Dean Davenport - Managing Expectations
Since I have started my coverage of Crystal Palace Women, starting with Back Of The Nest and now as Eagle Eye View, my attention has been on the players. I have wanted to build a bridge between the players and the fans, be it the fans already supporting, or those that could be. In the men’s game, we are given access to the players to a fair degree, so we feel like we know them. In the women’s game, that has not been the case. There just hasn’t been the focus put on the players, that they deserve. The crazy thing is, through my experiences so far, the CPFCW players are far more interactive then most of the men would be, but our fans just aren’t being directed to it. So, I have tried to generate interviews that would hopefully provide fans with more an insight into the players that they cheer on week after week, to help build that connection. I personally have been happy with what has been produced so far, and I am incredibly grateful to the players who have not only agreed to do the interviews, but really put themselves into the answers, when it would be so easy to just say the bare minimum.
This will continue, and I am so pleased to have two more player interviews lined up, with a past and present element to them. However, while I thoroughly enjoy getting to know the players, there has been one interview that has intrigued me for some time. You see, as football fans, our focus is mostly on the players. We only really discuss the manager when we are looking for someone to blame(see a portion of our fanbase with Roy). Occasionally they get plaudits, but a lot of the time, we are more likely talking about how we could pick the line up better, or set up the tactics better, if we were in the dugout. For me though, I often wonder what the manager is truly thinking. From the stands some things seem so obvious, yet you then look at the dugout and nothing is happening. Most of the time, there is a reason why they are manager and we paid to be there! Even so, I wanted to actually get an insight from the manager’s point of view. Sure, we hear from manager’s every week in press conferences, but these are normally tame answers to rubbish questions that half the time are based more on current events outside the club, then the club itself. I wanted to change that.
I had been thinking about approaching Crystal Palace Women manager Dean Davenport for quite a few months, but had never quite plucked up the courage to ask! I still always feel nervous asking the players, so the gaffer seemed an even bigger step to make! A few weeks ago, I finally asked, and the gaffer could not have been more accommodating with his response, happily to take part. A decision he may have regretted, when he got the questions! When I started to write the questions out, I had a few in mind. Four pages later, including a rather detailed question about our home form, and I wondered whether I may be taking advantage a tad too much! Dean could have easily refused to answer some of them, he could have told me I was asking too much. He did neither of these things. Instead, I sit here writing this, putting together the answers to four pages of questions! That has always been the great thing with everyone at the club, be it the gaffer, General Manager Paula Johnson, or any of the players. Everyone has been so accommodating, so happy to help and I am so thankful for it, because it enables me to provide these pieces for you all to read.
Ok, so with so many questions to get through, shall I get started? Yes? Well, here we go! Now, we know that it is common for top players to end up in management, in fact that is something we encourage. Yet, there are some who barely played, or never played at a top level. So, before talking about Dean as a manager, I wanted to know if he had been a player?
“Yes I started as a player. I started as a youth team player for Selsdon Juniors under Derek Millen (Keith’s dad) and trained with Palace for a bit, before having a trial with Charlton Athletic. After not being taken on, I went into non-league at the age of 16 and joined Croydon Athletic, where I stayed for 7 seasons, in between captaining Surrey and playing for England National College Team. I then went on to play for Croydon FC, Whyteleafe FC and Chipstead FC, before finishing back at Croydon Athletic.”
It’s fair to say then, that Dean was very much a ‘local lad’ when it came to putting on his boots, with his time spent in and around South London. His playing career, as we know, would become a career in management, and so I asked what made him decide to make that step, and what coaching/management experience he had prior to CPFCW?
“I didn’t really decide, I kind of fell into it to be honest. My daughter wanted to play after so many years of watching me, so I took her along to the Palace girls trial and she got in. To cut the story short, the manager then asked me to help as he knew I was still playing. When I did, he suddenly left, and I was asked to take over. I really enjoyed it, so when I stopped playing, I decided to carry on and went into men’s football being assistant manager at Croydon FC before moving on to be assistant manager at Whyteleafe FC. I still continued with the Palace girls and I still find myself here today, 16 years later!”
So his start in coaching and management came about by chance, but years later, Dean is proving that it was clearly meant to be, as he once again works hard to try and guide our beloved Eagles through the tough terrain of the Women’s Championship, which is the second tier in the English Women’s pyramid. After 16 years, you are bound to develop a way in which you do things, so I asked Dean if he had a particular style or method to coaching that he prefers?
“I’ve been told that I'm quite loud and direct. I think that taking ownership is important, along with finding that balance where you also give players some ownership to learn and express themselves.”
