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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Crystal Palace, the Premier League’s most consistent club

Crystal Palace supporters are frustrated and it’s easy to understand why.

Football fandom is meant to be a rollercoaster of emotions, but supporting Palace is more like an entirely functional monorail. In the last 10 seasons, Palace have exclusively finished between 10th and 15th, winning between 41 and 49 points. This time around probably won’t be any different.

Granted, they’ve ended up in that finishing position in different ways, flirting with relegation on a couple of occasions, so their performances have been slightly more dramatic than the final numbers would suggest. They also reached an FA Cup final in 2016, going 1-0 up against Manchester United before succumbing 2-1 in extra time.

But the price of consistently being a lower mid-table Premier League side is that you’re generally coming home from matches unhappy.

Roy Hodgson watches Palace succumb at Arsenal (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

At least yo-yo sides, such as Fulham and Norwich City, have enjoyed a couple of seasons of dominance. In each of the last 10 seasons, Palace lost more games than they won. In all but one campaign (the 2021-22 season), they conceded more goals than they scored. This season won’t be any different.

Palace are the most consistent club in England’s top four divisions. Alternatively, you could call them the most boring club in England’s top four divisions.

It’s now difficult to imagine Palace being a second-tier club, which is strange considering that, until this decade of unbroken Premier League participation, they’d been outside the top flight for 14 of the previous 15 seasons. In their history, until this run, they’d only ever been in the top division for 13 seasons and never for more than four years in succession.

But it’s also difficult to imagine Palace being anything more: qualifying for Europe or playing consistently good attacking football, or even having a striker who manages more than a dozen goals in a season. Teams who have been outside the Premier League more recently than Palace, such as Newcastle United, Aston Villa and, worst of all, rivals Brighton & Hove Albion, are in much better health.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Burnley, Leeds United, Brentford and, of course, Leicester City have enjoyed seasons that were actually positive rather than merely acceptable.

Chairman Steve Parish at the unveiling of a mural at Selhurst Park for the late Maxi Jazz (Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

For the neutral, however, Palace are a credit to the Premier League. Palace have an identity, a specific feel about them. There are clubs of comparable size who are difficult to differentiate from another half-a-dozen sides in a comparable situation. Palace are different.

This begins with their style of play. Their list of managers is a little uninspiring: Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson. OK, Palace have twice appointed glamorous foreign coaches — Frank de Boer and Patrick Vieira. One lasted a few games, the other lasted 18 months. On both occasions, they left and Hodgson took over to steer them to safety.

Palace are content to sit deep and play on the counter-attack, which means there are two obvious features of their game.

First, they are routinely better away from home than at Selhurst Park. In the 31 seasons of the Premier League, teams have won 50 per cent or more of their total points away from home only 10 per cent of the time, but Palace have achieved it in four of their last 10 seasons. Although, on average, teams win 60 per cent of their points at home, Palace’s share has only been greater than 60 per cent once in these 10 seasons.

It’s all a fitting tribute to Palace’s 1997-98 relegation campaign when they recorded just 33 per cent of their points total at home, the lowest ratio the Premier League has seen. In that season, they didn’t officially win at home until April, despite demonstrating they were physically capable of collecting three points at Selhurst Park by defeating their tenants Wimbledon 1-0 in September in what constituted an ‘away’ fixture.

Attilio Lombardo scored the only goal as landlords Palace beat tenants Wimbledon in 1997 (Phil Cole /Allsport)

Again, this is the ‘Palace Way’. Again, you can see why season ticket holders find it maddening, especially as Palace fans generate one of the Premier League’s better atmospheres.

That counter-attacking mentality worked particularly well when Palace were built around Wilfried Zaha who, along with Harry Kane at Tottenham Hotspur and James Ward-Prowse at Southampton, represented a triumvirate of homegrown, nearly veterans who were the symbols of their sides. Everyone knows you don’t get many players like that these days and we have even fewer of them than this time last season.

Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze are different types of footballers and may thrive in more positive sides, but the presence of another couple of young, versatile, direct London-born attacking midfielders means Palace haven’t lost their identity.

Zaha was the youth-team graduate who became Palace’s talisman (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Their happiness to play on the break means they’re capable of causing upsets at big clubs. In their last six visits to the Etihad Stadium, Palace have recorded two wins, two draws and two losses (and, in one of the defeats, they went 2-0 up). There are ‘smaller’ clubs who simply roll over away at the big boys. Palace are, in general, not one of them.

In the last seven years, they’ve recorded victories away at Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Only the journey to Tottenham seems to cause them problems.

And while there has been dissent towards Hodgson and chairman Steve Parish, Palace are unique in having a manager and a chairman who are genuinely local lads. Hodgson was born in Croydon in August 1947, shortly before Palace commenced a season in the old Third Division South. He played for the club’s youth and reserve sides in the mid-1960s — during which point Parish was born down the road in Forest Hill.

Parish, it should be noted, owns just under 10 per cent of the club. Most of the rest is owned by three American investors with rather fewer links to south London, but he remains the face of the club.

Andros Townsend celebrates after putting Palace 2-1 up at Manchester City in 2018 (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

All told, there is much to admire about Palace. Local connections off the pitch, a consistent identity on it, a proper atmosphere and a habit of consistently causing the big boys problems.

That’s not to say supporters shouldn’t ask for more — the ultimate purpose of supporting a football club is not to be admired by outsiders. But in an era when many football clubs play roughly the same type of football, in roughly the same type of stadium, with roughly the same sort of players, Palace are unquestionably Palace.

And the Premier League is better off for their presence.

(Top photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images) 

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