Welcome to Project Restart. Three weeks ago, the majority of us were filled with the sheer delight of having football back again. Sure, not being able to actually attend the games was an awful prospect, but with the most amount of football ever set to be available on TV, and with our beloved Palace due to be back in action, we focused on the positives. After three months of uncertainty and a lack of, well, anything, to have something we loved back again was what truly mattered.
During that three month hiatus, us Palace fans also found ourselves in somewhat unknown territory. With talk of the various possibilities as to how to proceed with, or possibly end the season, naturally those with the most to lose were the most vocal. For the likes of Liverpool, there was the fear that by not finishing the season, they would not at last win the Premiership, having built up such a dominant lead. Meanwhile, for the likes of West Ham, Watford, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa, there was the fear that if the season was completed, they could very well find themselves in the EFL Championship next year. For us though, after so many years of being in the relegation group, for once, relegation was not our worry. In fact, our reason for wanting to finish the season, was the chance for our best ever finish, and the outside possibility of the Europa League!!
It has certainly been a strange season for us. The summer transfer window saw two very good moves(although questioned at the time) in signing Jordan Ayew for £2.5m and Gary Cahill on a free. However, it failed to solve the major issues in our squad, namely the lack of quality in depth. Our squad is ageing, especially in defence, and we did nothing to improve that. In fact, we made it worse by selling our young starlet Aaron Wan-Bissaka and not replacing him. We desperately needed the creative midfielder that can unlock a stubborn defence, and instead signed another defensive midfielder in McCarthy. We needed competition for Wilf and Andros on the wings, and didn’t get any. Plus, we have been crying out for strikers for years, and that never happened either. In fact, by loaning out Sorloth, we actually decreased our already minimal options. On top of all that, we had Wilf handing in a transfer request on deadline day and wanting out, while Luka, having just signed a new contract, revealed in an interview that he had been hoping for a move to a bigger club, but signed a contract when that didn’t materialise! We were not in a positive position, yet again, and the concerns of our squad were added to when we got thumped 4-0 at home in our last friendly against Hertha Berlin, a game that exposed almost every weakness we had.
As for the matches themselves, well it has been the typical Palace story in a way. An awful performance saw us lose our first away game at newly Promoted Sheffield United, only then for us to go to Old Trafford seven days later and pick up our first ever league win there! Naturally, we then followed that up with a penalty defeat at home to League One Colchester in the cup!! This has kind of been the way all season. We are either the perfect beast who shuts down opponents and grinds out hard earned wins, or we are awful and lose in games where we barely register anything on the stats. A spell before Christmas and over the Christmas period had us feeling relatively positive, with a strong 2-0 win away to Burnley, followed up by a never say die 1-0 at home to Bournemouth despite having ten men for over 70 minutes. There were draws against Southampton and Norwich to, along with a win at home to West Ham which saw us complete the double over them. Then came 2020, and a downward turn. We were knocked out of the FA Cup at home to Championship Derby, wins dried up in the league and we suffered another failed transfer window. The day before deadline day looked positive, as it would seem we were going to sign Jarrod Bowen from Hull and Nathan Ferguson from West Brom, the kind of signings we have been desperate for. Yet by the end of deadline day, Bowen was a West Ham player and an injury issue meant Ferguson was still at West Brom. This meant that the only squad addition was the loan of Cenk Tosun from Everton. But with Wickham getting loaned out to Sheffield Wednesday, once again we hadn’t actually strengthened our squad.
Our poor run took us from never being mentioned in regards to relegation, to Talksport pundits tipping us for the drop. The final three weeks before the season stopped changed all that. A run of three 1-0 wins over Newcastle, Brighton and Watford saw us rocket up the table onto 39 points, virtual safety, and just 6 points off the European spots!
No one knew what to expect with Project Restart, in terms of player fitness, intensity etc. Yet our opening performance away to Bournemouth was a joy to behold. We looked fit, we looked focused and we looked good. Two great goals, and a set up that totally stifled Bournemouth had us all jumping for joy, and daring to dream. Yet three games later, the doom and gloom has fallen over us once more. We went into the Bournemouth game with Tomkins, Kelly and Schlupp injured. Four days later, when we travelled to Anfield, injury issues deprived us of Benteke, Luka and Guaita too. On top of that, Wilf went off injured within 15 minutes. We lost 4-0, and frankly it could have been more. We then followed that up with a flat and uninterested 1-0 loss at home to a depleted Burnley, and then yesterdays 3-0 defeat to Leicester, where we worked hard to hand them their goals. Three games, with no goals scored, eight conceded and barely anything created, has sucked the life and enthusiasm out of the fanbase. Naturally, the Roy Out stuff has started again. Of course it has. Every time we get a bad result, the Roy Out brigade raise their flag and bang their drum. It’s the simple answer, which is why people go to it so easy. For me though, I think our issues lie much deeper than that, much deeper than Roy’s tactics and lack of subs. For me, years of squad neglect, has left it to get stale.