As well as style and method, a particular choice of formation is often common. On any football game I play, I have always been a 4-4-2 guy. Roy Hodgson seems to be the same, while Mourinho for example seems to be a 4-3-3 guy. So, what is Dean’s preferred formation to set a team up with?
“I do like 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 if you have the players, but again it's important that you allow yourself to be adaptable with formations, as this allows you to deal with what your opposition sets up with. Being able to change mid game is a major factor and something we as staff have done, either to try and influence the game or to see games out.”
The curious side of me wanted to dig a little deeper. I wanted to know if there would be a difference between what was preferred when in charge, and what was preferred when watching. What do I mean by this? Well as a manager, you would know exactly what your players were capable of and would form beliefs about what formations would best suit the players at your disposal. As a fan, we have our belief of what players can do, from what we have seen in other games, and we are easily influenced by wanting to see what pleases the eye. So, I asked Dean if he a had a formation he preferred to see the team he supports play with, so that I could see if it differed to his own management choices.
“Well I’ve supported Palace for 37 years now, and I do believe we have some fantastic attacking players. When we've played 4-3-3 its been enjoyable to watch. Palace through the years have had some great wide players and forwards and it’s been great to watch, especially when we’re on the front foot and winning games. We are one of the best counter attacking teams I’ve seen.”
Moving back to his own career, I asked Dean who has been the biggest influences on him?
“I’d say firstly my oldest brother Stuart. He played for Palace back in the day from the age of 10, all the way through to being a 2 year pro. I got into football by going to watch him every Saturday morning over at the Mitcham training ground playing alongside the likes of Chris Powell, Richard Shaw and John Salako amongst others. Then in the afternoon, using his season ticket to go to watch the 1st team at Selhurst, it was fantastic. Secondly, I would say my old college tutor Clive Thompson, a man that would push me to do well and help me as much as he could to give me a platform to go on and play.”
Influences aside, I wanted to know if Dean had any favourite managers. We all have favourite players, past and present, but not everyone has a favourite manager. For me, it will always be Sir Steve Coppell. He was gaffer when I first became a fan 31 years ago, and I will forever see him as my Palace manager. I have been lucky enough to meet him twice, and he was every bit the nice guy I hoped he would be. There is a reason why his team from 1990 all still call him the gaffer to this day, and I am right there with them! But what about Dean?
“I don't really have a favourite manager. What I have done and still do is think back at times to when I was playing and take snippets of things I learnt from previous managers, and add to my style. In the present times I think the detail Pep gives to his teams and the way they play is unbelievable. At present I do read a lot of Marcelo Bielsa case studies, again the way he sets his teams up to play with the intensity is unreal and exciting to watch.”
So, we know how lifelong Palace fan Dean first got involved in the set up for CPFCW, but how did his role as first team manager come about?
“As I mentioned earlier, it started with my daughter Jade wanting to play, so having Palace in the blood and being a supporter it was only ever going to be Palace. Managing the 1st team came about after our last year in youth football with the girls. We had a really strong team at that level and the next step for them at the age of 16 was senior football. The 1st team was going through a tough time after being relegated and the manager then left and again, I was asked to take over with the up and coming youngsters.”
As we see all too often, it is rare that a manager will take over a team when it is in a good way. So just what was the state and position of the club when Dean first took over?
“My first season in charge was after the team got relegated. The club had also just been taken over by the now Chairman Richard Spokes, and we set out a plan to try and get Palace back to the National Premier League, which we succeeded.”
It is very commonplace a for a new manager to carry out actions that, to use a cliché, put their ‘stamp’ on the team. I asked Dean if he made any such actions when he took the reins as first team manager?
“As always, I think it's important to put your own stamp on a team when taking over. I made some difficult but necessary changes player wise. I brought in quite a few young players to freshen the squad up, along with making some experienced signings to help guide those young players.”
Inheriting a team that had just suffered relegation, I asked Dean what goals he set himself, and if there was a timeframe he had in mind for achieving them?
“The first goal was to put a team out that knew what it meant to wear the badge. Secondly, to get us back up the leagues asap. A plan was set out to get back to the Women's National Premier League within 5 seasons, and we did it in 4. That ended up being 3 promotions.”
It is hard to ignore such a turnaround in fortunes, and the achievements of that success. Even before I started my coverage of CPFCW, before I started to actually follow and support the team, I still knew that they were enjoying some success, prior to joining the newly reshaped Women’s Championship. I asked Dean what it was like to be in charge during that period?
