BY ADAM SELLS
Things were looking good for Crystal Palace. After a difficult first half of the season Roy Hodgson had worked minor miracles with an injury-hit and under-populated squad, managing to get 30 points on the board for only the second time in seven seasons around the same stage.
The transfer window opening on the first day of the new year presented the Eagles with the opportunity to right the wrongs of a disappointing summer – with a sizeable war chest (or so it was thought) and from a position of reasonable strength. With relegation unlikely this was a real chance to finish the season in the club’s highest ever Premier League position.
Hodgson was crystal clear about wanting four or five new faces. Cover and competition in the fullback berths, together with a centreforward who could hit the net regularly and another that can provide a little magic in the final third. He specifically challenged the American owners to loosen the purse strings during one post-match press conference, with sporting director Dougie Freedman and chairman Steve Parish seemingly already onside.
Even going into the last week of the window, I was convinced that there would be some exciting incomings and the club would be looking up the table for the remaining four months. A chance to balance a talented, honest, hardworking group by adding a little stardust in the process. A 25-man squad to cope better with the inevitable injuries and suspensions should have been achievable.
We had heard from various journalists during the past few months that the club had deals lined up and that everybody within the recruitment team was working extremely hard and lessons had been learned from previous windows.
Fast forward to when the transfer window shut last Friday evening and there was a sense of incredulity in the Palace fanbase at the lack of action.
The proposed transfer of West Bromwich Albion’s exciting fullback Nathan Ferguson, 19, had collapsed following medical issues. Aside from Cenk Tosun (unwanted by Everton) and Scott Banks, (signed for a nominal fee from Dundee United as one for the future) who was immediately loaned to Alloa Athletic back north of the border, there were no further incomings.
Victor Camarasa and Conor Wickham have departed (the latter on loan) and Palace are left with just 19 outfield players and three goalkeepers. Two of those outfield options, Jefferey Schlupp and Mamadou Sakho are injured longterm.
Instead of increasing their options, Palace had actually reduced the senior squad from 20 outfield players to 19. Unbelievable.
Whilst spleens were being vented across various internet platforms, facts and stats emerged detailing an £18million transfer spend over the past five windows, during which time £50m was accrued from the sale of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. According to one statistic I read, this is apparently lower than two thirds of the current clubs in the second tier during the same period.
How has this been allowed to happen again? Why does it seem so difficult to get deals over the line? Where is the club going? What are its ambitions? Are Palace just treading water? These were all legitimate questions whilst blame was being apportioned accordingly by the keyboard warriors.
Some suggested Roy doesn’t want the players Dougie Freedman is putting in front of him.
Josh Harris and David Blitzer want to sell the club and have no interest, claimed others.
Were Palace really only going to sign Tosun and Ferguson in this window? Here’s my take.
I make no apology for stating up front that I am a huge fan of the chairman. Steve Parish is the best thing that has ever happened to Crystal Palace.
He has only ever wanted to the best for the club as he has demonstrated this consistently.
There is no disputing he has been brave in signing players, paying top dollar to both attract and keep the club’s best players, with a wage bill comparable to the best outside of the big six.
The online abuse he is subjected to is unacceptable in every way, shape or form. Whatever anybody feels in terms of frustration currently, this man has done wonderful things for Crystal Palace, hence the seven consecutive seasons in the Premier League. Perspective should never be lost in what is the club’s most successful period.
When Blitzer and Harris invested in the club four years ago, it seemed that the next steps were being taken in order to push the club on. The squad was improved, with the likes of Sakho and Christian Benteke arriving for sums around the £30m mark, together with six-figure weekly salaries.
Financial Fair Play has to be adhered to and Steve has had the unenviable task of managing Premier League wages that continue to rise.
Over the past two years there seems to have been a distinct change in terms of an approach to transfer business.
The deals at the level of Sakho and Benteke that have become commonplace elsewhere in the Premier League are a distant memory. Over five windows free agents, temporary deals or low-cost top-flight players have pretty much been the only arrivals. Cheikh Kouyate, Jordan Ayew, James McCarthy, Gary Cahill being examples, with loan signings of Michy Batshuyai and Tosun.