We don’t have much money, that is something we are all very much aware of. We have taken gambles, some of which have worked, some haven’t. Let’s be honest, the Frank de Boer season should have been our last in this division. Pardew had run the squad into the ground in terms of confidence, leadership and fitness. Sam Allardyce had managed to salvage survival from it, but I still believe that he knew without more money, he couldn’t take it much further. When FDB came in, there was a hope of change. We had appointed our first foreign manager, a man who had been a world class player for most of his career, and aside from a brief stint as manager at Inter, had brought three consecutive championships to Ajax and used their youth system. When he came in, I had hoped for a blend of what we had, along with the emergence of more youth and some exciting signings. It never happened. Frank looked at one or two youth players, Jason Lokilo being the main one, but nothing really emerged from it. In terms of signings, he got three. Jairo Riedewald who he knew from Ajax, plus the loans of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. While Frank’s tactics and style were extremely questionable, you an easily argue that he was not given the tools for the revolution that was required and expected with his arrival.
With FDB’s departure, and Roy’s arrival, I believe the mindset and outlook has changed at the club. In ways, it has been for the better, but the problem is, we are taking time to get it right, while still paying the price for past decisions. In Roy,
we finally had something that we had been lacking our entire time since promotion, and that is stability. Roy’s time here will always divide fan opinion, and it will largely depend on what you want out of games. If you want exciting football, but with high risk of failure, Roy is not your guy. If you want a solid base that won’t be pretty, but overall will be effective where it counts, with points, then you will appreciate what Roy has done here. In my opinion, while he has at times been questionable with his decisions, Roy is the best manager we have had since Sir Steve Coppell. He took over a sinking ship, with an unbalanced squad lacking any depth, and with hardly any real backing player wise, has turned us into a mid-table team. For Parish and co, Roy has been an absolute godsend.
After years of awful transfers and wasting money with not much future planning, you can see that at last we are trying to change our approach to bringing in players. Other than the £9m spent on Sorloth, we have paid very little in terms of fees. That very window, Roy’s first, showed we were trying a different approach, by looking for cheaper gems in Europe. Unfortunately, in Sorloth, Jach and Rakip, we didn’t really achieve that! The most recent transfer window though, with our attention drawn to players like Ferguson and Bowen, we at last were looking in the right direction. Mamadou Sakho, a blatant Parish signing post FDB, has proven to be the last of the big money moves, and to be honest I think that is a wise choice. However, while our mindset and approach has changed, our failure to give the squad what it needs, is starting to really take its toll.
All the while Roy is at the helm, he is buying time for the owners to either tread water, or get us back into a financial position to do decent business. Roy has continued to get results and survival out of a squad that you could easily argue, should be struggling more than it does. It is just typical that the manager who deserves the backing the most, and would probably achieve the most with it, is the one manager who has never really had it. Massive money both in fees and wages has been paid out pre-Hodgson, with very little return. We have had too many duds who cost decent money, that we have not been able to get rid of, and so been stuck with them holding us back financially. When they have gone, we have never made any money back on them, let alone a profit, meaning that money has not gone back into the kitty for future investment. On top of that, we have had their high wages leaving us with very little breathing space. Pulis was backed(albeit in one of the last years of low transfer fees). Pardew was backed, and Allardyce was backed. But in our attempts to give these managers a chance, or in the case of Allardyce, put out fires, we have thrown away so much money that we now find ourselves struggling to do what is needed.
For years, our squad has needed strength in depth. For years, we haven’t had it. For most of Roy’s time here, we haven’t added quality to what he had, we have simply replaced what was lost each summer, and that is it. Every year that we have failed to address the needs of the squad, is another year where we have made the requirements even greater. It started off where realistically we needed 5-6 players. Now though, that number is in double figures, if we are completely honest. By a lot of our fans though, Roy gets blamed for this. I keep seeing people criticise his tactics, how rigid he is, and how he won’t change things up personnel wise. Our last three results have triggered such comments once more. Let me ask you though, how on earth can he change it up? What have we got, that will make things any better? I know, that straight away people will read this and say Max Meyer, Jairo, the youth team. All are simple easy answers to give, if you don’t look at the detail. In reality, they are fans clinging to something average, because it feels like anything could be better, when actually, they aren’t.
