FootballPremier League

Having established Crystal Palace in midtable, Roy Hodgson is now eyeing up European qualification

June 24, 2020

CRYSTAL Palace took a chance with their appointment of a new manager in June 2017.

Their previous hires had followed a theme of familiarity, of modest ambitions but safe hands – Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce. The appointment of Frank de Boer – with his possession-heavy philosophy, his four Dutch titles as Ajax manager and ill-fated spell in Italy – represented change. And risk.

After four games with no wins and no goals, Palace soon found they craved familiarity again. They turned instead to a steady hand on the tiller and a familiar face. Long before Roy Hodgson’s most eclectic of managerial careers took in stints in Malmo, Milan and Merseyside – from Udine to the UAE, Finland to Fulham, West Bromwich to Wembley – he was a Palace fan, born a stone’s throw from Selhurst Park. He even played for the club in his youth.

“As I’ve said on many occasions, it is extra special that Roy has a long connection with the club and local community,” Palace chairman Steve Parish said when it was announced that Hodgson had signed a one-year contract extension back in March. “He has established excellent relationships with everyone at the club, and crucially, the players trust and respect him.”

And the quiet success Hodgson has overseen since taking the reins from De Boer in August 2017 might convince Palace to stick to what they know with all future appointments. Furthermore, they probably wish the 72-year-old had closed the loop on his managerial odyssey sooner, joining his boyhood club with the spectre of retirement a distant prospect, rather than tapping impatiently on his shoulder.

Finding the Eagles rock bottom upon his appointment, Hodgson guided Palace to a respectable 11th-place finish in his first season at the Selhurst Park helm. He followed that up with a 12th-place finish last season, equalling the club’s record points return for a Premier League season (46) and extending their longest-ever stay in the top tier of English football.

Palace have regained the momentum they had begun to build before football’s three-month shutdown, beating Bournemouth 2-0 in their first game post-restart to record a fourth successive victory, as well as a fourth clean sheet in a row.

Their strolling win at the Vitality Stadium took Palace up to ninth place and on to 42 points, level with Tottenham (prior to Spurs’ Tuesday night win over West Ham), within four points of Wolves and Manchester United in the Europa League qualification places and, with eight games still to play, almost certain to eclipse their club-record points haul from last season.

And the consistent, steady improvement Hodgson has brought about has been achieved with minimal spend. Of the 17 players the former England manager has signed for the Eagles, 12 have been free transfers and none of the other five cost in excess of £10m. Thanks to Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s £50m move to Manchester United last summer, Hodgson’s net spend with Palace is firmly in the black.

Palace’s recent performances mean they will take on champions-elect Liverpool on Wednesday night as more than just a minor speed bump to be negotiated on the Reds’ road to a first title in 30 years. Whatever the result, it’s extremely unlikely they will be able to dent Liverpool’s title destiny as they did with a come-from-behind 3-3 draw on the final day of the 2013-14 season. But Palace will arrive at Anfield as formidable opponents who will command the respect of the best team in the land.

“I saw Crystal Palace and they look like a proper-oiled machine," Jurgen Klopp said after his side’s goalless draw against Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday. “They have four times in a row now a clean sheet, so it will be a tough job 100 per cent, I know that.”

Once their trip to Anfield is out of the way, Palace’s remaining fixtures represent a less-than-intimidating end to the season – even if Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea are all still to visit Selhurst Park – and Hodgson is not ruling out the prospect of European qualification.

“Should the players be looking at Europe? There's no reason why they shouldn't," he said after his side’s comfortable Bournemouth win.

That, for the oldest manager in Premier League history, would be the fulfilment of a lifelong dream, 72 years in the making.