The stories seem an awfully long time ago now. When Alan Pardew lifted Crystal Palace into the top six at the midway point of the 2015/16 campaign, picking up from where he left off after securing the Eagles’ highest-ever Premier League finish and points total last term, barely a week seemed to go by without the 54-year-old being linked with the England job.
“I haven’t brought it up once, I don’t want to talk about it today, it’s not on my agenda and I’m quite happy at Crystal Palace,” he said in October, 10 days or so after his side beat West Brom 2-0 to move up to fourth in the table, below only Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United. “But it’s the England job. If you’re English and don’t want it then there must be something wrong with you.”
Even Carlo Ancelotti, of all people, was willing to support Pardew’s cause. “If England wanted an English manager after [Roy] Hodgson, Pardew is really good and I think he is the best option to be manager of the national team,” the ex-Chelsea and Real Madrid boss told the Independent in December.
“I think he’s the best candidate. Pardew is really good. He did very well at Newcastle and is doing a good job at Crystal Palace. At this moment, Pardew is one of the best managers in England. He is doing really well.”
Opinion has changed somewhat since then, with Pardew becoming more likely to receive his P45 than an offer from FA chiefs to take charge of his country. Palace slipped from the Champions League spots to a place just outside the relegation zone, a dire run of only two top-flight wins from their final 21 matches putting the former Newcastle manager under pressure at Selhurst Park for the first time.
While Pardew generally retained the backing of those in the boardroom and on the terraces, a new contract was put on hold as everyone associated with the south Londoners focused on simply securing the club’s Premier League status for another year.
The FA Cup has provided some much-needed relief, though, and Palace’s run to Saturday’s final means 2015/16 cannot be written off as a total disappointment.
Indeed, while it is generally ill-advised to judge the success of an entire football season on the outcome of a single game, it is difficult to avoid doing so with Palace this term: despite underachievement in the league, the Eagles are potentially just 90 minutes away from their first ever major trophy and, by extension, the greatest campaign in their history.
Purely in terms of top-level silverware won, Pardew could also be a matter of days away from lifting himself above the likes of Steve Coppell, Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables to become the club’s most successful manager of all-time.
Qualification for Europe was always going to be unlikely, but the way Palace started the season seemed to suggest another top-half finish was well within their grasp. Victories over Chelsea, Liverpool and Southampton in the opening months of the campaign were fully deserved, with Pardew rightly receiving a huge amount of praise for creating a side who kept things tight on the back and could be lethal – and not to mention thrilling to watch – on the counter-attack.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Pardew should have preached caution, but the former midfielder chose instead to talk up his team’s chances. “We're on the fringes of contesting for a Champions League place,” he told reporters in December. “Our dream isn't 10th again as we're good enough to finish top six.”
Pardew’s behaviour in press conferences was one of those things that began to be judged differently when results turned: whereas the club’s fans saw the brash quips as entertaining when Palace were winning games, they soon began to grate as points proved harder to come by. There was also criticism of a lack of tactical variety, while many pointed to Pardew’s ‘boom or bust’ record in previous jobs, when long winning runs were routinely followed by an extended spell of consecutive defeats.
In the end, though, Pardew ultimately kept Palace in the division at the same time as negotiating their progression to the FA Cup final. Premier League outfits Southampton, Stoke, Tottenham and Watford were all beaten on the way to Wembley, and it is only natural that the team’s focus may have slipped away from the league and towards the prospect of cup glory in the remaining few months of the season – particularly when it became clear that relegation to the Championship was extremely unlikely to become a reality.
Much has been made of Louis van Gaal’s future potentially being on the line on Saturday, with the Manchester United manager surely needing to bring the FA Cup trophy back to the north-west to stand any chance of keeping his job beyond the summer.
The situation is nowhere near as bleak for Pardew, but the final is still a massive opportunity for him to cement his position at the club and deposit a large amount of credit in the bank. There’s a sense that everyone at Palace – from players, to fans, to owners – are desperate for the man who became a cult hero by scoring that winner in the 1990 FA Cup Semi-Final win over Liverpool to succeed in the dugout. A famous underdog triumph against United would certainly help Pardew’s cause no end.
Were Palace to lose and then start the 2016/17 Premier League season badly, however, scrutiny of the 54-year-old would increase further. If Pardew wants to be spoken about as a possible future England boss again, victory at Wembley on Saturday would be a fantastic place to start.
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