Welcome back football with fans! I think that is a good place to start right? I mean, in some ways having access to wall-to-wall football most days, getting to see every game live on the tele box, it was unique and quite enjoyable. BUT, watching football with no crowd, it never really felt right, the games were never as fun. An even bigger point than that, is that watching on TV is nothing like actually getting to be there in the stands. The drama up close, the pumping atmosphere, actually getting to be a part of it, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. So, this season, with full crowds allowed back in, our beloved game is well and truly back!
The return to grounds has enabled me to once again enjoy seeing both Crystal Palace men and women live this season, and what a joy it has been to be at both! However, those of you who follow me, you all know that Eagle Eye View was created to provide as much coverage of the women’s team as I possibly can, and that work continues here. The summer has seen me sponsor Hannah Churchill as EEV, as well as be one of those from the CPFCW Loyal who have sponsored new arrival Millie Farrow. I also managed to present Bianca Baptiste with her EEV 2020/21 Player of the Season trophy, which was a real honour for me! But now the action on the pitch is fully underway, and so at last my action on a keyboard can do the same!
I have a few interviews lined up for this season, which I am very excited about, and I am hoping to secure a few more. I am glad to say that I bring you the first of those interviews, right here in the words below. Last season I was incredibly lucky to be able to carry out my first ever interview with the gaffer himself, Dean Davenport. It was a fascinating insight into the women’s game and the club, with a man who bleeds red and blue just as much as the rest of us. So, when Dean offered to do another interview during a conversation back in the summer, not only did I jump at the chance, but I knew that this would be how I start my coverage this season! I must also add, that on the opening day of the season against Bristol City, I had the honour of meeting Dean in the flesh for the very first time, and it was a true privilege that I will hopefully get to do again.
Ok, so enough of me waffling on, right? I agree, so let’s get down to it. In my last interview, Dean and I discussed how he got started in the game, how he ended up in the Palace dugout, the step up to the Championship and the adaption to Covid life within the game, among other things. For those who wish to relive that interview before continuing here, it is available on my website EagleEyeVew29.com. Anyway, with the background already covered, I wanted to start this interview by picking up pretty much where we left off.
That means we start by looking back at last season. It was a ground-breaking year for CPFCW, seeing us take great strides forward and even setting some new personal records. In our first Championship season(18/19) we finished 10th, and in our second season(19/20) we finished 7th on Points Per Game, after Covid ended the season prematurely. I asked Dean how it felt to finish 7th last season, on merit, having amassed a club high Championship points total of 20 in the process?
“Finishing 7th last season was a fantastic achievement. The progress shown by the team was fantastic and well deserved. It's always nice to keep progressing and achieving. We did have a target in mind at the start of the season and we weren't far off that target, but it was a massive progression all the same and one the club, players and staff should be really proud of.”
Since promotion to the Championship, one of our struggles had very much been in front of goal, as we found putting the ball in the opposition net a very difficult task. In the 18/19 season, we netted just fourteen times, while in the 19/20 season we improved by just one, netting a total of fifteen times. Last season however, we found our groove, scoring a total of twenty seven league goals, which was the fifth highest in the league. I asked Dean what did he do differently to try and improve this area of our game, and how much easier did it make preparation/planning, knowing we could put away more chances?
“I think scoring goals isn't always an easy feat in the Championship as there are a lot of very good defenders, but we concentrated on the best attacking players we had and what suited the best system of playing for them to get us higher up the pitch, to get those opportunities. The preparation was easy after securing the best system. Because we had pace in the team, it made sense to play to those strengths, so by looking to get the ball to those players quickly we knew with their qualities that we, as a team, would get chances to score.”
Our increase in goals for the season brought with it some standout threats in front of goal. In the 18/19 season, our top scorer was striker Ashlee Hincks with five goals, while in the 19/20 season, it was midfielder Ashleigh Goddard, also with five goals. Both seasons saw no one else really back up the lead scorer. Last season, however, was a very different scenario. Bianca Baptiste had a season to remember, scoring a total of fourteen goals, eight in the league and six in the Conti Cup. Bee became our first player since promotion to reach double figures in the season. Her eight in the Championship not only made her our record scorer in one season in that competition, but it saw her finish 4th in the Golden Boot. Her six in the Conti Cup was also a record season high for that competition. What also really helped, was that Bee was supported by fellow striker Cherelle Khassal and midfielder Coral Haines, both of whom chipped in with five goals each in the Championship. I asked Dean if it changed the tactics and way we approached each game, knowing we had a striker bang in form in front of goal?
