Joe Brewin reflects on the Eagles' season of surprises, after Tony Pulis steals the show at Selhurst Park...
A tale of two managers for the Eagles; Crystal Palace B.P. (Before Pulis) were nailed-on certainties to drop until their tracksuit-clad knight rode into Selhurst Park and freed them of their impending doom.
Under Ian Holloway, and briefly caretaker Keith Millen, Palace suffered. After 11 games they were plonked joint-bottom alongside Sunderland, having won once (against the Black Cats) and lost nine times. Goals were in desperately short supply – just seven, by that point – and although that remained the case all season, the solidity and organisation instilled by their new man was exceptional.
The south Londoners’ transformation, into a team with genuine threat from pacy widemen, was nothing short of miraculous.
A hypothetical Premier League table of results since Pulis’s appointment has Palace in eighth (a point ahead of his former club Stoke), not least thanks to a brilliant run of five straight wins between March and April which confirmed their top-flight status for at least another year. In 26 games under Pulis, Palace piled up 38 points - not just a survival total, but a rate of point accretion which would have produced a top-eight finish in four of the previous five seasons.
Pulis didn’t like what he saw at first – indeed, it took a great deal of persuasion for him to take the job – but with limited resources he eventually made these ailing birds soar. A defence conceding two goals per game upon his arrival was refined until, by the season’s end, that ratio was halved. Sure, they’ve only averaged a goal per game in that time (26 in 26), but 10 clean sheets have proved just how difficult they’ve been to beat: only Chelsea and Arsenal boast more in that time.
In the end the table reads 11th – and that is quite something.
Would they have taken this in August?
Hells yeah. They’d have taken 17th back in August – six places higher was beyond any Palace fan’s wildest dreams.
Would they have taken this in January?
At the turn of the New Year they were 17th, out of the bottom three on goal difference. By their busy deadline day – when in came Scott Dann, Tom Ince (loan) and Joe Ledley – they’d lifted themselves to 14th. Despite already being in the ascendancy, improving on that took things to a new level.
Beating Chelsea to kick-start that five-game run was special, but seeing off Everton at Goodison Park two games later effectively confirmed the Eagles’ stay in the top flight. It came against a Toffees side fresh from trashing Arsenal and then beating Sunderland, and was done convincingly – the Eagles were two up four minutes after half-time, 3-1 up after 73 minutes, and didn’t cave when Kevin Mirallas made things interesting in the 86th minute.
A 4-1 battering from Fulham at Selhurst Park was the final act of Ian Holloway's spell – two days later the rent-a-quote Bristolian was gone. “Ian's been very noble,” said chairman Steve Parish. “He's come forward and said: 'I can't do it.' I've spent three days trying to get Ian in the frame of mind that he can do it.” The Eagles chairman will be chuffed he failed with that one. For what it’s worth, the scoreline hadn’t exactly reflected the play in this game; you may remember the Cottagers’ pair of howitzers from Pajtim Kasami and Steve Sidwell.
Hero of the season
Pulis has this one in the bag, but on the pitch there have been a number of unlikely heroes for the south Londoners. Julian Speroni scooped the club’s player-of-the-year gong, but it could easily have gone to skipper Mile Jedinak, right-back Joel Ward or Jason Puncheon, the latter of who has scored seven goals in crucial games – not least against the likes of Aston Villa, Cardiff and Hull.
Villain of the season
It’s a little harsh to pin all of the blame on Holloway; it was always going to take Palace time to find their feet, particularly after a poor end to the previous season before their play-off victory. But they were dreadful across the board under his stewardship, and the haywire summer transfer activity was damaging. Of the 14 players who came in, two weren’t picked in the Eagles’ Premier League squad (Dobbie, Marange), three were let go in January (Marange, Phillips, Grandin) and another three loaned out (Hunt, Campana, Kebe). He left a mess behind.
The season in a microcosm
April’s 1-0 win at West Ham summed up everything Palace have been good at this season under Pulis. They didn’t enjoy oodles of possession, were forced to punt umpteen balls back out of their own box, but remained organised and tough to crack for 90 minutes. When they got their chance – a Mile Jedinak penalty an hour in – they took it.
B. Results-wise, what more could they have asked for? A fine recovery, but they'll surely need more goals next season.
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