A Pitbull signs up for the Eagles

I know he’s 37 and his best days are behind him, but I’m stupidly excited that Palace have signed Edgar Davids.

Duleep Allirajah

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England’s dismal World Cup campaign rekindled – not that it needed rekindling – the interminable debate about the deleterious effects of foreign imports on English football. Overpaid, overacting and over here.

But while the Premiership is awash with foreign imports, the picture is very different further down soccer’s food chain. Foreign players are the exception rather than the norm in the Football League. For a club like Crystal Palace, our transfer targets are, on the whole, players whose names we can pronounce. Some Ipswich cast-offs here, a couple of Southend players there. Not that I’m complaining. After our financial travails I’m only too happy to be re-entering the realm of transfer gossip.

I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to read, in black and white, the hackneyed phrase ‘Eagles swoop for…’ Having endured a Football League transfer embargo and near-ruinous administration, it’s been a while since the Eagles have done any meaningful ‘swooping’. However, thanks to the club’s new owners, we’re once again ‘eyeing’, ‘chasing’, ‘raiding’ and, heaven forbid, even signing the odd player. None more odd than Dutch legend Edgar Davids. I was on holiday in France when that story broke. I nearly choked on my croissant when I opened a copy of The Times to find that the former Ajax, Milan, Juventus, Inter and Barcelona midfielder had joined Palace on a pay-as-you-play basis.

‘You won’t believe this but we’ve signed Edgar Davids’, I told the missus. ‘You mean the miserable Dutch bloke who doesn’t have anything to say?’ she retorted, evidently unimpressed. Admittedly, he’s not the world’s most charismatic football pundit but he is a bona fide football legend. He was a fantastic player in his pomp. The problem is that his pomp was rather a long time ago. Davids is now 37. He hasn’t played competitive football for two years.

Will this prove to be an inspired signing or an expensive mistake? Palace’s previous forays into the international transfer market have frankly been mixed. Most Palace fans can reel off a lengthy list of expensive foreign flops: Michel Padavano, Tomas Brolin, Itzik Zohar, Valerian Ismael, David Ansalem, Ivan Kaviedes, Andrejs Rubins, Sandor Torghelle – not to mention countless South American and European trialists and loanees who failed to adapt to the English game.

Michel Padavano and Attilio Lombardo were Palace’s first two big name foreign signings, arriving when the club were promoted to the Premier League in 1997. Padavano was a huge disappointment, spending most of that season on the treatment table. Another big star to arrive that season, Tomas Brolin, didn’t fare much better. The Swedish international was at the fag end of his career after an unsuccessful stint at Leeds. Overweight and out of form, Brolin couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. The season ended farcically with Brolin acting as interpreter for caretaker manager Attilio Lombardo.

Not all our foreign imports have been disastrous. Palace’s longest serving overseas player, the Argentine goalkeeper Julian Speroni, is now in his seventh season at the club and has been voted Player of the Year for the last three years. Although Attilio Lombardo’s short tenure as manager might have been comical, the Italian winger is still revered at Selhurst Park. Many fans will tell you he was the best player ever to wear a Palace shirt. Technically he was streets ahead of his team mates, but what endeared him to the Palace fans was his attitude and commitment. His work rate was phenomenal. Although he was Palace’s most creative player he was always prepared to track back when we lost possession. Although the 1997/8 season was a disaster for Palace, it was a pleasure and a privilege to watch the Bald Eagle grace Selhurst.

Lombardo was Palace’s first proper fantasy signing. But it was the Chinese duo Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai, signed by Terry Venables in 1998, which attracted global media attention. They were the first Chinese players to play in England. Overnight, Palace acquired a Chinese fanbase supposedly numbering millions. Not that we seemed to benefit financially from replica shirt sales or broadcasting revenues – the club had slumped into administration by the end of 1998. Although Sun Jihai left after one season, Fan Zhiyi stayed for three years and became a hero among the Selhurst faithful. He was voted Player of the Year in 2000/1. The great thing about Fan was that he totally debunked the myth that English football is too physical for foreign players. He was strong, tough tackling, good in the air and wasn’t averse to a bit of thuggery. A very British Chinaman.

Another overseas import who acquired terrace hero status at Selhurst Park was Finnish midfielder Aki Riihilahti. He was the polar opposite of a silky Continental playmaker. Aki’s job was to run around a lot and kick people. And he did that very well. It’s a quality that invariably endeared him to the Palace fans. Of course we’d love to see samba football but, failing that, we’ll happily settle for a willing watercarrier who is prepared to get stuck in. Aki’s cult status, however, owes more to his personal website than to his performances in a Palace shirt. His quirky blog akiriihilahti.com was – and still is – the antithesis of the usually dull and anodyne footballers’ websites and twitter feeds.

What then to make of Edgar Davids joining the Eagles? Will the man they called the Pitbull be a terrace hero like Attilio Lombardo or a grotesque circus turn like Tomas Brolin? To be honest, it’s too early to judge. It still feels too surreal to be true. The pay-as-you-play deal at least limits the financial risk. His motivation, moreover, for returning to competitive football appears more philanthropic than mercenary. ‘I might last two games, I might stay here for two years and finish my career with Palace, I don’t know. But if I can help to cultivate the young talent we have, and help them grow into the players they are capable of becoming, it will be worthwhile.’

I know he’s 37. I know his best days are behind him. I know it could easily end in tears. But somehow I can’t help feeling stupidly excited that Edgar Davids is an Eagle.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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