“I will admit having a player bang in form like Bianca and the team in general does take the pressure off at times, providing just the simple thought of we will create opportunities. The approach to games was relatively straight forward because as long as the team knew their roles and responsibilities it would be down to the opposition to stop us. Then you're able to build around and adapt the approach/tactics if needed.”
While scoring goals saw a drastic improvement last season, at the other end, trying to keep them out of our own goal has continued to be an issue that plagues us. In the 18/19 season we conceded forty-four league goals, joint 4th worst in the league. In the 19/20 season, we conceded thirty-three league goals, the second worst in the league. Last season, we conceded thirty-six goals. While in one sense that was an improvement, as that total came in six games more than 19/20, on the other hand, it was the third worst in the league. Clearly the higher level of competition in the Championship will play a part in this, but I asked Dean if he felt there were any other factors that lead to these struggles, and how we can adapt to try and improve on it this season?
“I think at times we were unfortunate with moments in games where we switched off and lost concentration. We also had injuries at vital times and had to change player positions, but overall we found it tough at times. This season I believe we are in a much better position having recruited well in the off season, and by also putting in place a new philosophy around the way the team plays.”
The last time Dean and I spoke, I had to bring up the fact that we were on a fairly long run at Hayes Lane without a win, so it is only fair that I bring up the fact that the run has thankfully ended, which I am delighted to do so! The run was getting scarily close to the two-year mark, but then on November 8th 2020, Coventry United came to town, and were beaten 3-1. It was a performance by Palace that thoroughly deserved the three points. Then, like the old typical London buses tag line, a second win arrived just a few days later, over London Bees in the Conti Cup. I asked Dean how much of a lift was it, getting rid of that unwanted run?
“It's not something that was in the forefront of our minds, as we go into all games thinking/ hoping that we will win. But, when the Coventry result came, it was a massive boost for us to finally get that monkey off our shoulder as it can play on the minds.”
Now, in my end of season review, there was a point that I raised, something that stood out to myself and other fans I had spoken with, and it involved our Captain Annabel Johnson. In her debut season(19/20), AJ put in some fantastic performances at right back, exactly what we had been crying out for the previous season. So much so, that she was voted the official club Player of the Season, and earned herself the captain’s armband that summer, taking over from the departing Freya Holdaway. Last season, AJ was switched to centre back, while natural centre backs(Amy Goddard when fit and Georgia Clifford) sat on the bench. AJ swiftly picked up five bookings and suspension, and several of the cards came from tackles that from a fans point of view, looked like tackles made by a full back playing out of position. With AJ continuing at centre back this season, I asked Dean what was the thought process behind the switch of position?
“AJ is a very experienced footballer and has played at centre back many times in the Championship for previous clubs. The thought process at the time was that we needed her captaincy and her organisation more centrally to help others the way leaders should, as we had quite a young defensive unit. I do believe AJ has excelled and has made that position her own which has taken her game to another level.”
As already mentioned, last season was one of huge progress and setting records in the league, but the progress wasn’t confined to the Championship. The Conti Cup saw us drawn in a group with WSL side Bristol City(at that time), and Championship sides Lewes and London Bees. In the opening game, we came from behind to beat Lewes 2-1 away. City then came to Hayes Lane and romped into a 4-0 lead, but two quickfire second half goals saw it end in a 4-2 defeat. The final game, at Hayes Lane, saw us beat London Bees 6-1, a scoreline that would see us qualify from the group for the first time ever, as one of the best runners up. Our first ever Quarter Final took place at Hayes Lane, against a Leicester City side who had gone full time and were already well on course to win the Championship and get promoted to the WSL. The game was a tight affair and looked to be heading for the lottery of penalties, when an 86th minute free kick snatched the victory for the Foxes. I asked Dean how he found the run and experience of it?
“The Conti cup has always been good for us and as a group, something we as a club have always taken seriously and done really well in. It was a great morale booster for the club and players to get through and even better to test ourselves against Leicester. The defeat at the time was hard to take as I believe a draw would have been a fair result. Then penalties is a lottery. and could have gone either way. In a positive way, that night showed how far we had come as a team for sure.”
