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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 15/12/01
Crystal Palace
Light relief
By Matt Rowson

Nothing is as subjective as humour. The person sitting next to you may well have a completely different sense of humour to you. Different cities and regions are often well defined by the tradition of their comedy, and indeed, humour distinguishes cultures and nations more clearly than anything else I know.

So it's nigh on impossible to generate a list of comedy greats. My list would contain John Cleese, Paul Merton, David Jason... but others wouldn't find any humour at all from these people. Plenty of folk find Jim Carrey funny, I couldn't tell you why. In Albania they still revere Norman Wisdom. Somebody somewhere probably laughs at Jim Davidson (okay, I'm stretching the point, but you get the idea).

So when a character comes along who time and time again gets comedy value out of every situation that he finds himself in, who seems continually to strive to exceed each successive act of comedy genius, who provokes laughter across generations and ethnic divides, you have to doff your cap.

Christ, some previews just write themselves, don't they?

Trevor Francis. Tricky Trev. By his own admission the unluckiest manager alive, the only man to fail three times in increasingly comical fashion in the Division One play-offs without ever making a bad decision. Ever. So Watford knock Birmingham out on penalties in 1999 in front of the City end at St. Andrews. Francis provokes chuckles with a coarsely ironic lambasting of Watford's Big Strikers. In 2000 he tries his hand at slapstick humour with a 4-0 defeat at home to Barnsley in the first leg, and in 2001, still his masterpiece, a tantrum of epic proportions. As the tie with Preston went into penalties Trev went into overdrive, stomping onto the field and bawling at his players to get off the pitch and help him throw his toys out of the pram before retreating to the dugout to sulk. A work of inspiration on two levels; the farcical chaos he provoked and the subtle irony of the comparison of Birmingham's predicament with that of the Hornets two years earlier. Across the country, thousands died laughing.

Trev followed this up with cameos, such as signing one of Watford's notorious Big Strikers to complement the delicate skills of Adebola, Horsfield et al., and an outrageously conceited press conference as he sought to market his credentials to the world's chairmen as David Sullivan silently rocked with ill-concealed laughter beside him.

Fortunately for Trev - and for comedy lovers everywhere - Simon Jordan is the chairman of Crystal Palace. With comic timing that Trev himself would have been proud of, Jordan reacted to Steve Bruce's attempt to take up his fifth management position in barely three years by appointing Trev as his successor. So the stand-up tour goes on, and what more fitting venue than Selhurst Park ?

Trev takes over a club that has, with some inevitability, been doing far better this season than last year's narrow squeak, always likely to be a missed opportunity, would have suggested. Results have slumped somewhat since Bruce's departure, culminating in defeat at home to Burnley in Francis' first game (Trevor - "We were unlucky". It's the way he tells 'em). However, even if beating Man City hardly constitutes the "proof that we can beat anyone in this division" that the official site proclaims (a team of one-legged emu could give City a run for their money on a bad day), it's certainly a step back in the right direction.

Palace have been fielding a 5-2-1-2 formation that Francis has stuck with during his initial games in charge. In goal will be Alex Kolinko, an erratic keeper but fine shot-stopper. He replaces Matt Clarke, who perhaps pre-empted a decision to drop him following some dodgy form by cutting the end off his thumb in a freak accident at home. Youth team keeper Lance Cronin has been drafted onto the bench as Kolinko's cover.

Jewel in the crown in the centre of defence is Hayden Mullins, now Palace captain, who provides pace and composure in the back three. Alongside him as from Saturday is Welsh International Kit Symons, signed for an undisclosed fee from Fulham last Friday, who immediately added experience to the back line and a much-needed threat at set-pieces. Making up the trio on Saturday was Christian Edwards, impressing on loan from Forest, although the general feeling is that Australian Tony Popovic will have his place back when he returns from a foot injury.

On the right of the five, Jamie Smith returned from a month's absence at the weekend with decisively positive results. On the left, former Arsenal trainee Julian Gray is altogether less convincing, and perhaps not suited to a wing-back role. Other defensive options include American Gregg Berhalter - due to miss a month of the season after Christmas to compete in the Gold Cup for the US - as well as Dean Austin and Craig Harrison, neither of whom appears to be sadly missed by the Selhurst faithful.

In midfield, Finn Aki Riihilahti's energy impressed in this fixture last year, but there appears to be a suspicion that his form this term has tailed off a little. Alongside him, Simon Rodger has been at Crystal Palace since 1873. Other midfield options include the tidy Scottish U21 cap Steven Thomson and another former Arsenal man, winger Tommy Black. However, fading star David Hopkin has an ankle problem and Jamie Pollock seems to be on the verge of joining the hatchet mob at Sheffield Wednesday.

American International Jovan Kirovski is playing behind the front two, and despite occasional excellence does tend to disappear into it from time to time. The prolific form of the front two has been key for Palace this season however, Dougie Freedman and Clinton Morrison ensuring that Palace are the joint-second highest scorers in the division. The quick and direct Steve Kabba has been getting a regular place on the bench as cover.

All of the above could change in the light of Palace's midweek fixture, a small matter of a delayed trip to St.Andrews which could be all manner of fun. For Tricky Trev, master of comedy, clown prince of football, it's just another day at the office of course... except that with a hand in both sides he's in a no-lose situation as far as apportioning blame for any bad result is concerned.

As for Saturday, with a morning of pitched battle in the Harlequin in prospect for many, the afternoon's light relief will be keenly awaited.