There’s a change that’s enveloping football as we breathe with familiar faces now taking up their mantel in the dugouts and making nostalgia no longer a thing of the past. From Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard all the way to Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell and even Xavi Hernandez.
It’s weird and definitely a physical representation of how quickly and rapidly time flies by when one isn’t looking because to imagine a man who retired in 2014, now managing Aston Villa is absurd. But he’s not the only one and that just makes it not as weird when you consider the fact that this is football’s life cycle. The player isn’t the manager until he/she is or they simply disappear off the face of the earth beyond the occasional peak from behind the scenes in the various roles available.
But it’s the managerial role that really means more. The fact that Mikel Arteta became the Arsenal boss during a tough time for them, the fact that Frank Lampard was once in charge of ruthless Chelsea, the fact that Xavi Hernandez returned back to the Camp Nou just as they lost arguably the greatest player they’ve ever had and the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned home, in time, to fix Manchester United.
It only adds to the nostalgia unless they struggle to live up to the expectations when the nostalgia is no longer enough to keep them in a job and they lose it. It happened rather unceremoniously to Lampard and Solskjaer but Arteta, somehow, seems to be holding on although the real shocker has to be Patrick Vieira and Crystal Palace. There is no innate connection between the two, beyond the fact that Vieira is an Arsenal legend who once was supposed to hate his London rivals with every ounce of his body and probably did.
But even then, during Vieira’s pomp as a player in England, the Eagles were undergoing a tumultuous time. They were Premier League regulars, and one of the original founders, but then issues struck them from all over the place and by 1999, they were placed in administration. They eventually made their way back into the fold but once again were placed in administration in the early 2010s.
But that’s exactly why there was genuine concern for the Eagles from outside Selhurst Park when they announced that Roy Hodgson would be leaving alongside a dozen first-team regulars. It meant that the next manager would have to either be world class or know exactly what he was doing because he/she was inheriting a thread-bare squad that was entirely dependent on a “will-he, won’t he” Wilfried Zaha.
The Ivorian’s future has been in doubt for a large part of the last five years with links to, quite literally, every club in the world. His comments haven’t helped the case either and yet somehow, he remains one of the few Eagles to consistently hit double figures for goals. That was the situation that Patrick Vieira was walking into and the genuine worry turned into concern at the fact that Palace had appointed an absolute nobody.
The Eagles had gone from the safe, consistently finishing mid-table and avoiding relegation at ease under Roy Hodgson to a future where they knew absolutely nothing about what would happen. Say what you want about the veteran manager but he knew exactly what to do in order to ensure that the Eagles would stay safe. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong in being safe, it’s a human condition to stay as safe as possible, to become a creature of habit because there’s comfort in the known.
Why walk into the dark when you can always traverse the road well-travelled? But there’s also this reckless and completely insane disdain for the normal within human beings, to just throw yourself into a situation you’ve never been before just to see what happens. Now that’s mostly found in teenagers and people enduring mid-life crises or the absolutely insane who jump off cliffs for fun but every now and then it’s found in a football club like Crystal Palace.
The Eagles are, after all, owned by a consortium of really wealthy die-hard fans who want the best for their club and thus in walked Vieira. The Frenchman had a good spell in the MLS, taking New York FC into the playoff semi-final in his first season before doing so consistently during his spell there, but it’s his time with OGC Nice that turned the tide against him. While his first and second seasons were good as they finished seventh and then sixth, it was the third that turned them.
The loss of a few more key players, the struggle to blood new stars into the group, elimination from the Europa League in the group stages and five straight losses across all competitions saw him sacked. It’s why the Frenchman was the bookmakers’ favourite to be the first man sacked but eight months later and there’s a change in the atmosphere not just around Selhurst Park but all over England. It has seen a lot of love go Patrick Vieira’s way and all of it is deserved given the way he has turned things around.
The Eagles do sit 13th on the league table, have won five games over the last four months and yet there’s a sense that Vieira has done more than just change the team. There’s no denying the fact that their playing style has changed, from the uninspiring but solid team under Roy Hodgson to a dynamic, fluid and progressive style of football under the Frenchman. Not only that, the onus on Wilfried Zaha is no longer as prominent and yet the Ivorian has eleven goals this season.
But he has had help as Conor Gallagher has scored eight, Jean-Philippe Mateta has six, Odsonne Edouard has six, Christian Benteke has four and Michael Olise has four goals and eight assists. Not only that, Vieira has built it on a base of young, supremely talented players in Olise, Edouard, the returning from an Achilles injury Eberechi Eze, Marc Guehi and Palace youth product Tyrick Mitchell.
Four out of the aforementioned five have been regulars in the squad this season while Eze is still finding his feet after the injury but that’s not all. Their form, despite the lack of wins, has been impressive with just ten losses in the league and just two in their last twelve games across all competitions. They’ve also earned four points off league leaders Manchester City, held Chelsea before losing in dramatic circumstances late in the game, beat Arsenal and taken points off Leicester City, West Ham and a few others.
In 1872 a team called Crystal Palace played in the semi finals of the first ever FA Cup.— James McCollum (@JimKMcCollum) April 17, 2022
150 years on, we go again 🔴🔵🦅 https://t.co/npWfSa4HG5
However, while there was no reward for all that, the Eagles were given one when Gallagher, Mitchell and Guehi all earned England call-ups, the second most, behind Manchester City, from one club during the last international break. Plus, and yes there is more, the Eagles are in the FA Cup semi-final for the first-time in seven long years and only their sixth one in 150 years. The kicker? They were in the very first semi-finals of the very first FA Cup a massive 150 years ago and 150 years on, they're back in it. Weird, isn't it?
They’re far from favourites, as they face Chelsea and then the winner plays Liverpool in the final, but it has given Crystal Palace fans something to look forward to because they're back at Wembley again for the first time since they lost to Manchester United in the 2016 FA Cup final. Yet, there’s a growing sense of hope and belief around Selhurst Park, for the first time in a really long time, because this Eagles team could very well cause problems to the established norms in England and the top tier.
Could they eventually break into the European spots? There is a vacuum there at the moment and with Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham, Manchester United and others struggling to fill it, that’s a possibility. It’s a long way down the road for Vieira and his side but the aim, at least from the outside, seems to be to get Palace there with a long-term vision in mind. But there’s that other problem for Vieira and that’s the fact that football is far from fair and definitely not kind to teams trying to build themselves back up again.
We’ve seen that in the past with several several examples lying buried and dead six feet below, and to add to that the Hall of Famer has a young squad. With youth comes inexperience and inconsistency even with the right blend of youth and experience in the squad, things will eventually turn slightly sour. It’s only then that we might truly see what Vieira learnt from his mistakes at OGC Nice and even in the MLS but for now, things are going. How long that lasts is all up to them.