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So, Crystal Palace. Officially founded in 1905 (and some might argue they are an older club, the oldest club, in the world, via connections to the original amateur Crystal Palace that were established in 1861), they ply their trade at Selhurst Park, London. Throughout their history Palace have often bounced between divisions, sometimes holding onto top flight football for several years. Jim Cannon holds the record for appearances (663 between 1973 and 1988). Peter Simpson is their all-time top goal scorer, with 165 goals in 195 appearances (a very good record), scored between 1929 and 1935. Historically noteworthy players include Dougie Freedman, Alan Pardew, Gareth Southgate, Chris Coleman, Wilfred Zaha, Wayne Hennessy, Andros Townsend and Jordan Ayew, to name but a few. Key rivals include the slightly unusual one with Brighton and Hove Albon (strange for the geography), and local rivals Millwall and Charlton Athletic. Interestingly, Charlton once shared Palace’s stadium, between 1985 and 1991. Wimbledon (now MK Dons) shared Selhurst Park with Palace from 1991, an arrangement that ended in 2003.
Palace are (as of the beginning of the 24/25 season at least) quite a well-off club, though they would still struggle to match the financial might of the biggest Premier League clubs. This is a far cry from a period a decade or so ago, when the club was hitting monetary challenges. Given their resources, I was surprised to see them in the Championship, but money does not guarantee success, especially if it’s poorly spent.
As the start of the season drew closer, I was making some highly ambitious moves in the transfer market, but many players weren’t interested in coming to a Championship club. Nonetheless I bolstered the squad and I was preparing new tactical approaches to reflect the better attacking players and ideals of my new club.
One approach was a 4-4-1-1 and a positive mentality. This was a more intense style of play. The other was a 3-5-1-2, an attacking attitude that nonetheless was less frantic. I’d give both a workout over the course of the pre-season, starting with the 4-4-1-1 and a trip to Scottish giants Celtic.
I had history with Celtic. As manager of Aldershot I’d beaten them at home, a true David vs Goliath clash with David emerging victorious. Palace were the visitors this time, but my new team were closer in quality. This proved to be true of the match itself – an early goal in Palace’s favour settled the fixture – it was good to get a winning start.
A few days later Palace took themselves to St. Mirren, as part of our tour of Scotland (the board had arranged a training camp up there). A 2-0 win was steady progress, but just two days later we travelled to face Rangers, the other half of the famous Glasgow rivalry. It was time to give tactic B a chance, and we ended up losing 3-2, despite leading twice. In the Eagles’ defence, we had a goal disallowed and missed a penalty.
Sportclub Rheindorf Altach were up next, visiting Selhurst Park. No, I haven’t heard of them either. They helped provide incredible entertainment in a 12-goal thriller. Palace went 3-0, and were pegged back to 3-3, then went 4-3 up, all by half-time. Rhian Brewster (formerly of Liverpool in real life) scored virtually all my goals, whilst nearly every shot on target SCR Altach managed went in. The formation was either weak defensively, or my ‘keeper, on this occasion Ashley Maynard-Brewer, just wasn’t very good.
For the final friendly (we were hosting Rapid Vienna) I returned to tactic A. This yielded a comfortable 3-0 victory. Now it was time to get down to the serious stuff.
The season would open with a home game against Reading. We took a very encouraging 3-0 win, with two good goals from Brewster (who missed a penalty as well). It was very early days, but the team had performed very well in their first competitive fixture under my stewardship, and I was eager to see what else they could do. They demonstrated what they could… by drawing 0-0 away to Huddersfield.
Then came a wee crisis. My first-choice ‘keeper Matheus got injured… for five months. Nathan Trott, my second-choice, wasn’t bad but hardly as good as Matheus. I set about seeking another goalie but I’d have to firstly guide Palace through a trip to Birmingham. In the end it was a successful visit, despite going a goal down to an early penalty. A late 25-yard screamer from Dele-Bashiru proved the difference. Next we played host to Colchester in the opening round of the Carabao Cup. I was hoping to lead Crystal Palace to at least the 2nd round – and I felt the squad had the potential to go further. A 4-0 win and a good overall performance was quite pleasing, and especially as we’d used the three-at-the-back formation. I was beginning to feel that the alternative strategy would be useful against teams with brittle defences – we’d see.
Just a few days later we were hosting Blackburn Rovers. A 3-2 win followed, but I felt the score-line flattered Blackburn. We were sloppy defensively late in the game – a lapse in concentration that might have been costly in other circumstances. We were then reunited with Colchester, only this time in a Championship clash, and this time we were travelling to Essex for the occasion. Against Blackburn I’d reverted to four at the back, but I returned the secondary formation for the trip to Colchester and, despite the score level at 1-1 at half-time, we ended up 4-1 winners, ramping up the pressure after the break.
