When Roy Hodgson became the manager of Crystal Palace in mid-September last year, the south London club had lost their first four league matches of the nascent campaign (without scoring a goal, to boot) under the brief stewardship of Frank de Boer, whose employment of a three-man defence and high-lying wing backs made Palace’s players look more like folk sent packing from the Tower of Babel than a Premier League team.
De Boer was rapidly sent packing, too, although the start of Hodgson’s tenure at the club he supported as a boy was scarcely a bed of roses, with the Eagles losing their next three league games, again without troubling the scorers. Palace’s record at the end of September, miserably, was: played seven, lost seven. Goals for: 0, goals against: 17. Painful stuff
And the rest, as they say, is history, as Palace became the first top-flight club since Liverpool in 1899-1900 to survive the drop after losing their first seven league matches. For the 70-year-old Hodgson in the twilight of a long and peripatetic managerial career, it was glorious redemption for someone who had relinquished the England managerial role immediately after the country’s conspicuously embarrassing Euro 2016 defeat by Iceland at the last-16 stage.
Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Sean Dyche have justifiably been lauded for their managerial deeds this season, but it’s my firm belief that Hodgson’s achievement at Crystal Palace has been at least the equal of that triumvirate. To inherit a floundering group of players and transform them into a flourishing, harmonious squad that would escape relegation – while also proving to be competitive against all of the top five clubs in the division – is a remarkable accomplishment.
“We’ve done it through hard work, sweat and tears,” said Hodgson, whose season’s challenges also included a mid-term injury crisis that saw as many as 12 senior players, including the talismanic Wilfried Zaha and the increasingly influential Ruben Loftus-Cheek, simultaneously out of action.
As if to prove his point about hard work, sweat and tears, there was no rocket science to Hodgson’s strategy, which was built around a no-nonsense 4-4-2 formation or a 4-3-3, depending on the circumstances. No magic tactical wands there, but plenty of hard graft.
Once survival in the top tier was assured, the modest and gentlemanly Hodgson was the first to pay tribute to all those others who had contributed to Palace’s extraordinary escape, including his medical and coaching staff. But the saviour of Palace is unquestionably Hodgson himself, whose man-management of a once disparate squad of players has been simply outstanding.
Zaha was the shining light at Selhurst Park this season, but Palace’s all-for-one-and-one-for-all ethic is best summed up by Christian Benteke – the hopelessly out-of-form (and eventually dropped) Belgium striker who could barely hit a barn door from August to May, but whose work rate never, ever waned. That may surprise some Palace fans, but it’s true.
And that was because of Roy Hodgson, whose players wanted to play for him.