“We had 3 promotions in 4 years, one of those being the ‘invincibles’ which was a great season and success for the players. To go a full season without losing was a great feeling and one as a squad we were all very proud of. The latest success was finding out that we had been accepted into the Championship, the second tier of Women's football.”
One of the players integral to those successful years was Freya Holdaway. I recently interviewed Freya following her departure from the club after six seasons. Five of those seasons were spent wearing the Captain’s armband, an honour given to her by Dean. I asked Dean what it was about Freya, that made him decide to not only give her the armband, but keep it on her for so long?
“Freya was an exceptional person, player and Captain. I think when you sign a player you can sense what kind of person that player is. Freya was a person that would always see both sides to any situation and give her opinion accordingly. A very good talker on the pitch and a player that knew how to fight for the badge.”
While Palace had been enjoying success on the pitch, off of it, the FA were making adjustments and restructuring the second tier into the Championship that we now know. In 2018 when that league was being reformed, Palace were one of several clubs to apply for a spot in its set up. We were however, somewhat controversially denied this, meaning we would stay in the third tier. I asked Dean, at that point, what preparations were put in place and what were the goals for the season?
“The preparations had to remain the same. I'd set out to sign some players to help with the squad we already had to go and win the league.”
Three weeks before the new Championship was to start however, Doncaster Belles dropped out of it, and we were moved up to take their place. So how did Dean first find out this news, and what were his initial thoughts on it?
“I was given the news by Paula Johnson, our GM, and it was a shock at first to be honest. But once it had sunk in the excitement was crazy and I couldn't wait to tell the team...their reaction was unbelievable.”
While the move to the Championship was fantastic news for the club, the time frame was very tight, and all of sudden our opening game of the season would now see Leicester City visit Hayes Lane. In what I imagined must have been hectic times, I asked Dean what that spell was like, from finding out about the promotion, to the day we welcomed Leicester to Hayes Lane?
“It was very tough. One minute you’re preparing for the third tier, then the next you’re promoted! The time frame to get things sorted was very challenging, because the signing of new players of that quality was hard as most had already found new clubs and were in training. We’d also lost two very important players to another club as they wanted to go and experience Championship football, so it was difficult times, but we managed to get a couple through the door which helped immensely.”
That first season would see us battle in some very tough games, against very good opposition. We would eventually finish tenth on eleven points. I asked Dean if there were any particular performances that stood out for him that season?
“I think the Millwall game at home winning 3-1 under the lights with all the fans there was really special. Some great goals along with the signing from the loyal fans was a real moment.”
That game would have been my choice too. I remember leaving that awful 1-0 FA Cup third round win over Grimsby and racing my way to Hayes Lane, missing the first ten minutes or so. It was a great performance, culminating in top scorer Gemma Bryan scoring on her return, right in front of the Loyal. Another moment in that match saw goalie Shanell Salgado go off injured after being clattered in the head, which forced winger Chloe Burr to play in goal for the second half. This somewhat summed up one of our biggest struggles during the season, that of injuries. Every week it seemed as though someone new left a match injured, making it difficult to see a regular eleven. Four goalie’s had to be used(including that Burr cameo), there were games where Dean struggled to get more than two subs on the bench, and it was rare for any real partnerships to form either in defence or upfront. I asked Dean what it was like to manage through those injury issues, which were only adding to the difficulty of having been thrust into a higher level of league at short notice?
“Again it was difficult because we had so many injuries and we couldn't find a way of putting out our best team, but for me and the staff that was a massive learning curve and one we finally came through.”
With that first season in the history books, the summer of 2019 saw a massive overhaul of the playing staff, with several departures including Nikita Whinnett, Megan Lynch, Hope Nash, Kallie Balfour, Ria Collins, Pam McRoberts and Shanell Salgado among others. This meant a host of new arrivals, including Bianca Baptiste, Rea Laudat, Amy Goddard, Ashleigh Goddard, Leeta Rutherford, Ella Rutherford, Annabel Johnson, Magda Mosengo and Lucy Gillett, as well as a few more. I asked Dean what the thought process was behind these changes, and what the aim for the 2019/20 season was?
“The turnover of players was something that was needed, because we had gone up into the Championship with a team prepared to win the third tier. The process was now that we had the correct time to prepare, we must try to put a squad together that can compete and stay in the league. The platform had been laid, now the aim was to maintain our status.”
