Crystal Palace’s unsung hero contributing to Premier League success

This is shaping up to be a fantastic season for Crystal Palace. After swapping Roy Hodgson for Patrick Vieira and letting nine senior players depart last summer, many predicted the Eagles would be relegated from the Premier League. Instead they are targeting a top-half finish and are through to the FA Cup semi-finals for only the fifth time in the club’s history.

Vieira has rightly received a huge amount of credit for his fine work since arriving in south London. Not only has he kept Palace clear of the bottom three, he has done so while implementing an attractive, attack-minded style of play that was conspicuous by its absence under Hodgson.

Vieira was not Palace’s first choice to succeed the veteran former England manager. Deals for Nuno Espirito Santo and Lucien Favre collapsed at the eleventh hour. Vieira was seen as something of a gamble after mixed success in his previous job at Nice. But the former Arsenal captain has silenced the doubters over the last few months.

Steve Parish, the Palace chairman, has also been praised for taking a gamble on Vieira and not opting for a safer choice. After nothing came of lengthy negotiations with both Nuno and Favre, it would have been easy for Parish to choose a manager with Premier League experience. Instead, he stuck to his goal of appointing a coach who could change Palace’s style of play for the better.

There is another figure at Palace who has also played a key role in the renewal. Ten years ago Dougie Freedman was the club’s manager. In October 2012 he left high-flying Palace for fellow Championship side Bolton Wanderers – a decision he says he now regrets.

“I knew I made the wrong decision very quickly into my Bolton career, but it was a decision I made and regrettably it was the wrong decision,” he said in Amazon Prime documentary about Palace’s promotion to the top flight in 2012/13.

“Looking back of course I wouldn’t have went, I would have stayed here and we would have had promotion and it is probably one of the things that drives me on now. To make up for that disappointing decision I made.”

Freedman is now Palace’s sporting director, a role to which he was appointed in August 2017. For much of Hodgson’s tenure, fans questioned how exactly the Scot was contributing.

Freedman no doubt had his own ideas about which players to bring to the club, but this had to be balanced by Hodgson’s preference for experienced professionals who knew the Premier League. Since Hodgson continually fulfilled his remit of keeping Palace in the division, the board tended to back him in the transfer market, especially as money was tight.

Palace considered making a change in the dugout when Hodgson’s contract was up in the summer of 2020. In the end they decided to stick with him for another year, in part because the pandemic had created enough turmoil.

Even so, Freedman appeared to be given more power over transfers. Nathan Ferguson and Ebere Eze, two up-and-coming young talents plucked from the Championship, arrived at Selhurst Park. This was a marked departure from the type of player Hodgson tended to target.

Even before Vieira’s appointment was confirmed last summer, Freedman had lined up more exciting deals. Michael Olise was acquired from Reading for just £8m; the deal was announced just four days after Vieira was unveiled. Joachim Andersen, Marc Guehi, Will Hughes, Odsonne Edouard and Conor Gallagher – each of them 26 or under – soon followed. Freedman had tried to sign Gallagher on loan the previous year, but Palace opted to bring in Michy Batshuayi on a temporary deal instead.

Freedman spent most of his playing career and the entirety of his managerial career in the Championship, and he is trying to make Palace the natural choice for the second-tier’s most talented prospects. The likes of Eze, Olise and Guehi (signed from Chelsea but a Swansea City loanee last term) know they will get regular minutes at Selhurst Park, where consistent performances could lead to a move higher up the food chain. Palace meanwhile benefit from their contributions in the meantime.

“Dougie Freedman has done an incredible amount of work over the last 15 to 18 months,” Paris said last summer.

“Obviously this situation [having several players out of contract] we planned for, we knew we would have spaces in the squad. Dougie and his team have to take huge credit for bringing Michael to the club because there was a lot of competition for him.”

No one is questioning Freedman’s role now. If Palace go on to finish in the top half or reach the FA Cup final, their former manager will feel he has redeemed himself.


Author: Lucas Carlson