Crystal Palace fans are unusual in this demanding world of Premier League football. On arrival in the Premier League three years ago, all they wanted was safety. Now, after an exhilarating but ultimately disappointing season, they finish fifteenth in the Premier League and runners-up in the FA Cup. Nevertheless, there is a measured acknowledgement that the first priority for this club is always Premier League survival. And that these are good times for a transformed club with a young, dynamic chairman and a not-as-young, dynamic manager.
Ah, Alan Pardew. A defence, if you like. His FA Cup final dad-at-a-wedding dancing was unforgivable. But Palace’s approach to this match undermines a lot of the criticism Pardew has received in recent weeks. Recruiting Steve Coppell on a one-off basis to provide scouting advice on Van Gaal’s side. Detailed discussions as a team, with and without Pardew, to analyse where things have gone wrong. An emotional pre-match preparation regime, which provoked the young Wilfred Zaha to tears. Clever manipulation of a local boy’s “anger in his belly” meant a fired-up Jason Puncheon let Palace fans dare to believe for two short minutes. For sure, Palace ought to have exploited Manchester United going down to ten men, but Pardew’s tight 4-5-1, with James McArthur harrying as the most advanced midfielder, kept things tight and tense late into the match. Indeed this approach helped Palace to be effective on the break, and a win could have been secured earlier on had refereeing decisions not gone the wrong way. Pardew’s approach to the final was savvy, given the recent form of his side. But this was no one-off managerial reprieve; Pardew is not simply a one-trick pony, able to generate positive momentum for a short time, then unable to arrest a slide when that momentum goes the other way.
History backs this up. If we look at Pardew’s “slides” with West Ham and Newcastle, then we first must not forget the exceptional work he did at both sides. These were not all-too-brief moments of success. Pardew deserves more credit for leading a youthful West Ham team in to the Premier League, guiding the side to a terrific ninth place finish and coming within seconds of an FA Cup win. At Newcastle, coming fifth at a time when the top of the Premier League was much less volatile, with meagre resources, meant Pardew was rightly given Manager of the Year.
His last few months at West Ham seem a peculiar combination of remarkable and embarrassing. A two-nil defeat against Manchester City on September 23 2006 was described by The Sunday Times as an “astonishingly poor display”. It seems to have been forgotten at that point that just a month before, West Ham had gone top of the league after a good start to the season. Or the fact that just three months prior, West Ham had lost the FA Cup on penalties. A four-nil defeat to Bolton in mid-December was the nail in Pardew’s coffin. But there were mitigating circumstances – a second Premier League season for any club is challenging, but Pardew was faced with a maiden UEFA Cup campaign, a mounting injury list, the unexpected and bizarre arrival of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano over his head, and the destabilising acquisition of the club by the Icelandic Eggert Magnusson. He was described as being “under pressure” just weeks into this campaign. It seems unfair to completely blame Pardew for this challenging environment.
Pardew’s time at Newcastle was highly controversial, but also somewhat confused. Nowhere was this muddlement more clear than the beginning of the 2014-2015 season. They started the season without a win in eight games. The fans wanted Pardew out, as the grinning figurehead of an oppressive Mike Ashley regime. But then a brilliant run, taking 19 points from a possible 24, saw Newcastle rise to seventh in the table. A run that culminated in a stirring victory over eventual champions Chelsea. Aware of the difficult circumstances he faced, Pardew soon made a quick exit. This Newcastle side went on to finish fifteenth, winning only three times in their final nineteen matches. Newcastle’s early-season form kept them up, and this season, despite the significant investment so lacking when Pardew was there, they were relegated. What this microcosm of Pardew’s time at Newcastle does is emphasise, firstly, that Pardew can arrest a slide, but also what he needs most right now at Selhurst Park. He requires the backing of the club and the fans.
And this is something that Palace can offer. A loyal fanbase who understand where the club has come from. A club that was in administration just six years ago. A club that, before this three-season spell in the Premier League, had not survived more than a single season in the top flight. A club that until Saturday had only ever reached one FA Cup Final. A club that, with Steve Parish at the helm and American investors bringing positive investment, will have a new stadium to look forward to, and stability going forward. Palace fans appreciate all this and they offer an outstanding atmosphere to boot; they lit up Wembley on Saturday, and look forward with glee to a fourth successive Premier League campaign. Pardew must not rest on his laurels and retreat into the insecurities that have marked some of his ridiculous outbursts. He must use the backing of club and fans for good this summer, investing wisely and building a stronger team for next season. His track record suggests he is well capable of doing so. Palace fans know where the club has come from and where it is going; that should be higher than fifteenth in the Premier League next season.