So, it is clear to see that the 2020/21 season has by far been our best since promotion, and the progress achieved in it has rightfully given staff, players and fans alike, reason to go into this current season with huge optimism. However, before any fixtures would begin, the summer once more saw changes and adaptations to the squad. Since I have started closely following the women’s game, one thing that has really stood out is how much squads change in preseason. This summer for us was no different, with several departures confirmed. Those who departed are Amy Taylor, Amy Goddard(Bridgewater United), Georgia Clifford(Watford), Amber Gaylor, Amber Stobbs(Watford), Ashlee Hincks(AFC Wimbledon), Andria Georgiou, Grace Garrad, Emma Gibbon, Leeta Rutherford(Southampton), Ashleigh Goddard, Ffion Morgan(Bristol City) and Aoife Hurley. The one departure that probably stood out more than any, was that of Cherelle Khassal(Portsmouth). A key part in the team last season, her five goal return was important and it was a surprise to see her leave. While some departures I believe were part of our natural progression, I am aware that one or two were due to our change of training schedule making it not possible for them to stay. I asked Dean if they were any players we would have liked to have kept, but it just wasn’t possible?
“Of course, there were one or two players that we wanted to stay, but the change of schedules played a major part in that. But it was essential that we kept to our progression pathway and unfortunately these players were unable to commit.”
With all the departures, it meant that naturally there would be several arrivals. Firstly, two of those with us last season, essentially left and then returned. Kirsty Barton was on loan from WSL side Brighton and has now made her move to Palace permanent. Gracie Pearse joined us last January from the Arsenal Academy. In the summer, she signed for WSL side Tottenham, before then returning to us on a season long loan. Another loan, but a newbie to Palace, is goalkeeper Emily Orman who has signed on a season long loan from WSL defending champions Chelsea. We have also seen several permanent additions, with Aimee Everett and Millie Farrow joining us from last seasons Championship champions, Leicester City, while Molly-Mae Sharpe(Durham), Leanne Cowan(London City Lionesses), Charley Clifford and Grace Coombs(Charlton) and Sophie McLean(London Bees) have all also added to the core of our team. One of the things that has stood out for me with these additions compared to previous summers, is that pretty much all of them have come from good Championship teams and have plenty of experience at this level. For me, that is exactly what we have needed, and the proof has been on the pitch so far, and so I asked Dean what the plan was behind our recruitment strategy in the summer?
“In the summer as a group of staff we sat down to discuss the way we wanted to move forward. Myself and James Marrs (1st team head coach) spoke about the way we wanted to play for the up and coming season. Once we’d spoken, and I detailed the way I wanted to play, James and our Head of sports science(Dr Andrew Greene) put together a new training schedule along with a new club philosophy which would give us a new way of playing and a new identity. Once we had the new way of playing, the plan was to concentrate and identify the players that would not only fit into our new way of playing and the philosophy but would also have the characteristics to know what Crystal Palace stands for and what it's like to wear that shirt.”
The squad isn’t the only change made in the summer, as I had heard the club had moved into the new Academy for training, and that training had been upped to four sessions a week. I asked Dean if he could confirm this, and how much of a difference it had made having the Academy facilities?
“Yes, that is correct on both counts. It was important that we added another training session to the schedule. One of the main reasons was to obviously give us more time on the grass to prepare the squad but also, with more teams in the league going full-time it was essential not to fall too far behind in terms of that preparation and contact time.”
There have also been changes away from the structure of the club this summer. One of those is the structure of the Championship itself. For the past three seasons, the league has been made up of eleven teams. Last season, Leicester was promoted to the WSL, taking the place of Bristol City who were relegated out of it and into the Championship. Meanwhile, London Bees were relegated from the Championship, while two clubs, Watford and Sunderland, were promoted up into it. This means that for the first time, the Championship is made up of twelve teams. For me, that is a big step as it means that one team no longer has to sit out each match day, and it also makes the league look far more professional. I asked Dean his thoughts on the change?
“Like yourself, I think it's a big positive. Last season and previous ones there were far too many breaks in the schedule so moving forward hopefully the league grows, which means more game time and more progression.”
So, with the squad reshape complete, and the new layout of the league finalised, August 29th was at last the time for the action to start, and a live crowd to be present. After a season of setting new club records, it was only fitting that we opened this season by setting some more. Our opening game was at home to Bristol City, a club full time despite their relegation. In our previous three Championship seasons, we had never beaten a full-time team, nor had we won on opening day. I asked Dean how it felt to finally do so?
“It felt great! To get a win on the opening day of the season was a massive confidence booster for the club, and again something we hadn't managed to achieve in the Championship.”
While the result is key, the performance was fantastic to behold and the 4-3 score line did not reflect the reality of what took place on the pitch. Two goalkeeping errors made it a much closer affair then it truly was, and 4-1 would have been a far more accurate reflection of the game. I asked Dean how pleasing was it to see all the hard work and planning come off on the pitch?
