19 February ~ After last year’s traumatic time on and off the pitch, most Crystal Palace fans were happy enough to hold out simply for survival this season. Be careful what you wish for; supporters have again found themselves fretfully poring over goal difference conundrums and worst-case scenarios as they prepare themselves for the long haul at the wrong end of the table. The departure of the increasingly cheerless George Burley and appointment of the upbeat, bright-eyed Dougie Freedman as his replacement has at least given Selhurst Park fresh impetus.
Freedman apparently instigated the appointments of both Lennie Lawrence as his assistant (the former Middlesbrough boss now carving out quite a niche for himself as a mentor for young managers) and ex-team-mate Tony Popovic as first-team coach. For all their troubles, Palace have seemed a fairly happy ship in recent weeks (and certainly the new owners’ low-level approach to running a club is something of a relief after Simon Jordan’s headline-hogging reign).
Freedman was quick to focus on defence as the first area of play that needed a revamp. He’s a little obsessed with clean sheets. It’s not been pretty and it’s not been massively successful either. An insipid performance away at Coventry last weekend (their 12th defeat on the road this season) typified Palace’s frailty and lack of creative nous. The hope is that Kagisho Dikgacoi, who joined the club this week on loan from Fulham, will sit in front of the back four and allow his fellow midfielders to be more resourceful than of late. Meanwhile, Steffen Iversen, Darren Ambrose (steadily working his way back after long stretches out injured) and young buck Wilfried Zaha (a recent call-up to the England Under-19 squad) are all capable of causing mischief further up the pitch.
Sheffield United’s draw at home to Reading on Tuesday night sees the Yorkshire club third from bottom, two points behind Palace. Today the Blades travel south to Selhurst for a game that could see the two clubs swap places and leave the Eagles back in the drop zone. United have avoided the indignity of a relegation battle since coming down from the Premier League in 2007. The hope in south London is that confidence will be brittle among a team not used to mixing it at the business end of the Championship. Freedman, who’s had a few pep talks down the phone from Kenny Daglish and Sir Alex Ferguson, reckons the pressure is all on the visitors, but Palace still need to gel as a team, to find a balance and rhythm.
Anxious postings have appeared on message boards, but generally the mood among the Eagles’ support base is one of cautious optimism. Freedman, a big fans’ favourite as a player, has a mass of goodwill behind him; no one’s going to blame the former striker if his players are again found wanting this weekend. For all that, the 36-year-old Scot knows Saturday’s six-pointer face-off is crucial for both clubs’ survival prospects. Who blinks first could well dictate the pattern for the rest of the season. Matthew Barker