It speaks volumes for how far that Crystal Palace have come in recent weeks that they are now closer in points to eight place in the Premier League table than the final relegation spot. Five wins, six draws and only one defeat in 12 matches has them positioned 12th and pulling clear of the drop. All of this appeared a remote possibility when Roy Hodgson was hired with the club rooted to the foot of the table – goalless and pointless in every sense of the word – but now it would be a surprise if they didn’t retain their top flight status heading into spring’s bright shoots.
The difference in a few short months is startling. Having conceded 17 goals in their opening seven games and nine against the Manchester clubs in Hodgson’s initial two in charge, Palace have kept five clean-sheets and are one of the strongest defensive units in the division. Most impressive was the way they stood up to be counted against the Manchester City juggernaut in a 0-0 draw which should have resulted in a victory, Ederson’s stoppage time penalty save from Luka Milivojevic denying them three points.
Crucially, they now present a threat at the other end of the pitch, scoring in all-but-one of their previous eight games. Obviously central to that is Wilfried Zaha – arguably among the best attackers in the country outside of the top six sides – who missed the first two months of the season.
Hodgson must be deriving huge satisfaction from the Eagles’ upturn in form, not only because of his long-term attachment to his boyhood club but also given the apathy and, in some quarters, outright ridicule his appointment was greeted with. Even some supporters were sceptical. What chance would an already doomed team have with a relic from a bygone age at the helm?
Hodgson never wavered from belief in his own methods though and didn’t panic, drawing from his wealth of experience. In particular, he referenced his period at Fulham where the Cottagers looked condemned to the Championship but won the remaining three games of the 2007/2008 season to stay afloat. ‘We were doomed, week after week, but we just kept believing. We had a nice campaign that Mohamed (Al Fayed, the chairman) started: “Keep the faith’”, and the fans got behind us.’
There was a section of the media quick to judge Palace’s decision and bracketed Hodgson alongside the Premier League old boys club of Alan Pardew, Mark Hughes, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, managers famed for nothing other than firefighting in the league’s lower echelons and simply surviving. It’s telling that the aspect of the latter duos resume most touted is their record of never getting relegated.
Placing Hodgson alongside those ‘Proper Football Man’ figures is not only demeaning to the 70 year-old, but it is also lazy. Hodgson is so much more than just a survival specialist. Pundits point to Fulham’s great escape of 2008 as a standout reason why he was in demand, but also seemingly forget that within two years he had delivered an eighth placed finish in the league and reached a Europa League final.
In a 40 year career, Hodgson has travelled extensively and tried to better himself as a coach, working in Sweden, Switzerland and Italy. Excluding David Moyes’ ill-fated eleven months at Real Sociedad, the furthest any of the other old boys brigade have travelled is Limerick.
Obviously, criticism of Hodgson stems from the fact that he struggled in the two biggest positions he held at Liverpool and England – two of the most intense and highly scrutinised jobs in the sport. The Croydon native never projected confidence from the get-go in either role and his unassuming personality just wasn’t a hand in glove fit for the demands placed on him.
He is unlikely to live either failure down, but that doesn’t make comparisons to other stalwart managers correct. Hodgson is unfairly pigeonholed as a defensive coach, but is more flexible tactically than he is given credit for. Some automatically tar him as defensive, and his teams are usually supremely organised. But at Fulham in particular, they were always a well balanced and expertly set up side.
Hodgson will never get another top job, but even at his age he is the perfect choice for a mid-ranging club such as Palace. When he leaves in the not-too-distant future, the club should be in a much sounder place. Maybe it’s time to stop belittling a man who is much more than a conservative football prototype.