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02/03: Preview: Crystal Palace
Opposition opinion
by Palace fan Leo McCann

What happened last season?
Say '10th in division one last year' to a football fan and he or she will think 'OK, respectable, but dull.' But this is Palace, where even the mediocrity of 10th in division one is far from dull. 3 managers, top of the league for one week, one of the most embarrassing signings of the modern era, and we even introduced to the world the concept of 'gardening leave' (the phrase used by the chairman, Simon Jordan, as Bruce was prevented from joining Birmingham for 3 months). That's Palace when their dull.

Things started beautifully. New manager Steve Bruce had us playing good football, and Morrison and Freedman were tuning into a lethal partnership. We'll gloss over a disastrous home defeat by Millwall (as we will an even worse display at the New Year at the Den - please, let us forget that), but we'll emphasize a winning run of seven on the trot that took us to the top of the league. The seventh win was against fellow promotion candidates Wolves, at their place. To be fair, we were lucky to come away 1-0 victors, but on that glorious afternoon we let ourselves ignore that fact. A win is a win, and we're top of the league. Seven straight wins. It sounds good.

But then disaster struck. Bruce was off to Birmingham. It was a tough time for us Palace boys. There was speculation for several weeks but few of us, and few media commentators, believed he'd really go. He'd be mad to leave us. Wouldn't he? We didn't think he'd leave a side playing great stuff and top of the league. But leave he did. It was a tough one, because it simply showed Palace's big club pretensions for what they were. Birmingham are a bigger club, have a better chance of going up, and so it proved in May. Maybe amongst all the euphoria of the win at Wolves Bruce didn't ignore the fact that we were lucky. When Wolves returned to Selhurst in February, they comprehensively turned over roughly the same side Bruce left behind.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. As Bruce tended to his gladiolas, old-boy Steve Kember took to the task of raising the squad and keeping us in the race. He was unable to rework the magic of the last two games of 2000-2001, which was hardly surprising. We were slipping down the table, and no amount of speculation about who would be the new manager could shake the feeling that Bruce has taken our promotion chances away with him to his flowerbed.

In November, the announcement was made. It was Trevor Francis. A collective sense of disappointment followed. 'Well, he nearly took Birmingham up', people said. 'Let's give him a go.' But I, for one, felt gutted. Birmingham had taken our very successful manager, and has given us their cast-off. Francis must have arrived with little confidence after his sacking. He'd need a lot of time if he was to turn things around, and it proved beyond him this year. To be fair, long-term injuries to the centre backs Popovic and Symons were a huge blow. But the fluency and potency of the Bruce era were erased and Francis couldn't bring them back. Eventually we slipped out of the playoffs, but, due to the general lack of quality of the division, we managed, somehow, to stay in contention, hovering around 7th-8th. By the Easter holiday, we had a chance to overhaul Norwich into 6th place, but we went down to a very disappointing 2-1 defeat at Carrow Road. Perhaps the worst thing was that the quality of the football since October had deteriorated in spectacular fashion.

Let's not mention Akinbiyi. Again, it's just easier that way.

What's going to happen next season?
Something's been bothering me about the world of football for years. I've always thought that managers must surely understand the game, their tactics, and, above all, their players, better than the rest of us fans. They've been in the game all of their lives, they are employed for their tactical knowledge, and they know the players' abilities and personalities first-hand. I used to apply such a logic to Trevor Francis, but maybe I'd better rethink this strategy.

Last year Francis split up one of the best strike partnerships seen at Palace by purchasing a striker with his confidence shattered, and forced the formation into a 4-3-3. This year, there's the Gregg Berhalter issue. This guy played 3 games in the World Cup finals and acquitted himself very well, but no, Francis obviously knows something we don't. He's not good enough for an average first division outfit, apparently. Symons is out, (again!) so you'd think this would provide perfect cover. A left-footed centre half with international experience is just waiting there to come on. But Trevor works with this guy every day and must know that he's unsuitable. We've got to assume that football managers know better than us. This summer has finally made me think that my reasoning is off on this one.

So what are our chances this year? Much will depend on whether Morrison stays with us. I reckon he'll start at Selhurst, but wont be a Palace player by Christmas. We can't really expect him to be here longer than six months, but if he stays even that long, it will roughly triple our chances of making the play-offs. He is our one player of real blue-chip quality. It amazes me that only Birmingham have so far come in for him. Perhaps the downturn in football fortunes is hitting the Premier League harder than we think.

Even without him if we play a settled team and get a settled formation, we are good enough for the top six. Freedman, Gray and Mullins are proven quality at this level. Kolinko and Clarke are good keepers, Rihiilahti is a solid midfield fighter, and Popovic and Granville are decent defenders. The team suffers from a lack of midfield creativity, and it remains to be seen whether new signing Danny Butterfield, on the cheap from Grimsby, will provide it. Will Akinbiyi come good? Maybe the injury will be good for him and he'll be back a better player. The media humiliation he suffered at Leicester will, we hope, be far behind him. But I'm afraid to say I have little faith in Francis' ability as a man-manager. No-one has got anything positive to say about him, and that's a bad sign. I'm not convinced that the players enjoy having him around. Anyway, if we are not top ten by Christmas, Francis will surely be shown the door, and we'll have to start all over again.

The great fear is that Francis will do just enough not to get sacked, but he'll take us no-where near to promotion. 10th in division one again? Seems almost a certainty. And this time, it probably will be dull.

Can you recommend a pub for away fans?
All the pubs are friendly near the ground. The Albion is popular with away fans.

What's the nearest railway station?
Selhurst and Norwood Junction are both about 10 mins walk from the ground. Trains from London Bridge go to Norwood Junction.

Where is the best place to park?
There is parking available around the ground, although most roads are pay and display. There is free parking in the Sainsbury's car park, next to the ground, in Whitehorse Lane.

Soundbites (from assorted Census correspondents)

"Watford are rubbish and Eagles rule"

"Our chairman likes wearing red suits!!"

"Lombard is and will always be a God. The seaweed scum are going DOWN !!! And Judas Bruce will guide the Brum Scum to a glorious 20th place in the Prem."
(I think he meant Lombardo - ed)

"God that team is truly awful. Unfortunately no room for World Cup stars Amir Karic and Tomas Brolin, 2 total embarrassments for Palace. Note: Only 3 of Terry Venables' best mates in there"

"Alan Smith is a one eyed wanker"

"I laughed so hard when Sasa Curcic dived to win the equalising penalty v Watford, I cried!"