If you were to tell a Crystal Palace fan two months ago that the Eagles would cruise their way to their Premier League survival, they’d have laughed off such a suggestion. It would be no exaggeration to say that the glum thought of an away trip to the likes of Burton during an inordinate campaign of Championship football was at the forefront of Palace minds for some time. With only two victories secured between October and February, the club’s fate could not have been clearer.
Yet football works in funny ways, for if Sam Allardyce had not been dismissed by England after an extraordinarily bizarre corruption scandal, Palace would not have been gifted the opportunity to sign a man who prides himself on the fact that he has never led a side through the Premier League trap door. Again, if I told you two months ago that Big Sam would soon be closing in on restoring his reputation within the footballing world, you’d be laughing out that door yourself. Of course, the infamous video of Allardyce discussing the evasion of rules surrounding transfers, nonchalantly indulging in what seemed a pint of wine while bullishly undermining the tactics of Roy Hodgson will not go away altogether. Yet leading Sunderland and Crystal Palace to safety from the point of doom in back to back seasons will certainly cement himself as an expert in the Premier League’s end of season dogfight.
Just what is Allardyces’ expert formula? Is he really some sort of footballing genius, who can meticulously pinpoint weaknesses while implementing a survival strategy at a club he’s barely just arrived at? Of course he’s not, and without meaning to sound overly condescending, he doesn’t strike me as a man who would spend too much time overthinking detailed tactics. Therein however, may lie the reason good ‘old Big Sam is so successful. He sticks to the basics. Indeed, was the reason England hired him in the first place not because they needed some stability in the side? We weren’t looking for some kind of ornamental, eye glittering tikka-taka football; we simply wanted to see a side with structure, resolution, and purpose.
I actually started writing this article before the Chelsea game. (Since then, I do somewhat retract my previous statement: the man is really is a genius!) But let’s be candid here, no one saw that result coming, especially not the editor, who’s accumulator was ruined by Big Sam’s masterclass.
It wasn’t only the fact that they won the game that impressed me the most, it was the fact they came from a goal down so early on in the game to do it, a scenario in which most sides would have gone on to lose comfortably. At the same time, the team played with that exact simplistic tenacity that that we’ve just concluded is synonymous with the manager, so should we really be as surprised as we all admittedly were?
In dissecting their mini revival and four game winning run, certain players have clearly stood out as having flourished under the management of Allardyce. Since bringing Mamadou Sakho into the side, Palace have only conceded one goal in those four games, which came at Stamford Bridge. For a side that were flooded in defensive frailties, culminating in an abysmal 4-0 home defeat to Sunderland, (that alone, deserved relegation) Sakho has proved that he can be trusted at the centre of defence. Of course, it must be remembered that Palace, who still sit four points above the relegation zone, are by no means safe yet. If they are to continue this run however, Sakho will prove key. He has proved true to the suggestion that he is an archetypical Sam Allardyce player, reflecting his philosophy that a big, strong, no nonsense footballer who is absolutely atrocious on the ball will always be the most reliable tactic in progressing upwards from the bottom of the table.
Further up the pitch, Zaha and Townsend now seem to be putting in the performances when they really count. For two players that always promise so much, their inconsistency has continuously frustrated the fans of teams across the country that they have half-hearted played for. Townsend especially knows all too well of what is coming up in the relegation scrap, having been there and performed brilliantly well with QPR and Newcastle before. Yet those teams still went down. This time there can surely be no excuses, for both players need to continue their fine form and prove their worth, relinquishing the label that they are players who only turn up once every ten games. No honestly, watch some of Townsend’s Tottenham performances: shambles. (No don’t cut in and shot from the left for the 7th time today Andros, you’re not Gareth Bale). A similar narrative can be said for Christian Benteke, scorer of the brilliant winner against Chelsea on the weekend. He virtually carried Villa on his back in the division a few years ago on his own, and while he’s endured a stuttering career since then, he again has the opportunity to prove his worth in a club that won’t prove too big for him.
Still, the only thing I am fully convinced of so far is that Big Sam is certainly the man to bring these players back to their feet. After an uninspiring start to his life at Palace, the Allardyce master plan is unquestionably gearing into full motion, and yet again he’s all pumped up for an enthralling relation battle. If I had to make a prediction now, I’d say Palace will survive. The victory on the weekend was a really statement of intent, a statement that the players have bought into their manager’s ideas, and a statement that would have been a mighty blow to the likes of Middlesbrough and Swansea. Allardyce and Crystal Palace found each other, more specifically they both needed each other, for the pair were at the time at a depressing low in their fortunes. In that sense, it has so far been a match made in heaven, the perfect marriage of a club and of a manager who both still have something to prove in the Premier League. It will be a fascinating battle right until the death, but make no mistake about it; Sam and his gang are up for the fight.