GOLDIE, our tame Eagle, has paused for breath after the weekend and had time to reflect on what to draw from the safe roost of mid-table at the end of the nail-biting 2016-2017 season
In the end, it all looks quite comfortable. With one game to come at Old Trafford, we’re on 41 points and well clear of the drop zone in a lofty – ha! – 13th place in the Premier League. Why, if other results go our way, and with a win over Manchester United, Palace could even end the season in 11th.
Oh, how good we looked as we brushed aside the demoralised and doomed Hull City in Sunday’s £100million relegation decider.
Oh, how we celebrated with Sam Allardyce as his proud record of never presiding over a team’s relegation from the Premier League was preserved.
The reality, of course, is that it was all too bloody close for comfort. Again.
Once the sense of relief subsides, Allardyce and his staff, together with chairman Steve Parish and the board, have to take a cold hard look at where Palace’s Premier League future might lie.
Here’s a few lessons we ought to learn:
1, We can’t go through all that again
It was all too close for comfort. But what fans and the board alike should be most concerned about is the gradual deterioration of Palace’s Premier League position in the four seasons since the club scraped back into the big time, unexpectedly, via the play-offs.
That first season back, 2013-2014, Palace finished 11th on 45pts.
Then, 2014-2015 Palace finished 10th on 48pts. Signs of slight improvement.
But the warning signs were there in 2015-2016, which finished 15th on 42pts.
Come Sunday afternoon, it’s possible Palace will end this season 14th and still on 41pts. The trend is of slow, steady decline.
But for those exhilarating wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, and Palace could have gone down, and be £100million worse off as a result.
In the season Palace got promoted, among the three clubs which lost their Premier League status were Wigan. Look where they are now. So something must be done. Just what exactly? And what do the owners actually want for the club?
2, Fortress Selhurst
Despite what is widely regarded and respected as some of the best home support in the country, Palace’s record at Selhurst Park since the return to the Premier League has been pretty feeble, never winning more than eight of the 19 home league games in the last four seasons.
That has got to change. Palace need to be far harder to beat at home.
Thing is, Sam Allardyce is probably the hard-nosed, methodical manager who can help to achieve that. Though the Holmesdale faithful had better be prepared for a few more 0-0s…
3, Now about those two years on your contract, Sam…
Only once in Palace’s most recent four seasons in the Premier League has the side been managed by the same person all the way from August to May. Rarely has the club even had stability in the manager’s office throughout the summer transfer window – remember the nightmare that was Ian Holloway’s panic buying in 2013? Or the day that Tony Pulis stomped out, never to return?
When, at 62, Allardyce was offered a career lifeline last December, Parish and the board gave him a two-and-a-half-year contract. Baring any complete fuck-ups with undercover secret recordings or arrangements with agents, or a truly diabolical start to next season, the club needs to stick with Sam and look to him to shore up the club’s position.
But there needs to be a succession plan, too, with a bright, younger manager primed to come in and take over in a year or so’s time.
Mauricio Pochettino might not be available, and Paul Clement probably won’t be lured away from south Wales, but someone of the calibre of Hull’s unfortunate Marco Silva needs to be attracted to south London and given the confidence and resources to stick around for a while, just as – dare we say it – the club did with Malcolm Allison and then Terry Venables in the 1970s.
It might even be worth taking a close look at the people running Southampton’s youth and development teams, because somehow, despite a churn of managers in the past three seasons, they have been producing a succession of home-grown stars and results which have bolstered their bank balance and encouraged their fans.
4, 30 million quid? You’re having a laff
Those endearing Scousers are at it again, slapping a £30million price tag on a player that Jurgen Klopp barely noticed at Anfield last year. What larks!
There’s no doubt that Mamadou Sakho was among the signings of the season, Allardyce recognising that he needed to plug a leaky defence. What he got was a world-class defender who would improve most of the sides in the Premier League.
Sakho’s exactly the sort of player around whom Big Sam can build a more resilient team, and so let’s hope the board is already having talks with Liverpool’s money-driven owners about a more realistic valuation for a player they clearly did not value at all.
Consider it an investment, guys: £20million this summer, for another two seasons of £100million TV payments from the Premier League.
5, The Premier League is, really, three divisions
It’s nothing new, perhaps, but this season has demonstrated more starkly the divisions within the division.
Fortunately, Palace have finally dragged themselves into the mid-table group. It’s abundantly apparent that the top six, or seven (somehow, Everton are hanging on in there), are the big-money clubs, bank-rolled by Russians, Arabs or Americans.