Roy has always been rigid to a degree. Players earn their spot in the team, and then he sticks with them until they mess up badly and someone else has earned their chance. However, when he had better options, we did more. His first season here, we had Ruben Loftus-Cheek. In the latter stages of the season, we had RLC, Zaha and Townsend causing havoc, because no one knew who to mark. They had that freedom, because Cabaye was sitting in the hole breaking up play, which in turn enabled Luka to play a better game. Even then though, it didn’t work every game. But with Benteke injured, we had no striker, so we went with what we had, it just so happened that what we had, on its day, was very good. We have never replaced RLC, nor have we replaced Cabaye, in terms of the quality they brought to the team.
Over the years, our squad has lost the individual flair and bit of extra quality, which in my opinion, has simply forced Roy to be more rigid. It has become a case of making the whole better than the sum of its parts. Roy has done that. In doing so, he has blatantly fulfilled the task given to him every year, which is survival. This will no doubt thrill Parish and the Americans, but, will frustrate some of our fanbase. The FA Cup final has given us a taste of progression, but has bever been matched since. This season has given us a sniff of a top half finish and possible venture into Europe, but it has been thrown away, and so it is another season that will look like no real progression has been made.
To a degree, depending on how you look at it, after seven years in the Premier League, no progression has been made. We were promised a new stand, bringing with it a bigger capacity that would up the vital gate receipts. Some three years on, it is no closer to starting due to Sainsbury’s refusal to budge. It has reached the point that most of us now think it will never happen. After seven years of the Premier League mega money, we are financially level, and that is thanks to the AWB sale clearing our debts. Not rich, not well off, just level. In seven years, just one player has made it from our youth ranks, and even that was more through forced circumstance. That player being AWB, who has already left the club. Our squad is old and has no balance. Our manager is old. Our American owners supposedly have no interest. We literally have no forward planning currently, which is going to catch up with us. The two plus points, are the Academy now getting revamped with the hope of Category 1 status, and the fact that we are still in the Premier League. Don’t get me wrong, still being in the Premier League is key, and it is paramount it stays that way. At some point though, we need to look to make a step or two forward, otherwise we will stagnate and drop like a stone.
These are factors why fans are frustrated, and I can understand it. I can also understand why some criticise Roy, and at times they have a point. However, for me, you need to look deeper than the obvious finger pointing at the manager. A workman is only as good as the tools he has to work with. You just have to look at our squad in detail, to see where the deep-rooted problem lies. Joel Ward has been a great player for this football club, and to be honest, has been much better this season then what anyone expected him to be. However, for 18 months he was second choice, a role that had been coming. At a time when we probably should have been looking to move him on, we have had to go back to him being first choice. Not just first choice, our ONLY choice. An error we have made too many times in the last seven years, yet never learn from. At left back, PVA is our ONLY choice. Schlupp can play there, but has been better in midfield. Hopefully Tyrick Mitchell is the future of that position, but it is still early days. PVA is great going forward, but defensively not so strong. All of our centre backs are 29 or older. This season we have had to turn to Scott Dann, a player who really should have left the club last summer, if not the summer before. He has done well, but having to turn to him is in reality a step back. Mamadou Sakho has reached the point where he needs to leave. On the whole, while he does love the odd stupid decision, the majority of his time on the pitch for us, he has been excellent. The problem is, getting him on the pitch is not easy. His loan spell summed him up perfectly. Eight excellent appearances and then injured for the rest of the season. Had Sakho been a £10m signing on lower then £100k wages, it wouldn’t be an issue. However, when a club like us spends £26m on a player and over £100k in wages, we need that player delivering every week. We can’t afford to keep having him out injured, and then when he comes back, making stupid errors that cost goals. His cost is one of the reasons our hands are so tied when it comes to transfers, and so we can no longer afford the luxury of such an expense sitting in our treatment room.