That season was brought to a pause in March, and then not long after a confirmed premature finish due to the Covid Pandemic. The season was decided on the points per game scheme, seeing us finish in a positive 7th place. Had the season run its course, we were well on our way to beating the previous season’s points tally, which as with the improved table positioning, was a big positive. However, it was still a season of inconsistency, and I wanted to ask Dean if he felt that perhaps too many player changes in one go made it take longer for the squad to settle, or if he felt there were other reasons for the inconsistency?
“Again, injuries played a major part in the inconsistency which brought about the personnel changes, but we're in a better place to move forward. It's not easy playing against established Championship teams every week and still we are adapting. Things take time. It's important you set down those foundations to be able to move forward, adjusting to the new workload was, and is a positive move.”
The pandemic, and that early lockdown period, brought a lot of uncertainty for everyone. There was the issue of keeping players fit while in lockdown, initially in case the season could restart, and then while waiting for news about the 2020/21 season. When it became clear that football was going to return, it became a matter of putting into place all of the protocols required to make it a safe environment. I asked Dean what that period was like?
“To be quite honest, it's been a very good transition. The club worked tirelessly to put all the covid protocols in place thanks to Paula(GM), while Andy Greene, the staff and I had to concentrate on getting the team ready. It was quite strange at first not knowing when we would return, and the players kept themselves busy and interactive with each other through zoom chats, bingo and the odd quiz. The fitness was done through programmes that the S&C coaches would send out daily, so thankfully it's not been too disruptive.”
With the club returning in preparation for the new season, two keys actions took place. The first was that the strong core of the team was retained, with the likes of AJ, Amy Goddard, Ashleigh Goddard, Amber Stobbs, Andria Georgiou, Aoife Hurley, Bianca Baptiste, Lizzie Waldie and Cherelle Khassal and a few others, staying here. The second key action, was the addition of some new faces, players of a high quality that would add to the talent we had managed to keep, and fill the positions that were needed. Chloe Morgan, Coral-Jade Haines, Ffion Morgan, Georgia Clifford and Kate Natkiel were among those to sign on the dotted line this summer. For me, it certainly felt like there had been a meticulous and well planned strategy put into place this pre-season, with the signings finished early(something unheard of in the men’s game), enabling us to gain the maximum benefit of the pre-season preparations. I asked Dean if this summer had seen a change in mindset and approach, perhaps helped by two years of experience gained at this level?
“Most definitely, we spent a lot of time this pre-season planning our approach and it's really important you learn from any previous mistakes and use that experience to move forward. In this league, you cannot stand still otherwise someone else will overtake you, so mindsets are changing all the time. We as a group feel we have a real good balance, and that it's important we as a group maintain that importance.”
While we are showing improvements year on year, and this summer has been one that in my opinion has seen us make some very positive strides forward, there is one particular matter that I needed to cover. One of the main frustrations in regards to the men’s team in the last seven seasons, has been our struggle to deliver at home. Generally, six wins out of 19 has been the common number. It has always been believed that a home ground needs to be made a fortress. This is one area that has been a big struggle for CPFCW. Since promotion to the Championship, we have only won two Championship matches and one Continental Cup match at Hayes Lane. The last win of any form at Hayes Lane, was on January 6th 2019, when we beat Millwall 3-1 in an excellent performance. Since that night, we have lost 13 games and drawn 2 in all competitions at Hayes Lane. Since promotion, our total at Hayes Lane is 3 wins, 3 draws, 1 penalty shoot-out victory and 19 losses in all competitions. Of the 26 points earned across the three seasons so far, only 9 have come at Hayes Lane. Both Selhurst Park and Hayes Lane get praised for their atmospheres, yet for some reason it does not seem to equate to success on the pitch. I asked the gaffer why does he think we have so much trouble at home, and how does he go about trying to switch it round to make Hayes Lane the fortress we are all so eager for it to be?
“Thanks for reminding me! To be honest, we knew coming into the championship was going to be difficult, coming from where we did at the time in tier 3, and given the time we had to prepare it was always going to have an effect and be difficult. I think what with this and the injuries as well as a loss of confidence at times, have all contributed and have all been factors behind the struggle. As a squad we have had many team meetings to try and figure out the reasons along with bringing in a Sports Psychologist to help. We have all been working really hard to put this right and will keep on asking the questions and working hard on the training pitch to turn this around. Once we get over the hurdle of winning some games at home I do believe this will help us to overcome the home form, and start to show that the support from the fans is much appreciated, because we do have the best and loudest fanbase in the league and the players are itching to make them happy and proud.”
As a fan and one of the Loyal, I know we are always proud of the girls and will always support them no matter what. We are just desperate to go crazy with cheers and watch the away fans trudge home sad for a change!! Now, as the gaffer stated, it has been a big adjustment in the Championship, so I wanted to know what differences he has found between managing in the Championship and the National League?
