Having successfully navigated the first third of the 24/25 season, it was time to kick off (heh) the middle phase. By regularly switching between the 4-4-1-1 formation (and its underlying philosophy) and the 3-5-1-2 formation, I could keep opposing teams off-balance, and rotate the squad a bit, keeping my players fresh. This would hopefully be of immediate benefit, with Forest Green paying Selhurst Park a visit.
This game would mark my 200th game in management – a nice milestone! Palace won 3-0, but the result was flattering… for us. A brilliant individual run into the box from winger Francisco Conceicao was complemented by two penalties, both converted by Brewster, to give the score-line a bit of extra gloss, though we certainly deserved to win. We were now seven points clear at the top of the Championship.
A brace from Brewster saw us win 2-1 away to struggling Cardiff, and a 4-0 home followed against another team loitering at the wrong of the table, Middlesbrough. Next Palace would travel to face Peterborough, who were propping up the table. For this fixture it was time to return to the 3-5-1-2 formation, as I was eying up getting a few goals here. Peterborough had a new manager and thus had the potential to be an unknown quantity.
Until the 80th minute we were losing 1-0. A trio of late goals following a formation shift during the second half brought us a win that I felt wasn’t entirely deserved, but I’d take it!
November brought a second consecutive Manager of the Month Award. We would however face an unexpected problem – we were risking falling foul of Financial Fair Play regulations, unless we could drum up some cash, and selling players was the quickest, easiest way to do that. The board also reduced our available wage budget.
I couldn’t immediately worry about the money. Notts Forrest were coming to town, and this would represent a clash between the top team (us) and the 2nd-placed side. A 2-2 draw was probably a fair reflection of the game. A trip to face West Ham followed swiftly, and Brewster was on target in a 2-1 win that saw the Hammers miss a penalty. Derby were up next, visiting us. Another 2-1 win put us ten points clear at the top.
Blackburn Rovers had replaced Forrest in 2nd place in the league, and now we’d travel to face them, but in the Carabao Cup 5th round. I ought to mention that for the last few games Matheus had returned to first-team action following his lengthy absence, though I hadn’t noticed a particular difference in the team’s overall performance. Having him in goal would in theory steady the ship, but we’d done extremely well with Trott in goal, so at this point Matheus’ return was more of an added bonus. Getting to the 5th round was already beyond my expectations, and once again I rotated the squad to keep players fit, mindful of a spate of upcoming league matches.
The gamble paid off – a 2-1 win (with Barry scoring, something that made me quite happy) took Palace to the Semi-Finals!
In the Championship the team travelled to Bristol, to meet with Bristol City, who had gotten themselves into the Premier League then fallen back down again. Manager Nuno E Santo was under some pressure, given the club’s downward spiral, and wallowing in midtable wasn’t doing his situation any good. Meanwhile I learned that Palace would face Chelsea in the two-legged Semi-Final of the Carabao Cup – the away fixture first.
A 3-0 win at Bristol City was marred by a trio of injuries in a physical contest that saw Bristol City’s players also get bruised. Two of the injuries would rule out a couple of players for a few weeks, hardly ideal.
Midfielder Doan became the subject of interest from a number of other clubs, including PSV Eindhoven, and I faced a bit of a battle to keep him. Strangely, he asserted that the squad wasn’t good enough to go up, despite the commanding advantage we held at the top of the table. I convinced him that we’d go up, and thus convinced him to stay for the immediate future. The team went to Reading and a late Brewster goal gave us all three points
Halfway through the season we were 11 points of Sheffield United and 15 points clear of the playoff places. The Eagles were soaring! I have no idea what Doan’s complaint was…
The 3-5-1-2 formation got a workout at home to Huddersfield in a 4-2 victory, and in the process set a new unbeaten record for the club – 19 games. Ahead of hosting Birmingham I won my third Manager of the Month Award in a row, and hoped to celebrate the New Year with a bang.
Unfortunately the Eagles had their wings clipped a bit. A 2-0 home defeat – we did not help ourselves when Wells-Morrison got sent off – reminded me that complacency is the biggest enemy in football.
The FA Cup 3rd round was up next, and a trip to Middlesbrough. A draw wasn’t good for either club; it would mean a replay, and thus adding another fixture to a cluttered season. From here, we’d go on to face the big one. On the cards was a trip to Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea.
Chelsea were founded in 1905 and have enjoyed varying degrees of success over the years, but few would deny it’s in the 21st Century that they’ve truly become a footballing force. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and in 2004 appointed Jose Mourinho as manager. Five of their six league titles have come since Abramovich brought in his money, with the last being in 2017. Chelsea also won the Champions League in 2012, and on the game, in 2023 as well. Their league fortunes have dipped, but as far as my Crystal Palace side were concerned, Chelsea would be formidable opponents, especially as they sat 4th in the Premier League.
We lost 3-0. It wasn’t great, but it was to be expected. The gulf between the two sides was too great.
Onwards then, to a clash away with Blackburn. We lost 1-0, and I was disappointed with the team’s performance. We still held a good lead, but I was slightly worried at our dip in form. The last thing I wanted was a repeat of the Aldershot situation!
We were dumped out of the FA Cup in our replay with Middlesbrough, thus continuing this patch of poor form. Part of the problem? A bunch of want-away players who for inexplicable reasons didn’t feel we’d get promoted, despite our good position. It was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – they felt we couldn’t win, so we weren’t winning. I wanted them to bounce back, and up next we would host Colchester. Twice we’d put four goals past them – could we do it again? We didn’t score four, but a nice, steady 2-0 win halted our poor form. This was followed with a 2-1 away win over QPR, thus avenging our earlier defeat.
The second leg of the Carabao Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea awaited. We’d lost the away leg 3-0, so had a mountain to climb against a very good opponent, but it wasn’t my plan to surrender without a fight. In the end we won the battle but not the war – a 2-0 win was not enough to book a place in the Final, but it was still a great result against a strong, talented Chelsea side. Now out of both cups, we could focus solely on the Championship campaign. Unfortunately the resumption of the bread and butter campaign began with a 1-1 draw at home to Hull – despite creating far more chances.
The board called me to discuss an issue, one of apparently breaking promises to my players, thus casting doubt on my integrity. I felt this was harsh but I accepted the board’s view and agreed to take 10 points from my next 5 games. This proved to be a condition of me keeping my job.
With two-thirds of the season gone, we enjoyed a seven-point lead over Notts Forrest, and we were 14 points clear of Sheffield United in third. The league position looked great, but with this new condition hanging over my head, I needed results. Would I get them?