The perils of mid-table mediocrity

“Wasted potential on and off the pitch. Weak decisions taking us backwards.”

Legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was 71 when he retired from coaching football in 2013. On 20th January, 76-year-old Roy Hodgson, the oldest manager in Premier League history, was pictured looking on helplessly towards a damning banner unfurled by Crystal Palace’s frustrated away fans in the 90th minute of their 5–0 trouncing by Arsenal.

With a geriatric manager, a miserly chairman and an ever-present gravitational pull towards the lower half of the league table, it is becoming difficult to see being a Crystal Palace fan for anything other than it quite frankly is – a complete bore. “Football fandom is meant to be a rollercoaster of emotions,” The Athletic’s Michael Cox said. “Supporting Palace is more like an entirely functional monorail.”

it is becoming difficult to see being a Crystal Palace fan for anything other than it quite frankly is – a complete bore

Those not familiar with the club’s status will struggle to see the problem. ‘You’re enjoying your longest-ever spell in the top-flight, and are a consistent Premier League side!’ they would say. ‘Many clubs would kill to be in your position’. This is fair. As a Palace fan, supporting my club is not the hardest thing one can do. You only need to compare our position with clubs like Everton (whose Premier League position is looking increasingly precarious due to financial irregularities), third-division Reading (whose fans recently stormed the pitch protesting their apathetic owner), or Bury (who, after entering administration, no longer technically exist).

On 6 December last year, Hodgson faced severe backlash after calling Palace supporters “spoilt” following a drab 2–0 defeat to Bournemouth. To him, this makes sense; growing up in Croydon in the 1960s, his perception of the club was as a third-division side who had never even tasted promotion in its entire history. Being 19, meanwhile, all I’ve really known since really getting into football is my club being in the Premier League, the crème de la crème of English football. So maybe expecting more from Palace is unreasonable.

Well… it is, and it isn’t. While many midtable clubs would love the promise of Premier League stability, there is a sense that every other team of a similar stature has at least featured one or two pushes for European football; Burnley, Watford, Wolves, Southampton, Swansea, all this century, have competed in the UEFA Europa League, with Fulham and Middlesbrough having reached the final, while Brentford, Leeds United, and Sheffield United, meanwhile, have all come breathtakingly close in recent years to qualifying. Palace never have.

But what stings the most is Palace’s biggest rivals, Brighton & Hove Albion, who were only promoted in 2017, qualifying for Europe for the first time in their history. Brighton boasts a remarkable data-driven scouting system implemented by owner Tony Bloom that has seen the quality of their players and their success increase substantially over the years. Stars like Bissouma, Trossard, Mac Allister, and Caicedo all emerged from the Brighton talent factory in the last couple of years and have since been sold for extortionate fees to different big-six clubs. As the popular joke goes – they can simply find a 16-year-old Bolivian wonderkid for pennies, have him score 10 goals the following season and sell him to Chelsea for £125 million, then rinse and repeat. They even did that with their manager!

In a world of football dominated by big clubs and filled with exorbitant money from morally questionable foreign states, Brighton’s organic methods of success are undoubtedly refreshing – but it is a staggeringly difficult watch as a Palace fan. Palace are not without talent, boasting talented youngsters like Michael Olise and England internationals like Marc Guéhi and Eberechi Eze, so why can they not push on in the same way? The comparison is, of course, a little unfair; Bloom notably took on £400 million in debt to finance Brighton’s sustainable recruitment strategy, something he is still paying off to this day. Given Palace’s ownership structure, wherein chairman Steve Parish only actually owns 10% of the club, with the rest divided amongst private equity moguls Josh Harris and David Blitzer, as well as Lyon owner John Textor, it is difficult to see where that kind of investment will come from.

But everything in recent years points to a feeling of stagnation. In 2021, following Hodgson’s initial retirement, Palace appointed promising young manager Patrick Vieira. This was accompanied by a wealth of signings of young talent, and a promise of expanding Palace’s stadium Selhurst Park. That season (2021–22) was the happiest many Palace fans remember being in a long time; the team were just four points off finishing 8th, made the FA Cup semi-finals, and, most importantly, played a freshly attacking-based style of football. In stark comparison to the boring traditionally defensive style espoused by Hodgson, this was a refreshing change. All the ingredients were there for the club to push on and go one step further the following season.

All the ingredients were there for the club to push on and go one step further the following season

Yet, during the 2022–23 season Palace went backwards. With Vieira not given as much freedom in the transfer market, the start of the calendar year saw the team go on a 12-match winless streak and teeter on the brink of the foot of the table. We were back in a relegation dogfight, Vieira was sacked, and the man brought in to temporarily replace him was none other than Hodgson – an initial short-term fix, yet who remains in the dugout to this day.

It’s difficult to blame Hodgson entirely for the club’s current predicament at time of writing (one win in 12 games); our talisman and greatest ever player, Wilfried Zaha, departed from the club on the expiry of his contract in July 2023, and his replacement was a £20 million Brazilian 18-year-old named Matheus França is yet to prove himself to be Premier League quality. Moreover, the team has been decimated by injuries this season, with Eze and Olise, the main creative stars of the team, facing lengthy spells on the sidelines. Without adequate replacements, much of which can be put down to lack of ambition in the transfer market, the team was always going to struggle.

But injuries are not unique to Palace this season, and issues like not giving promising youngsters from our youth academy enough minutes on the pitch, calling Palace fans “spoilt”, and generally uninspiring tactics and team selections indicate that Hodgson, though a legend for his years of service to Crystal Palace, is emblematic of the problem with the club.

Again, I cannot pretend that I have it worst as a Crystal Palace fan. We could be in the lower divisions or hamstrung by financial crises (as we have been for decades in the past). We have had some great moments this season – a win against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and a last-minute draw against reigning champions Manchester City at the Etihad. But while it’s difficult to imagine Palace being anything less than a Premier League side, it’s equally difficult to imagine us pushing up the table, winning more games than we lose, or qualifying for Europe. The reality of it is I generally come away from watching Palace matches feeling unhappy.

But while it’s difficult to imagine Palace being anything less than a Premier League side, it’s equally difficult to imagine us pushing up the table

Let me put it this way. Palace have spent ten seasons in the Premier League since their promotion in 2013; each year, they have finished between 10th and 15th, attaining somewhere between 41 and 49 points. In that period, Leicester City have gotten promoted, avoided relegation, won the Premier League, reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League, won the FA Cup, won the Community Shield, made the semifinals of the Europa League, got relegated, and are now taking the second division by storm. Quite the “rollercoaster” in comparison.

Is relegation a price to pay to see your team win games again? Maybe not. Though Leicester fans are certainly a happier bunch than Palace fans have been in the last decade or so.

Yet, supporting Crystal Palace is not just about the league table or the scoreboard. It is a club in the heart of the capital, in touch with its local community, and boasting a promising academy. Supporting Palace is a commitment to a journey, and a testament to unwavering pride in what the club represents. So, while our rollercoaster ride might lack flashy loops, there’s still undeniable joy and loyalty in being ‘South London and Proud’. Embracing our status and hoping to preserve it, with the optimism that our next destination brings the glory we truly deserve, is the best Palace fans can do right now. And that is boring. But, hey, it could be worse.

Image Credit: FromMorningToMidnight via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Image Description: Crystal Palace play Norwich City in the Premier League at Selhurst Park, 28 September 2019