-millionaires. Admittedly, this included an offside opening goal and a goal-saving hand-ball on the line which was not spotted by the match officials. But it was the type of gutsy and tough performance which has always endeared players to their fans. It had Five-Year Plan, the Palace fanzine, hailing Murray as a contender for TIME Magazine Man of the Year.
Over the top? Probably, but after his fifth goal in five Premier League games, Murray boasts the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any striker in the top flight – better than £32million Diego Costa, better than £13million signing Olivier Giroud and better, even, than £100million transfer target Harry Kane. Not bad for someone who was picked up on a free from, of all places, Brighton.
Murray is making a habit of mixing it with the big boys when it comes to scoring statistics. In 2012-2013, Murray’s goals in the Championship saw him listed between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the scoring charts for the top two divisions across Europe’s five leading leagues. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamel Falcao didn’t even get a look-in then.
Murray’s is a rags-to-almost-riches story which would normally be described as being unbelievable if it was a work of fiction. Having just signed a contract extension until 2017, Murray, who’ll be 32 next birthday, looks set to finish his career at Selhurst Park, even if he did start the season, unwanted by Warnock, out on loan at Reading.
At least, come August and fitness permitting, after a journeyman career that had seen him play for Carlisle, Stockport and Rochdale, as well as a spell in America, Murray will get the chance to start a season with a Premier League side.
The knee injury he suffered in the play-off semi-final against Brighton in 2013 very nearly ended his career. Carried off on a stretcher, a wrecked cruciate ligament was in plaster and Murray was on crutches when he got to watch his team mates play, and win, the play-off final at Wembley. He was unable to play first-team football again for 10 months.
In Murray’s absence, and late to the summer transfer market, the then Palace boss Holloway rushed to recruit a handful of alternative striking options, all signed on a shoestring budget. Warnock’s arrival last September very nearly saw Murray leave the club altogether, surplus to requirements. After all, in a team that plays one up front, where in the pecking order would Murray fit with the likes of Dwight Gayle, Fraizer Campbell, Marouane Chamakh, Yaya Sanogo or Shola Ameobi?
Trouble was, Pulis, Warnock and even Pardew were not so much spoilt for choice, but just bewildered by too many players who too often offered too much of the same thing. Given his chance, Murray’s marked himself out as something different.
Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha, Palace’s more extravagantly skilled attacking players, won’t be alone in being grateful for Murray’s return to the side, both having benefited from the pivotal striker’s selfless presence, just as they did in their promotion season.
Murray’s game, honed through years of taking the knocks and the kicks of second- and third-tier centre backs, is that of a throw-back centre forward, based on cunning and movement. Comparisons with the style of play of Rickie Lambert are easy to make and well-observed. And Lambert even got an England call-up.
As the Guardian reported this morning, against City’s slickers last night, Murray “…drove Martín Demichelis and Vincent Kompany – a seasoned pair who boast a combined three Premier League titles, four Bundesligas, an FA Cup, four German Cups, three German League cups, two English League Cups and two Belgian league titles – to distraction, positioning his body cleverly to earn a flurry of free-kicks and relieve some of the pressure”.
Battered and bruised after his lonely mission, Murray said, “I suppose it is one of the my best nights here.
“But it’s a good night for the club. Ever since the gaffer’s come in he’s been uplifting results and the boys have reacted to that. We’re a happy group. I’ve had to work hard to get back into this position, and I’m enjoying things at the moment.”
Murray has clearly won over Pardew. “He’s had a terrible time with injuries and should have been in the Premier League years ago, but he has forged himself a great reputation in the game. I’m so pleased for him,” the Palace manager said last night.
“His was the performance of a No9 in the modern game. He won us free-kicks, won virtually every header, got a goal again. We knew we’d need him to buy us fouls, work hard for us, and that was exceptional.
“He deserved this a lot earlier in his career, but now he’s getting the reward for the quality he has.”
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