“Of course the workload and hours spent doing the job has changed massively, having to work outside of football with the day job and finding the balance has been a challenge but I wouldn't change it as I love what I do and will always try to find a solution to find that balance. On the playing side the quality of the all-round player is much higher, and players require more detail and information as the learning of the game is much higher.
An important change is the running of the staff and the information that has to be put out. The introduction of S&C, Sports science and all the other departments has to be spot on between all departments. It's important we are all on the same page because there is pressure now simply because of the amount of money involved, and it is a job where results count. The change in professionalism is huge!!”
Changing pace a little, I asked Dean who have been the best players to manage?
“Happy ones lol!!”
On the flipside of that, I then asked what has been the worst thing he has had a player do?
“Walk off the training field whilst the session is ongoing.”
Very much the opposite to a happy player then! So, moving back to Palace, I asked Dean what he thinks would be our best formation, if he had every player available for selection?
An interesting choice that has me intrigued as to who would play in what positions! Perhaps pick the team could be an article for another day! So, with all the work put into piecing this squad together, what is the aim for it to achieve this season?
“To finish behind all the full-time clubs in our league (6th).”
Our performances so far this season have certainly given hope to the possibility that this, or close to it, could very well happen this year. In the previous two campaigns, one of our problems has been putting the ball in the opposition net and keeping it out of ours. This season though, we already have nine league goals(from four games) and two Conti Cup goals(from one game). In terms of the league, we are only 5 short of the 14 we scored in total last season. This is a marked improvement for sure. I asked Dean what he thought was the reason for this upturn in scoring fortunes?
“We as staff have made positive changes in the way we approach certain goals through the learning of previous seasons. We have given more ownership to the players, something that has worked really well as they have a balance now to go out and express themselves. That, and just general hard work from throughout the club.”
The positive changes are certainly having an affect on the pitch, and long may that continue. Up until now though, we have been focusing on the short term. So, what exactly are Dean’s long-term goals for the club?
“Firstly, to make the Crystal Palace Football Club continuously proud to have a Women's team, one that constantly is competing at the highest level. Also, to hopefully reach the WSL, turning the players into full-time professionals.”
I know I would love to see us reach the WSL, to see the club go full time and enable our players to live the dream they constantly work so hard for. Fingers crossed we will see it happen. At this point though, this interview is nearing its end, and for the final couple of questions, I wanted to move away from Palace, and look at Women’s football in the bigger picture. The first of those being the current structure of the Women’s Championship. For me, it drives me mad that there are an odd number of teams in the league, meaning one team has to sit out each round, and in my eyes it does not look professional. I also get frustrated that various teams are at different levels of professional status, and that there is not the health care in place needed by the players for serious injuries. So, I asked Dean, if he could make one fundamental change to the Championship, what would it be?
“I'd like to see more teams involved, as there are far too many breaks in the calendar.”
He isn’t wrong. After Christmas we play two games in February, just the one in March, and then two in April. That is just far too stop/start for such a high level, especially when the players want to be out there playing. Looking at an even bigger picture, I recently wrote an article about if Sky picked up Women’s football, and what I feel would need to happen to take the women’s game to the next level. With that in mind, my final question to the Gaffer was to ask what he feels needs to happen to take the women’s game to the next level and give the players the recognition they deserve?
“The main factor in making the women's game take that step forward is Investment and the buy-in from all football fans across the country, whether it's going to watch a women's game or watching them on the media platforms provided. Investment is always a major factor in anything you try to grow. I do believe the FA are making great strides into making this happen as this will ultimately give clubs the chance to compete on a level playing field. This will only help close the gap which is currently growing between the tiers in women's football pyramid.”
It's hard to disagree with that, as investment would certainly be a massive help to the clubs in making the stride forward, and to giving the players the platform they need to do what they do best. With that, the questions are over! Personally, I have very much enjoyed writing this and getting to know a little bit more about the man I hear shouting from the dugout! With both of us being lifelong Palace fans, there is definitely a conversation over a pint to be had sometime! As I bring this to a close, I would like to say thank you to the Gaffer who was most likely not expecting four pages of questions, but yet tackled them anyway, including ones which he really did not have to answer! I wish him the best of luck with the rest of the season, and hope that before it is done, we are able to get back on the terraces to support the team!
I will be returning to the player interviews after this, with a couple already lined up! For now, though, I hope you have all enjoyed reading this in depth discussion with the boss, and that it has perhaps answered some of the questions you all had in mind!