We lost 2-1 at home to QPR next, and did not give a good account of ourselves. We’d need to swiftly refocus for the visit of Premier League Fulham in the 2nd round of the Carabao Cup. A 1-0 win slightly masked how good we played – we probably deserved to win, and maybe by more than one goal. Returning to a back-four was one of my wiser choices.
I’d stick to said formation for the visit up north to Hull. A 2-0 win validated my move, thanks to two late goals from Brewster and Kadewere.
With the closure of the transfer window it became clear that Palace had been the biggest spenders of the summer (oops!) and despite signing two new defenders a couple of my players felt I’d not strengthened the defence, despite my promise to do so. As far as I was concerned I’d done exactly that, so I have no idea why they were whinging. On the pitch, a brief break from the action due to the international break meant the team would hopefully be fresh to host Rotherham. I’d been ready to sing Rhian Brewster’s praises for his consistent goal-scoring, and he scored again against Rotherham – then went in with a wild two-footed lunge that got him sent off. It didn’t affect the outcome – a 4-1 win was quite the fine showing – but would it be a problem for a few games? We’d have to wait and see…
Having faced Sheffield Wednesday as manager of Aldershot on more than occasion, it was now time to face Sheffield United. They’d had a slightly better time of things in recent in-game seasons, but had fallen out of the Premier League at some stage. How would the Eagles fare on their trip to Bramall Lane?
The answer was TERRIBLE. After eight minutes we were 3-0 down and the match did not get better from there. In the end we succumbed to a 7-0 defeat, an horrific display that left me staggered. The team responded by dispatching Birmingham City 2-1 in the 3rd round of the Carabao Cup.
Following the absolutely woeful Sheffield United game, we repaired some of the goal difference damage by beating fellow promotion hopefuls Brentford 5-1 at Selhurst Park. A 6-2 away win followed against Swansea City, with hat-tricks for two of my signings – Barry and Kadewere. Another international break followed, granting a breather before we hosted Preston.
Random fact time. Preston North End, one of the founding members of the Football League, all the way back in 1888, started life as a cricket club in 1863. They moved to their current home, Deepdale, in 1875, and converted to a football club in 1880. Preston have the distinction of having won the very first league championship, the 1888/89 season, and they went unbeaten in the process. Not only that, they won the FA Cup that same season, not conceding a goal in the competition. At the time of meeting them in league combat, Palace were nestled at the top, Preston 20th, but as always, football can throw out curve balls.
On this occasion, Palace won, but it took an injury-time 30-yard stunner from Doan (one of my midfield dynamos) to secure a 2-1 win. Brewster returned from suspension to score, but I had expected a better overall performance from the team. With a trip to Stoke following only a handful of days later, we had to up our game. We duly did, a 4-2 win where it took long-range belters to beat Trott, and Brewster scored a brace to demonstrate why his was the first name on the team sheet.
Recall how I’d discussed Palace’s rivals earlier on? Now it was time to face one of them. We’d be entertaining Millwall, a club infamous (some might say notorious) for having a rather… shall we say aggressive fanbase. After 16 minutes Millwall were shockingly two goals up, after 31 minutes Palace were 3-2 up, and the game finished 4-3 to my lads, Brewster netting another injury-time winner. It wasn’t exactly a solid performance but no one cares in a local derby.
There would be no resting on laurels. Palace hosted Derby a few days later in the Carabao Cup 4th round. I rotated the squad a bit, for it would hopefully help certain players to gain match time. A 0-0 draw was followed by a penalty shootout, that my lads won. We were now, quite brilliantly, through to the 5th round!
For the first time I won the Championship Manager of the Month Award, whilst Kadewere won Player of the Month for October. To celebrate, we’d travel to Oxford. Yet another goal from Brewster and an unstoppable blast from the edge of the box from Sibley gave my side a comfortable 2-0 win.
With a third of the season complete, we enjoyed a four point lead over Blackburn and Nottingham Forrest. We’d scored more goals than any other side in the division. Rhian Brewster was top of the league’s goal-scorer chart and Tino Kadewere was second. We had a date with the 5th round of the Carabao Cup to look forward to. Things were looking up for Crystal Palace!
You may be wondering, how were Aldershot doing? The sad answer is ‘not good’. They were in the relegation zone of League One, and there was nothing I could do for them. They could not be my problem. I had to look up, and I certainly was. Just how far could the Eagles soar?