If you move into our midfield, it doesn’t get much better. No one really has a defined role. We have a host of defensive midfielders, and very little in the way of attacking. The most forward thinking was probably Schlupp, who isn’t even an actual central midfielder. We have missed his pace and movement, I think. Jimmy Mac has been one of our best ever signings. His tenacity and work rate is phenomenal, and he loves a cheeky goal too. But he is 31 now, and we can’t keep expecting him to play game after game at the intensity with which he does, without giving him support. Kouyate is a good player, but injury prone, and again, not really defined in his role within the team. Luka, in my opinion, doesn’t want to be here. He pretty much said it last summer. His best playing spells for us were when he had Cabaye sitting in the hole behind him. He was never as good after Cabaye left, but scoring ten penalties a season made him an asset. This year, he has been incredibly poor. Too many games he has failed to live up to expectations in midfield, with poor passes, poor tackles and a knack of picking up needless yellow cards. We have hardly had any penalties either, which has weakened his affect on the team even more. Then you have Meyer and Jairo, two players that are hard to call. Many complain that they aren’t given a chance, and see them as the solution. Again, I can understand it. Both at times have shown lovely touches and distribution. However, I do feel judgement is clouded by the fact that they are simply not holding midfielders. People are so fed up of seeing five different defensive midfielders every game, that these two look like saviours just because they are slightly different. Yet, I think Meyer flatters to deceive. You have to question why a player, supposedly coveted by the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, got into August still a free agent, and then signed for us. A player, who after two years of not really featuring, has not complained, has not asked to leave, and has never even had an agent fuelled story questioning his absence from the team. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that those things haven’t happened, but I feel that sadly, Max isn’t quite the player that we thought he would be. Then again, I do think that if we are to ever get the best out of Max, and probably Jairo, it would be with a different manager.
Then, there is our forward line. This has been a problem area for years. We have suffered from a serious lack of strikers. We all know the class and ability of Wilf, and I commend him for putting the disappointment of last summer behind him, to get on with the season. Arguably though, it has probably been one of his worst seasons since his return. A lot of that, is down to the state of the squad. Wilf is our only major threat, in terms of creation and putting others under pressure. The opposition knows that if you can mark Wilf out of the game, you have pretty much got us stopped. So, time and time again this happens. When we have had another exciting element, like RLC, like Bolasie and like Andros a year or so ago, then it helped Wilf because we had other options. Sadly now, that isn’t the case. Andros will always work hard, and at times his left foot is sublime, but he has stopped being the player that is going to carve defences open. His goal return should be higher for us then what it is, without doubt, because he has the skill and talent to achieve it. But, if you look back at the Burnley game the other night, while he did some lovely one touch lay offs and always offered himself for the ball, when it got to Burnley’s box, he just didn’t have the cut and thrust to get through them. There is a reason why he has lost his place to Jordan Ayew this season. Last year on loan, Jordan was poor and so when we made it permanent, fans were scratching their heads. Jordan has proven us all wrong. He has been magnificent this season. For a start, he has nine goals, goals that have won 15 points. He has moments where he gets in the zone and just carves open defences. His work ethic on top of that, is phenomenal. Roy no doubt loves him, because Jordan tracks back, he defends, he reads the play and intercepts the opposition attacks. He has been great for us, and a real bargain. However, is he really best suited out wide? I don’t think so. Is he a lone striker? No. He needs to play in a front two, just off the other striker, in my opinion. Sadly though, we don’t have the depth to do that. He is better out wide then as the lone striker, I will say that. Then, of course, there is Benteke. A great first season with 17 goals for the £30m outlay and big wages, but since then his return has been shocking. I will say that lately, Roy seems to have reinvented him, and Benteke has become more important in the way that we play. Winning the headers, holding up the ball and giving defenders something to think about. His absence in the Liverpool and Burnley games was very noticeable, and I think had he played against Burnley, it would have been a different game, as he provides an outlet. His downfall though, is impossible to ignore. The club has played a part in it. His strength is his head, and since his first season, we have stopped crossing the ball to him. We have deprived him of his main asset. On top of that, our failure to buy other strikers meant that when his form started to dip, we couldn’t take him out of the firing line, because we had no one else. Christian isn’t free of blame either though. We may not be crossing the ball to his head much, but over the last few years, he has still missed a bag full of chances, that he should have put away. From chances alone, he should have hit double figures each season. Like with Sakho, I feel it is time for Benteke to go. His fee and his wages have played a big part in our future transfer struggles, and we have simply not had the return for it. Instead, we are carrying him, which I shall expand on.
For several years now, the board have relied on Roy to get the best out of the limited resources they give him. He could have walked away by now, like both Pulis and Allardyce did, but Roy has stayed and kept us going. Roy has been forced to accept having to put square pegs in round holes. He has been forced to accept ‘okay’ instead of pushing for ‘good’ or ‘great’. The same goes for us as fans. We have had to accept that our mega money striker doesn’t score goals, and instead praise his hold up play because without it, we are worse off. We have had to accept a load of defensive midfielders, none of which have a defined role, because we don’t have anything else. We have had to accept our second choice right back nearing the end of his time here, suddenly being our main guy, because we literally have no one else. We have had to accept 32 year old Scott Dann coming back from the wilderness to be first choice, because we have done nothing to plan for the long term. People blame Roy and the tactics, but for a lot of this, the problem is the lack of decent squad building and forward planning.
