It’s never straightforward.
As Christmas approached late last year, the Crystal Palace blogosphere was in high spirits. Twitter was teeming with positivity and the likes of Holmesdale Online and the BBS were in raptures.
This was to be the season. The season where expectations were to be surpassed and the usual bumpy journey full of twists and daggers would become a distant memory.
But like Dougal in Father Ted when they get lost in a cave, all that seemed to be left was the shell of dream that offered so much and a vacant look etched across the face of many Palace fans struggling to comprehend how such a dramatic collapse of form and poise came to fruition. “I don’t believe it”, bellowed Victor Meldrew as Ted wound up the fabric of the once gallant cardigan.
In the Premier League post January, Palace’s limp to the finish line resembled more a frantic crawl, desperately reaching for the lifeline that would pull them across the finish but weighed down by the good form that preceded the abysmal capitulation. Palace would enter the Christmas period riding high, level on points with a high flying Tottenham side with optimism to match Pochettino’s ultimate pretenders.
Injuries played their part. It can’t be overlooked that Palace’s woeful second half coincided with prolonged spells on the sidelines for Yannick Bolasie, James McArthur, Jason Puncheon and Connor Wickham. Not many, however, should be lulled into thinking that this and this alone was the reason.
There were some catastrophic failures along the way (the less said about Adebayor the better) where a significant appropriation of blame must sit at Alan Pardew’s door.
Palace over recent years have been epitomised by spirit (more on that later), commitment, and a togetherness that proved a force greater than the sum of their individual parts. But sooner or later, that wave of unity was never going to have momentum to push through the relentless force that the Premier League can apply to clubs in a sticky run of form.
Pardew’s appointment at the beginning of 2015, and the romp-stomping year that followed had many believing that the days of mismanagement were behind us. However, woefully apparent was the near crippling lack of depth and quality that still lingers around this squad.
Palace’s Premier League season will be remembered for a great win at Stamford Bridge, putting thoughts of European football in the supporters heads as we steadily climbed the table, and then having to stomach the likes of Jordon Mutch, Chungy, Frazier Campbell, Bakary Sako and a variety of goalkeepers making the sort of desperate cameos reserved for washed up actors in later series of Friends. Palace’s squad players were in real danger of ensuring they found their level.
Then came Puncheon, with a goal so heartfelt and important to Palace’s season against Norwich that those watching around the world were likely to have tasted his salty tears. That was the win that stopped the rot. That was the win that all but secured safety for another year. Collectively and factoring in recent years that is an achievement in itself. In isolation, it is a damning indictment on a recruitment policy that has lacked foresight. Waking up after the Norwich victory was like waking up after a heavy night on the town hangover free. You’re delighted enough to celebrate the fine achievement and the luck of it all, but not stupid enough to know you can get away with it a second time.
Of course, the real story of Palace’s season lay away from the league. And while vitally important to the context of the season we have (tried) to enjoy, it is equally as imperative not to let it be ignored by the Cup heroics.
Because they were heroics. The ferocity of opponent that Palace overcame throughout the competition was testament to that. Four of Palace’s five victories in the lead up to the final came against Premier League sides, something that contrasted the soft run the luminaries of 1990 had to the final but seemed to lay rooted in the claim of earlier – the unbreakable spirit and unrelenting unity that allowed for real moments of quality to pop their heads up in various rounds. Wilfried Zaha’s performances alone demonstrating how lucky we are to have such a phenomenal talent come through at this football club and find a platform to show his talent on the very biggest stage in Palace’s colours.
I don’t want to talk about the pride attached with the FA Cup run, and the pride and love I have for every Palace supporter at Selhurst every week and all those who made two trips to Wembley. There are those across TEB and FYP who can do so more vociferously and eloquently than me. But it is important to say it. And it is important to remember it. But it doesn’t paper over the cracks.
While there is a lot of investment and planning required in reshaping the squad to bring it to the standard we have come to expect now, we were exposed to some sheer quality. Not least from Wilfried Zaha, a deserving winner of the Player of the Year Award, and the ever trusty Scott Dann, who did his best to stake a claim for the club’s Golden Boot. Bolasie on his day showed how much of a game changer he can be, while Jason Puncheon coming back to the squad showed just how important he is to the squad, as well as the fabric of the club and the areas itself. Cabaye very often showed his class in the middle of the park alongside James McArthur while the tiniest shrivel of optimism in Connor Wickham’s potential remains, although potential will only get you so far.
And so we look to next season, a blissful and familiar spattering of trepidation, optimism and crippling pessimism. Pardew has a new contract, while we wait to see if he has new ideas. Bolasie has a new wife, while we wait to see if he’ll have a new club come August. Palace have three goalkeepers, while we all anxiously wait to see who the fourth and final installation will be in the summer.
Palace enter the summer with that patchy wooly jumper that just survived the barren spell in the caves. The mending began at Wembley at the end of April. One senses that this summers repairs may cost more than the jumper did in the first place. But if it looks the part this time next year, then surely it will be worth the outlay?
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