During a summer in which Tottenham, Everton and Wolves all dragged out managerial searches, it was Crystal Palace, prior to their eventual appointment of Patrick Vieira, who arguably found themselves in the most dire circumstances.
Following a four year stint at his boyhood club, his 20th permanent position over a 45 year managerial career, Roy Hodgson announced that he was stepping down at the end of May, having secured an unprecedented ninth consecutive season in the top flight for The Eagles.
The suspicion remains that the decision was far more mutual than the announcement implied, with a growing restlessness among the Palace faithful about the negative, avoid-defeat-at-all-costs style which the club have utilised in recent seasons. However, given the respect that Hodgson commands in SE25, casting his departure in a more favourable light seemed the dignified thing to do.
The veteran coach wasn’t the only high-profile figure to exit South London this summer, though, with over half of their aging first team squad out of contract at once. Palace actually possessed the seventh largest wage bill in the league last season according to spotrac.com, remarkably paying £20m per annum more than Leeds, West Brom and Sheffield United combined.
The exodus provided challenge and opportunity in equal measure. Not only did Palace desperately need to reduce the wage bill but also the average age of the oldest squad in the division. If that wasn’t enough, the new manager would also need to implement a more progressive style of football to appease the fans, without jeopardising the club’s place in the Premier League.
Plenty of names were linked with taking on the daunting task. Eddie Howe, Frank Lampard, Sean Dyche, Chris Wilder, Valerien Ismael and Steve Cooper were the early contenders according to the press. Then Nuno Espirito Santo and Lucien Favre both appeared close to taking the job but each pulled out at the last minute before, eventually, Vieira was unveiled as the new Crystal Palace manager
It took many by surprise, with the Frenchman’s relative lack of experience, short stints at Nice and New York FC aside, in stark contrast to his predecessor or the other heavily-linked names, Santo and Favre. However, with a reputation for attacking football and trusting youth players as well as his obvious contacts at Arsenal and Man City, there were definite upsides and the appointment of Patrick Vieira triggered a mixed response from the Crystal Palace fanbase.
Still scarred by the disastrously short tenure of Frank de Boer, Palace fans were concerned that Vieira may lack the experience to undertake such a seismic rebuilding job in a short space of time.
Although Palace rehired a few of the players whose contracts had expired, they lost Andros Townsend, Patrick van Aanholt, Mamadou Sakho, Wayne Hennessey, James McCarthy, Gary Cahill, Scott Dann and Connor Wickham. An awful lot of wages saved but, also, much experience and leadership gone.
With Eberechi Eze and Nathan Ferguson also missing until 2022 due to injury, it was clear that Palace needed significant reinforcements all over the pitch, so they set to work on a recruitment drive which, frankly, couldn’t have gone much better.
First through the door was Reading’s 19-year-old attacking midfielder Michael Olise, who made the Championship Team of the Season and is regarded as another Eze-esque signing, adding to the array of combative, street-football styled attackers in Palace’s ranks.
He was followed by another exciting prospect, Marc Guehi, from Chelsea. A 21-year-old centre-back with enormous leadership qualities who is touted as a future England international, having played for many of the youth age groups.
A potential partner for Guehi then arrived in Joachim Anderson from Lyon. More experienced at 25 but still yet to hit his peak, Anderon has eight caps for Denmark and was part of the squad which reached the Euro 2020 semi-finals. Highly coveted, Palace reportedly beating off interest from West Ham and Tottenham for his signature.
They didn’t stop there, however, and soon recruited another in-demand player, Conor Gallagher, on loan from Chelsea. The sort of player who wouldn’t have got on the pitch under Roy Hodgson will now be tasked with a central role in a new, youthful and progressive midfield which shows how Vieira is attempting to evolve Crystal Palace.
With more moves rumoured and Palace still with loan spaces in the squad, not many clubs can claim to have had a better transfer window, with The Eagles accomplishing almost everything they set out to do with apparent ease so far.
Following an unbeaten pre-season as well, there is undeniably a feelgood factor buzzing around Selhurst Park at the moment ahead of the return of the Premier League next weekend, when Patrick Vieira will take charge of Crystal Palace for the first time in a competitive game against reigning European Champions Chelsea. And that is where the real business begins.
Vieira hasn’t put a foot wrong so far but has been given the sort of financial backing that Roy Hodgson could only have dreamed of. Palace’s squad is looking more youthful, invigorated and full of talent than it has for years and, when all are fit, a potential front four of Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze, Christian Benteke and Michael Olise could be among the most dangerous in the country.
With such backing, however, comes added pressure. Palace chairman Steve Parish proved that he’s not afraid to make big calls when he fired Frank de Boer just four games into his ill-fated spell and the Palace supremo will be desperate to avoid a repeat of that situation. However, if Vieira does not getting Crystal Palace playing and, more importantly, winning, Parish won’t hesitate to pull the trigger as Palace simply can’t afford to go down.
Following huge investment in their academy, recently awarded Category 1 status, in addition to a commitment to renovate Selhurst Park, the future for the club is bright if they can retain their place in England’s top table. With such a lot at stake, the pressure on Vieira to succeed at Palace is enormous. Not only because of what the club stands to lose but also because of what failure could mean for his own career.
Having been fired from his previous two jobs after indifferent spells, success in this role could potentially lead to bigger clubs coming calling. Conversely, should he fail then his C.V. will look increasingly bleak and the road back to the top will surely be long.
There might not be another club and manager pairing in the Premier League as mutually dependant as Crystal Palace and Patrick Vieira this season, the future aspirations for each firmly entwined into the success of the other. Whether it’s a glory or gloom is yet to be seen but one thing is for sure, it’s going to be entertaining to watch.
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