Naturally, many have turned their attention to the youth. For several games now, people have been pleading for the young players to get a go, and getting angry when Roy doesn’t play them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I would love to see them play and be a success. I would love a lifelong Palace fan in Sam Woods to progress from our academy to being our first-choice centre back for years. Sadly though, again I think we are clutching at straws, desperate to make something seem better than it is, simply because we have failed to build a squad with options. Our U-23s have had a very poor season. There has been a lot of talk going round, that only Tyrick Mitchell is seen as good enough for the first team picture. We have struggled to loan out players this year. Even then, when we do loan our youngster out, they never go to decent teams. They never go to Championship clubs, a level where we really need them to be playing at, in order to test them out. One or two have over the years, and never do very well. When a lot of our youngsters leave us, it isn’t that often that they go on to be successful at a high level. Those of us who have been fans for a long time, we have had the joy of seeing players come through our youth team and make it as first team regulars, and I think we still cling to that ideology. Sadly though, I think we have dropped off in quality in that department, something that hopefully will be rectified with the revamping of the Academy.
There are other elements too, elements where both Roy and the players are to blame. Set pieces is one of the main ones. How are we so awful at them? 151 corners this season, and 1 goal, is just shocking. Sadly, seeing that stat was not a surprise. For years, we have been awful at corners. We get into these good attacking positions, and have height, but do nothing with them. No matter who takes the corner, 85% of the time, it is awful. Either too heavy, straight at the goalie, or never clearing the first man. Then, on the majority of cases when the delivery is decent, no one is challenging in the box. Honestly, I swear we have been given a limit as to how many of our players can be in the opposition box at one time. We never get bodies in there, on any attack. How many times over the years have we seen Wilf get to the line and cut the ball back into the box, where we have one attacking player against four defenders? It is just madness, yet we never change.
For me, we have reached a critical time in our history, a period that could well define the shape of our future. Roy does not have many years left in him, he is not our future. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the one year extension, was an agreement by him and Parish that if the opportunity arises for something else, then Roy will step aside. Our squad is ageing, and we are going to lose players in a large number at the same time, in terms of quality, and in terms of contract. We need to make changes. We need our own Project Restart, while protecting the balance of things. The fact is, that Alan Curbishley at Charlton and Tony Pulis at Stoke are prime examples of pushing away the safety blanket and losing everything. This is why, for me, Sean Dyche would be my choice. If he was to become available this summer, it should be the move we make. Even if Roy stays though, the squad must be revamped this summer. Next season is the time to get a core of players in, while you still have the likes of Cahill, McArthur, Kouyate, Guaita to help them settle and build. We need to stop carrying people for the sake of it, when it is draining our financial resources and our ability on the field. The likes of Sakho, Benteke, Wickham, Dann, Hennessey, Jach and a few others need to go. Dougie and his team need to have the summer of their lives, and actually build, instead of just replace. Roy needs options, he needs variety. Players actually need competition for their places. Plus, it would be nice to actually have people playing in their rightful position. Also, if we do manage to keep Wilf, then we need to stop holding him back with the restraints that our lack of squad depth are putting on him. We need pace, we need desire, we need hunger, we need flair. We can’t keep relying on trusty old heads to battle their way through, because it won’t last forever. That is why we are so hit and miss currently. Our work ethic, and our battlers can be fantastic at times, and grind out results, but they can’t do it every game, it just isn’t possible. At the moment, we have safety, but if this squad gets neglected anymore, that safety will go, and we will slip out of this division with nothing to build upon. 28 goals in a season is not acceptable. Seven years of being poor at home is not acceptable. Failing to give Roy and our key players the backing they deserve(in terms of other players) is not acceptable.
For me, our problems are years in the making, and have been created off the pitch, not on it.
Oh, and as I end this, I want to do so with one key stat, for all those who constantly slate Roy into the ground. On Saturday 17th March 2018 we walked out onto the pitch to face Huddersfield, and we were sitting 18th in the table. A 2-0 win that day(under Roy), saw us climb out of the relegation zone. We have never finished a round of Premier League games in the relegation zone since that day. That’s over two years ago, and will be two and a quarter seasons when this season ends. For us, that is unheard of. Despite injuries, despite having no strikers, despite having no depth…Roy has achieved that. The man deserves respect and our thanks.