For the bottom four, life is grim, and for three of them, about to get a lot grimmer.
But it doesn’t take a Stephen Hawking to spot that from eighth-placed West Brom to 16th-placed Watford, nine clubs are covered by just five points.
That makes for a remarkably competitive division, but also points to where Palace should be looking to be getting more of their points next term, instead of suffering embarrassing 4-0 home defeats to the bottom-placed club.
So the club’s owners need to decide whether consolidating Palace in among that mid-table division is enough, or whether they need to equip the coaching staff with the resource to have a dash at a couple of cup runs. The league title might be out of reach – unless Palace “do a Leicester”, somehow – but a day out at Wembley would be remembered by fans for decades to come.
6, Cherish what we have got
Wilf Zaha has been the player of the season by a country mile. There has been a growing maturity about his performances in the second half of this season, with more of that “end product” that the pundits on the telly like to talk about.
For Palace’s future, Allardyce and Parish have got to keep hold of him.
And Andros Townsend, for that matter.
Chelsea’s move to three at the back, copied more recently by Arsenal, is going to make 3-4-3 the fashion formation of the next season or so, even if Big Sam has already shown that he knows how to undo that line-up.
Such a tactical fashion is sure to put an added premium on pacy wide men who can play as wing-backs, as that Palace academy product, Victor Moses, has shown this season. Palace’s board has to resist the waft of readies and cherish the club’s better performers – as they did in January when Newcastle came sniffing around Townsend.
By the same token, we should not take for granted the influence and value brought to the team by Yohan Cabaye. He has continued to work hard for the team, and provide that intelligence, vision and composure which other players in the side, including Zaha, need to allow them to thrive. He would be a lot harder to replace than many might think, and at 31 is reported to be considering a return to France. Another season from him could be a real help, while Jack Wilshire might usefully be offered a new, permanent home.
7, The squad needs more depth
See 4, 5 and 6 above. There is a theme here.
Sure, there was a glorious finish to the season on Sunday, but it was on a knife-edge and Palace got through it because Allardyce was reliant on patching up a number of injured players and sending them out less than fully fit. The treatment room at Beckenham in midweek saw almost as many casualties as The Alamo.
Cabaye was given a job to do that reduced the amount of ground he was expected to cover. James Tomkins had not trained for a week and was only able to play after an injection. Like Cabaye, Tomkins wasn’t expected to last an hour. That both did so is a credit to their commitment to the cause, and the work of the backroom staff.
But Allardyce will need more options for next season. He’s already said so himself.
“The next level of the recruitment is critical to the team being more consistent and achieving more in the Premier League rather than a fight against relegation,” Allardyce said on Sunday.
“Building for the future is the more enjoyable part. I wouldn’t want to keep fighting relegation at the end of every season.
“It’s about building for the future and trying to make sure you’re not in that position again.” Too right.
8, More is needed from Christian Benteke
Harsh, perhaps, on a striker who’s just scored 15 league goals in the season to help keep the club up.
But take a look at where and when those goals came.
From August to the end of December, Benteke scored eight times in 16 appearances. That’s a class return.
There followed a sequence of 13 league games in the dog-fight in the middle of the season when he scored just the once.
Did he go Missing In Action?
Tight games, like the draw against Watford (Allardyce’s first in charge), or the home defeats to Swansea and Everton, are where you expect your senior players to step up and make a difference.
That’s what will be expected of Benteke in his second season with the club.
9, If Defoe’s the answer, then someone’s asking the wrong question
Jermain Defoe is available on a free transfer this summer and he and Allardyce have had a good working relationship in the past. Palace are tipped to sign him.
Defoe is much-liked and respected in the game, as was shown when he got his recall to the England squad recently.
But at 34, is the club signing Defoe because of the striker’s potential long-term impact at the club, or just because he’s (relatively) cheap?
10, History has been made. History still to be made
Next season will be the Eagles’ fifth consecutive Premier League campaign, their longest run in the top flight in the club’s 112-year history.
Sunday also offers an opportunity for a little more history, and a little more money, too: Manchester United are the only club who Palace have not managed to beat since the return to the top tier. With about £1.9million per place in prize money up for grabs, three points on Sunday might provide a nice little deposit on that Sakho transfer fee.
Now that would be nice, but better still, imagine the bragging rights over United fans for the whole of the summer.
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