Most rational Palace fans have been relatively understanding having built the squad over the first five seasons, recognising that the club cannot just spend, spend and spend. But the sale of Wan-Bissaka has triggered much frustration.
It was assumed the reason for selling last season’s Player of The Year was so the squad would be strengthened utilising the huge sum received for a right-back to improve the group.
That has not proved to be the case. The club has not even managed to sign another right-back across two transfer periods.
The lack of re-investment given the opportunities to spend suggests that Blitzer and Harris are now unwilling to provide the reinforcements required in order to take the club forward.
During the time in which there appears to have been a change in the transfer policy, it has been widely reported that they have been looking to sell their stake in the club, with stories emanating that offers are being invited or the club is close to new ownership.
Hodgson is a victim of his own success. He finds a way to get a tune from a depleted squad and keep the club in mid-table, thus protecting their investment accordingly.
With a £35m striker and a £50m right-back at his disposal between February 1 and the end of last season, Palace were the third best team in the Premier League. Champions League form. What a platform on which to build.
Instead, there has been a lack of support despite demonstrating that he is one of the game’s top coaches. How long can Roy continue to push water uphill? After the window closed in August, I was so disappointed with the summer activity I openly said on the Five Year Plan podcasts that I would be glad to finish fourth from bottom. Given the past month, I stand by that.
THE SPORTING DIRECTOR
Premier League discards have pretty much been the order of the day in the five windows overseen by Dougie Freedman since his return, with a smattering of cheap and free signings from across Europe.
I think it is fair to say those playing in the biggest league in the world for many years do not require an extensive scouting network.
Vicente Guaita has been a huge success and a real feather in Dougie’s cap. This has been an exception, as others such as Max Meyer, Jaroslaw Jach, Alexander Sorloth, Erdal Rakip and Camarasa have not.
Looking from the outside, it is fair to say the Ferguson situation owed much to bad luck, but where was the contingency plan? The rest of the required arrivals? Surely, the club is not so fixated on one player and would have dialogue with five options that are on his list? It would be extremely naive to put all one’s eggs in one basket given the nature of a highly competitive market.
The best Palace managed was signing a player on loan – Tosun – that interested them two years previously who was not wanted by his parent club? Then there was Jordan Ibe. I think it is clear that a pattern is emerging. The globe is being scoured by a huge recruitment team and analysts. Is that the best that they can come up with? Who said what or who wants what, none of us are privy to, but it is the responsibility of the sporting director to bring players through the door. Not the manager. That is clear.
After another window the squad is critically short of numbers, cover and competition. One further injury and an untried youngster is back on the bench.
Roy’s at the sharp end. What more can he do? I am totally perplexed by the criticism from some fans who think he should be doing better.
What is he not doing that he should be? He simply has a lack of options in a painfully thin squad. Where are the goals going to come from? He must play a certain way in order to eek out results. As demonstrated at Manchester City, Roy finds a way.
This might seem akin to a newly-promoted team but, to give it some context, the point he took from City was by fielding a team that cost pretty much the same as the opponents substitute goalkeeper.
When the whistle blew last Saturday on a 0-1 reverse at home to Sheffield United the boos rang out and the questions were directed at the man in the technical area. The inadequacies of the past weeks quickly forgotten.
The club has spun the roulette wheel in terms of Premier League survival and I urge each and every Crystal Palace fan to get behind the team and manager.
Roy has proven time and again he is the man to see the club through the tricky remaining months. The longer he is here, the better.
Given how short he is of numbers, support of the verbal kind is all he and his team can be helped with until May.
Adam Sells is the managing director of Sells Goalkeeper Products. He has followed the fortunes of Crystal Palace since 1976, working within the club’s academy for more than 15 years until 2013. He is a licensed intermediary, representing a number of goalkeepers, including Julian Speroni. Here he gives his verdict on the Eagles’ dealings in the winter transfer window.