“Sitting there watching the game evolve was very pleasing. All the hard work the preparation the staff and players had put in was starting to show in the first game. As I mentioned earlier, the new style of play will take time and there will be mistakes within the way we play. So it's important we deal with those unfortunate mistakes as there will be more, but that we also learn from them and stick by our principles of play. As a neutral it must have been a great game to watch.”
As a fan, it felt fantastic to finally be back on the terraces alongside my fellow Loyal, watching the game live, and what a performance to come back to. I asked Dean how he had found it without fans for a year, and what affect it had having fans back?
“Not going to lie, it's been very difficult! We have the best fans in the league, and we are well renowned for our fanbase, so not having you all behind us was difficult for sure. But we are fortunate that we could carry on in the difficult times of the pandemic which we are all grateful for. Coming out of the tunnel against Bristol was amazing. Panning around and seeing 900 plus fans in the ground was unreal after such a long time. I truly believe that a massive percentage of that win was due to having you all back and getting behind the team.”
Three games in(at the time of the interview), we have one win, one draw and one defeat, albeit Sunderland were lucky to get that draw against us. I asked Dean how he felt the start had gone?
“I think it's been a positive start. Hopefully everyone can see the change in play and see that the change is positive, and that patience is a must for us to get it right.”
The Sunderland game saw Dean get to stand in the Selhurst Park home dugout for the second time, the first being against Charlton on the final day of the 18/19 season. I asked Dean, as a Palace fan, how did it feel to stand in the dugout and see his team out on the hallowed turf?
“It’s an unbelievable feeling and one hopefully that can happen more. Being a Palace supporter as you well know, it's a privilege and honour and one that makes you feel proud to lead out your club as a manager.”
Stepping away from Palace, another big change in the summer, was the start of the huge new TV deal, which has seen Sky and the BBC pick up coverage of the Women’s Super League for the next three years. There has already been a lot of praise for the way that Sky have presented their coverage so far, and part of the deal is that some of the money will filter down into the Championship. This to me is a huge step forward in the women’s game, and I hope sooner rather then later, that they will also pick up coverage of the Championship. As someone who has spent many years in the women’s game, I asked Dean how big a step he felt this deal was?
“Absolute game changer for Women’s football. Seeing/watching the Women's games on the biggest of platforms will not only provide much needed funding for clubs but it gives a massive message to all that the game is for all and that it will only accelerate and progress.”
As we all seek to continue to enhance the awareness and stature of the women’s game, I asked Dean what he thinks needs to be, or he would like to see, as the next big step to help achieve that?
“Personally, I think we can agree that the women's game is moving in the correct direction. The next step would potentially be both leagues becoming full-time. This in my mind would then hopefully bridge the gap between the two leagues and make them more competitive.”
I am very much in agreement that the entire Championship needs to turn full time, and hopefully that then filters down into the National Leagues. For now, though, the Championship continues to be a mix of full time and part time. Relegated Bristol City replacing Leicester was a straight swap of full-time teams, while the summer saw Coventry United and Charlton both turn full time, adding to the growing numbers. By my count, that leaves us, Watford, Sunderland, Blackburn, Sheffield United and Lewes as the only part time teams. I asked Dean what this has done to the balance and difficulty of the league?
“Obviously time will tell, but ultimately full-time teams that have the bigger budgets will normally attract the bigger talent which normally in the Championship in recent years wins the league. With us adding the extra session and working hard, we hope to bridge that gap and make it as difficult for those teams as possible.”
Finally, with the monumental season of progress last season now behind us, I asked Dean what our aims are for this season?
“Every year we have the same aims, to progress and finish higher than the previous year. At present this we have achieved, so if we can progress and achieve that aim again that would be a fantastic club achievement.”
I know I speak for everyone when I say that we are all hoping to see continued progress this season. Finishing above seventh, with a points total higher than twenty, is well within the capability of the squad this season, and how we would all love to reach the knockout stages of the Conti Cup again, so that as fans we could be a part of such a big night live! I know that in Dean, we have a very driven and determined manager, who constantly strives to better himself and his team, and will not allow himself to ease off the throttle. I feel there are very exciting times ahead, and as the women’s game continues to grow, we need to make sure that as a club, we are very much a part of it.
With the interview at its end, I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank Dean for once again being happy and willing to take part. I have never known a manager so positive about engaging with the fans, added to by the fact he is just as much of a fan as we are, and it is so refreshing to have that connection. Dean, I wish you all the best for the rest of the season, and hopefully we can do this again next year!
Dean Davenport’s Red ‘n’ Blue Army!!
*All Photos Courtesy Of Stephen Flynn Photography*