We should have known it was too good to last. Two days before the Premiership season kicked off and Crystal Palace parted company with their manager Tony Pulis. Unbelievable. We Palace fans have a well-developed nose for impending catastrophe. We can usually sense when disaster is in the air. But none of us saw that coming. Losing the man who had transformed the club from relegation certainties to a half-decent Premiership outfit, the man who had been voted Premier League manager of the season, was a massive, soul-destroying kick in the cojones.
One minute we were excitedly looking forward to our season’s curtain-raiser at the Emirates, the next we were managerless and the odds on Tim Sherwood replacing Pulis were shortening. It was like a bad dream. At one point, Glenn Hoddle’s name was in the frame. Sweet mother of God, what did we do to deserve that? The man’s a total fruitcake. Was this punishment for the sins we’d committed in a previous life? On Wednesday morning the papers were reporting that Malky Mackay was set to be unveiled as the new manager. But within hours the Mackay deal had collapsed amid allegations of racist, homophobic and sexist text messages. You couldn’t make it up. The feelgood glow which had enveloped the club at the end of last season had very definitely gone. Instead we have reverted to our default factory setting of crisis club.
Football managers come and go. Palace fans are well accustomed to the managerial merry-go-round. But Tony Pulis’s departure didn’t feel like your bog-standard managerial exit. It felt like a moment of great historical significance. It was one of those ‘if only’ moments. With Pulis gone, our chances of establishing ourselves in the Premier League appeared to have significantly diminished. Palace fans are all too familiar with such ‘if only’ moments. The history of our club is littered with them. Mark Hughes equalising in the 1990 FA Cup Final with seven minutes of extra time remaining: that was the quintessential ‘if only’ moment. In recent years I’ve come to the dispiriting realisation that we will never come so close to winning a major trophy. Yes, we might win the FA Cup, but that tournament is a devalued prize these days. If only Hughes hadn’t scored and Alex Ferguson had finished another season without a trophy. Would Fergie have got the boot? Would United have gone on to dominate English football for the best part of two decades? We’ll never know, but the recent history of English football may have played itself out very differently.
Hughes’ goal is one of many ‘if only’ moments for Palace. I don’t wish to dwell in the past, but seasoned Palace fans can all reel off a list of similar turning points. If only Terry Venables’ exciting ‘Team of the Eighties’ had stayed together, what might we have achieved? If only the FA hadn’t lifted its ban on Liverpool competing in Europe a year early, Palace would have played European football in the 1991/2 season. If only Oldham hadn’t improbably won their last three games in 1993, Palace would have avoided the drop from the newly established Premier League. Palace acquired a reputation as a ‘yo-yo club’ during the 1990s. If only Palace had bucked that trend and stayed in the Premier League for successive seasons, we might be an established top-flight club now. We could have been contenders. If only.
Now that Pulis has gone, the temptation will be to succumb to fatalism, to believe that we’re destined to be football’s perpetual nearly men. We could wallow in self-pity and resign ourselves to the apparent inevitability that Palace will go down. Same old Palace, always screwing things up. We could even put a positive spin on relegation. No more extortionate ticket prices, plastic fans or soulless Premier League stadiums. We’ll be making a welcome return to ‘real football’ – that is, error-strewn hoofball in half-empty stadiums.