London – On 18 September 2016, Crystal Palace swept aside a poor Stoke City team 4-1 in the middle of a three-match winning run and seemed to have put their faltering start to the season behind them.
By the end of September they were comfortably nestled in the top half of the table and looked to have recaptured the form that had put them in touching distance of a Champions League place the previous Christmas. The confidence was returning and fans were looking forward to the team progressing in their fourth consecutive season in the Premier League. There was even talk about Alan Pardew becoming the new England manager after Sam Allardyce’s unexpected and abrupt departure (little did we know how the irony of that speculation would play out just a few months later).
Those three league wins in a row in September have proven a false dawn. In the subsequent 20 league matches, Palace have won three matches, drawn three and lost 14, picking up 12 points from a potential 60. They are now 18th, level on points with bottom club Sunderland. How did it come to this?
The downturn in results began last season, while Palace were distracted by an FA Cup run that ended in the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United in the final. The fact that Palace won twice as many games against Premier League opponents (Stoke, Southampton, Tottenham and Watford) in the FA Cup than they did in the 21 league matches between mid-December and May (Norwich and Stoke) shows where their attention lay. The previous two losing FA Cup finalists, Hull City and Aston Villa, were both relegated in the seasons following their finals and that pattern could well be extended this season.
Having lost momentum in the league, there was a worrying slide down the table and Premier League status was only secured in the penultimate game. Their form has not picked up this season, with just six wins from 26 matches so far. The confidence has drained out of the players and there seems to be little anyone can do to turn things round. Relegation has become a probability rather than the remote possibility it was just a few months ago.
Some, perhaps mischievously, have made a connection between the arrival of American investors, Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, with their £50m funding in December 2015 and the start of the decline in form. While this may just be a very unhappy coincidence, there is a feeling that the club has lost much of the spirit and identity that was so integral as they established themselves as a Premier League club over the last few years. There has been a certain amount of razzmatazz added to matchdays, such as the flashing lighting, which feels more akin to the Super Bowl than SE25 and is alien to the club’s culture.
The move towards becoming more of a global entity has eroded the essentially gritty heart of the club. The motto of “South London and Proud” was chosen to emphasize the importance of the strong connections with the local community but this has been diminished as attention has been focused on attracting an overseas audience, with a particular focus on the American market.
That sense of unity has disappeared and we have now reached the point where fans are arguing among themselves and even confronting players. What was once a harmonious union between fans and players has become fractious and divisive and this is clearly undermining the team.
Since Palace earned promotion to the Premier League in 2013 the atmosphere at Selhurst Park has rightly been regarded as among the most raucous of any top-flight club but what was once viewed as an intimidating ground for visiting teams has become a haven of easy pickings.
There is now a sense of trepidation that hangs in the air during games and the faith in what the team were doing has been swept away. Palace’s home form has been woeful over the last three seasons. In both 2014-15 and 2015-16 they won just six of their 19 home matches, winning just 21 points at home in both campaigns. So far this season they have won seven points from 12 home matches, the lowest in the league by some margin.
Pardew arrived as a returning hero back in December 2014. A former player who had scored the famous goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final in 1990, he succeeded in lifting the club from the relegation places to the safety of mid-table by the end of the 2014-15 season. By the time he left in December 2016 his reputation had been tarnished as the team drastically under-performed over the previous year. There was no lack of finance in trying to address this alarming slump but despite substantial investment in the playing squad adding established internationals such as Christian Benteke and Steve Mandanda before the start of the season, the rot had well and truly set in. Added to which the majority of the players who had performed so admirably over the previous few years lost form and their self-belief drained away.
Pardew’s attempts to instill an attacking philosophy led to a defensive frailty that kept surfacing at the worst moments. The 5-4 loss to Swansea in November, when the team were leading going into added time, was as hapless as it was avoidable. The propensity to concede crucial late goals has been a running sore throughout the season and that game marked the absolute nadir. Pardew had reached the point of no return for most fans but Palace chairman Steve Parish remained loyal to him for a little while longer. Pardew eventually paid the price a few weeks later and was replaced by Sam Allardyce just before Christmas.
Allardyce arrived with that well-worn label of “never being relegated from the Premier League” but in truth he has only rescued a few teams from impending relegation: Sunderland last year, Blackburn in 2008-09 and Bolton in their first couple of years in the division. In almost 20 years of Premier League management, the majority of his clubs have been comfortably mid-table and not under imminent threat of going down.
His reputation as the Red Adair of the Premier League is based on a few rescues rather than a long history. Added to which, he was badly burned by his brief encounter with England and looks as though he has not really recovered from losing his dream job after only 67 days. It also feels as if he is not a natural fit for the club and lacks an affinity with the fans. So having had a manager who was perhaps too much of a club insider and was allowed too much leeway as a result, Palace have gone to the other extreme.
The so-called “new-manager bounce” that most teams seem to harness has not materialized for Allardyce. Paul Clement and Marco Silva have coaxed impressive performances and picked up precious points out of two teams that were almost written off before they took over. Allardyce’s record so far is exactly the same as Pardew’s last eight games: one win, one draw and six defeats.