Do Crystal Palace want to be anything more?
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While it appears everything is fine in Denmark, there is something rotten at Selhurst Park. After failing to come to terms with Nuno Espirito Santo, the club allegedly broke off talks to appoint the former Wolves boss as Crystal Palace manager this past week then mounted a public relations campaign designed to blame the Portuguese coach for the impasse.
For those who remember Frank de Boer’s brief tenure at the club, it’s tempting to imagine Palace chairman Steve Parish and Palace’s American owners as an illicit alliance of the BNP and Trumpist Q-Anon members but nationalism was never the reason the Dutchman was sacked after four goalless losses to begin the 2017/18 campaign. Nor has it anything to do with Nuno.
It may have seemed otherwise when De Boer’s replacement, Roy Hodgson, lost the next three games with the side still not motivated to put the ball into the net but everyone calmed down when the former--virtually every club in Europe but most notably--Inter, Fulham, Liverpool and England manager engineered a 2-1 upset of Chelsea on Match Day 8. The board elected to extend Hodgson time not afforded to De Boer even though another goalless loss, this time to Newcastle, and an embarrassing 4-1 exit from the EFL Cup at the hands of Bristol City followed the Chelsea victory.
The 2-2 home draw with West Ham might have been a sign the squad was turning the corner but defeat to Tottenham and another draw with Everton were to come before Hodgson secured his second win against Stoke. From there, Palace won nine, drew nine and lost another eight, leaving the relegation battle and all memory of Frank de Boer behind to ultimately finish eleventh. For Palace supporters, the result felt more glorious than its banal reality when compared to the horrendous start that preceded it.
To ownership’s delight, Hodgson reinforced Palace’s averageness over the next three seasons. Under his guidance, they settled into comfortably profitable mediocrity, finishing 12th in 2018/19 and 14th both in ‘19/20 and the just completed campaign. That emphasis on safety to the complete exclusion of ambition is why Parish, Josh Harris and David Blitzer stuck with the Englishman after sacking De Boer and [possibly] decided to pass on Nuno when Hodgson finally retired.
To a degree, one can sympathize with ownership’s fiscal conservatism. Selhurst Park, capacity 26,074, will only move up one place in the Premier League Stadium table to 16th when Bramall Lane [32,702] and the Hawthorns [26,850] move on to host Championship football in 2021/22 and are replaced only by Carrow Road [27,224] as a larger ground among the three promoted clubs. In that context, finishing 14th was the club punching above their weight given that comparatively few seats for arses renders Palace more reliant on broadcast revenue than three-quarters of the top flight. Consequently, they compete, if you want to call it that, at a disadvantage in the transfer market.
Compete becomes a generous description when, unlike clubs with even smaller grounds, the Palace hierarchy made a conscious decision to neither make risky investments such as Fulham did in 2019/20 or fight on their own terms as Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford all have. Rather, they spend the bare minimum to field a steady if unspectacular XI. Hodgson’s final post-match interview echoed the club philosophy.
I am just pleased in a way that it’s over and we’ve got through the game without any catastrophe or disaster. I think we showed that we are a very honest and hard working team and respect the integrity of the league.
Translation: We are content to be just good enough.
Of course, it’s difficult for ownership to keep arses in the few seats available when it becomes blatantly obvious they just want to keep the money machine running smoothly. Fans don’t look favourably on clubs that sell emerging talent such as Aaron Wan-Bissaka to increase profits while holding no ambition to compete for trophies or European places.
For that matter, neither do most managers. In that light, the truth obscured by the smear campaign against Nuno becomes more evident.
An anonymous Palace source leaked to the media this past midweek that Nuno, through his agent Jorge Mendes, made a series of unanticipated demands that the club could not possibly meet. The Athletic reported that the club ended their interest after a Zoom call to the manager at his home in Lisbon, subtly reminding readers of Nuno’s foreign citizenship and if not encouraging then allowing them to imagine he held himself in too high regard to come to London to meet with Palace officials. They also emphasized that it had been the manager who made the initial overture, rather than the club, further portraying Palace as the victim. The series of demands were left to one’s imagination until it was finally reported by Football London that Nuno wanted to bring his Wolves support staff with him to London and that the increase in wages from the assistants Roy Hodgson left behind was unacceptable.
Palace's public relations staff wants to convince fans that the prospect of a small increase in the coaching budget shut down talks rather than, say, the prospective gaffer demanding the club return to the pre-Hodgson days when it spent a shade under £219 million on players over five seasons? Oh, the horror.
Their position became even more ridiculous over the weekend when it was announced that Hodgson's right hand man, Dave Reddington, was leaving the club to accept the manager's job at AGF Aarhus and why not? One can assume that the Danish side offered the long-time Palace man a significant increase in wages and we know, as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have sung for decades, that Aarhus is a very,very, very fine hus. Whether or not Reddington finds two cats on the pitch, life may not be so hard in the Superliga. What is certain is that the aggrieved Palace board suddenly find themselves with only one senior coach, Dean Kiely, who is in charge of goalkeepers. That covers four of the 32 players in the squad but Nuno's request to bring in his own people crossed a line? Please. No one, including Palace supporters, enjoys having their intelligence insulted.
Regardless of their in-house situation, Palace shouldn't have been outraged that Nuno expected his support staff to join him. Ffs, they should have anticipated it. Over the course of three seasons, he and his team secured Wolves’ return to the top flight, qualified for the Europa League and finished in the top half of the Premier League in consecutive seasons. Finally, despite regressing in his fourth campaign, Wolves still finished above Palace in the table.
Moreover, it should be obvious to any Premier League fan that Nuno authorised Jorge Mendes to reach out to Crystal Palace because, from firsthand observation, he believed the club had the potential to be more than a moribund mid-table side. Rather than turning him into a pantomime villain, Palace fans ought to be wondering why first contact wasn’t initiated by their board? Any ambitious club with a managerial opening ought to be on the phone to the ex-Wolves man’s representative. Else why do they think he was also linked to Everton and Spurs?
When you have a think, it’s more plausible Nuno rather than Palace was the party who lost interest when he realised the club’s vision utterly failed to match his own. Being told you don't measure up is difficult to take. A butt-hurt Palace brain trust certainly explains the mud-slinging in the press.
What's done is done, however. The question now is what or rather who is next? If the jilted Londoners elect to pursue Frank Lampard, as some reports speculate, they’ll almost certainly be rejected a second time. Lamps wasn’t able to complete his project at Chelsea but, again, had his squad above Palace in the table when he was sacked. Nor should it be forgotten he led Derby County to the Championship playoffs in his first season in charge. The Chelsea legend is every bit as competitive as Nuno. He won’t come on board merely to babysit.
Up and coming Championship bosses aren't the answer either. No, Steve Parish and Co are better off searching for managers who’ve had the ambition beaten out of them, someone who will buy into the lunch bucket brigade philosophy and no longer dreams of anything better. Sam Allardyce comes to mind or, if the Eagles wish to appeal to a broader base, perhaps Chris Hughton. Until they grow a spine, however, Crystal Palace aren't the club for anyone better.