With the departure of Selhurst Park legend Dougie Freedman, the metaphors - Biblical or otherwise - have been flying.
‘What have you done? What have you done? Oh Dougie Freedman, what have you done?’ This was the plaintive chant that echoed around Selhurst Park on Tuesday night.
Palace were handing out a thrashing to Ipswich and heading to the top of the Championship. The song was a jibe aimed at our former manager. It was not the normal cry of ‘traitor’ or ‘Judas’. Rather it was an expression of disbelief. Why would Dougie leave a team that was riding high in the Championship? Why would he abandon an exciting, youthful group of players? But, above all, why would he leave Crystal Palace FC?
This was his club. He had made 330 appearances in a Palace shirt. He was adored by the fans. ‘I Belong to Dougie’, declared the slogan on a popular T-shirt – an arch take on Brazilian star Kaka’s ‘I Belong to Jesus’ vest. Football, a game of devotion and deep-rooted passion, invariably plunders the religious lexicon for its metaphors. Dougie wasn’t simply a manager to us. He was akin to a Messiah. ‘He saved us three times’, we sang. Freedman had helped Palace cheat relegation to the third tier of English football twice as a coach and once as a player. His eighty-seventh minute winner against Stockport in the final game of the 2000-2001 season that saved us from the drop cemented his legend.
When Freedman was appointed manager in 2011, many fans had reservations. It was a huge gamble to place an inexperienced coach in charge of a struggling team. We had all witnessed Kevin Keegan’s ill-fated Third Coming at Newcastle, an appointment based more on sentiment than reason. Putting your faith in a Messiah isn’t always wise. We’d seen the reputations of Palace legends Peter Taylor and Steve Kember sullied by dismal managerial spells. Nobody wanted Dougie’s hero status to be similarly tainted.
But Freedman proved his doubters wrong. He worked well with the raw, young academy products. He was a student of the game, having spent his summer holidays in Italy observing the training methods of Palermo and AC Milan. Gradually, he instilled a work ethic in the team. We weren’t pretty to watch but we became very difficult to beat. And then, this season, the shackles came off and we started to play. The pragmatic, defensive methods of the past two seasons had been supplanted by an attractive, expansive style. Perennial relegation strugglers were now genuine promotion contenders. Going to football no longer felt like a duty. This was fun. Happy days. Or so we thought. Then, out of the blue, Freedman left to join Bolton Wanderers. If it had been a big club, we might have understood. But Bolton? Oh Dougie Freedman, what have you done?
Of course, in one sense, his reason for leaving was pretty obvious. Bolton had reportedly handed Freedman a contract for £1.5million over three years – quadrupling his wages. But many fans felt – or perhaps convinced themselves – that the bond between Dougie and the club was more than transactional. We had allowed ourselves to believe in the romantic myth that managing Palace was more a vocation than a job to Dougie. We took him at his word when he dismissed reports linking him with the vacant Bolton job, saying ‘I’m not the sort of guy to leave jobs half done’. In a world where modern footballers are reviled as badge-kissing mercenaries, Dougie was revered as an old-fashioned hero. It was the brutal manner in which this myth was shattered that fans found so hard to take. We’ve seen plenty of managers come and go in the last decade. We’ve lost count how many. We can cope with losing a manager. But losing a legend is devastating.
As we struggled to come to terms with Freedman’s departure, many fans reached for their metaphors. No religious analogies this time – in the Bible you don’t find too many Messiahs defecting to Bolton. The recurring trope now was of lost love. Stephen Bridle, writing for the Five Year Plan website, felt jilted: ‘Like any break-up that comes unexpectedly, there are bound to be some hard feelings. I’m currently straddling the third and fourth stages of grief – somewhere between bargaining and depression, I hit drinking by 8pm and hibernation by 11.’ Fanzine writer Andy Street tweeted that it was: ‘The footballing equivalent of your beloved spouse of 20 years running off with Peter Kay.’ In a South London Press column, Street wrote: ‘[If] you can’t believe in someone like Dougie Freedman, who we thought loved Palace to the exclusion of all others, who we perceived to be better than the rest of us, and who we viewed as a hero, who can you believe in?’
But football fans are nothing if not fickle. Barely a week after Freedman’s defection, the mood of despondency had lifted. The grief-fest had been cut short by the announcement that Ian Holloway was our new manager. Suddenly we had a gaffer who was experienced, inspirational, charismatic and attack-minded. And a bit bonkers, too, which is a bonus.
Most fans seem thrilled by Ollie’s appointment. ‘Ian Holloway’s red and blue army’ doesn’t scan, but what the hell! He’s what’s known in the trade as a ‘proper manager’. We’re delighted, but no-one is using Messiah metaphors just yet. It isn’t religion but consumer goods that have provided allegoric inspiration. ‘Losing Freedman and bringing in Holloway is like losing your Nissan Micra and finding a brand new BMW outside your house’, tweeted one fan. ‘I feel like someone nicked my Android phone & just gave me an iPhone 5 two weeks later’, enthused another.
Of course, when it comes to metaphors, no-one can hold a candle to Ian Holloway himself. He’s the Shakespeare of football metaphors. There’s even a book, Let’s Have Coffee: The Tao of Ian Holloway, dedicated to his witticisms. The title refers to one of his most celebrated quotes: ‘Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi’, Holloway said after an ugly win. ‘She wasn’t the best looking lady we ended up taking home but she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let’s have a coffee’.
Win, lose or drew, Holloway can always be relied on to deliver a winning post-match soundbite. After several wretched seasons of relegation scraps and financial turmoil, there’s a palpable sense of optimism around Selhurst Park. To borrow a Holloway metaphor, ‘I couldn’t be more chuffed if I were a badger at the start of the mating season.’
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.