Crystal Palace v Cardiff City: The Pride of the Football League?
It seems that plenty of people have forgotten in recent weeks and months that it is perfectly acceptable for someone to praise a club they do not support. The Luis Suarez and John Terry episodes have veered wildly from A Debate It Is Important We Have into the more unpalatable territory of Wild Speculation And Rampant Tribalism for long periods.
As such, it feels almost novel in the current climate to write something positive about football from a neutral perspective. Nevertheless, as the League Cup semi-finals kick off this evening, it seems a fitting time to pen a few words of praise in honour of the two Championship clubs flying the flag for the Football League tonight.
Leading a vital discussion
Crystal Palace are almost unique in English football in the united front they present. The chairman, manager, players and fans all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet, an approach that fosters stability rather than scapegoating and which should ultimately lead to success – however that can be measured these days for a club such as Palace. While they may not be automatic promotion contenders, there appears to be a feelgood factor around Selhurst Park. After recent financial troubles, perhaps their supporters are simply feeling fortunate to have a club to support at all. Whatever the reason, it makes for a nice environment.
Chairman Steve Parish engages regularly with supporters, most transparently through his use of social media (find him on Twitter at @ceo4tag) and this open line of electronic communication with the Palace fanbase contributed to the club’s position at the forefront of the recent discussion regarding the Elite Player Performance Plan. Parish spoke brilliantly in the media about Palace’s opposition to EPPP and Eagles supporters (the Holmesdale Fanatics chief among them) have responded by instigating protests against the plan. In these days of football clubs being owned by shady foreign investors, about whom little or nothing is known, a willingness to engage and co-operate with supporters should be celebrated.
Showing faith in youth
Not every football club is fortunate enough to have the catchment area that Crystal Palace have – south London seems to breed a higher proportion of professional footballers than most regions of the country. However, neither would all football clubs make the most of the bounty on their doorstep. Palace show faith in their youngsters, blooding them from an early age and, most crucially of all, entrusting them a consistent run in the first team if they show enough potential.
The names roll off the tongue – Nathaniel Clyne, Wilfried Zaha, Jonathan Williams – but it would have been just as easy for these players to roll off the production line and out on loan for two seasons rather than into the first team. No wonder young players are willing to stay at Selhurst Park – they can see they will get their chance if they put the hard yards in.
In the Holmesdale Fanatics, Crystal Palace have a group of supporters who treat football in a way most English fans have either forgotten or never known. They get behind the team, they obviously want them to win and there will always be a moan and groan along the way if things do not go Palace’s way, but this is not taken to extremes. Again, from an outsider’s perspective at least, there seems to be more of a willingness from the Holmesdale Fanatics, and perhaps the majority of Palace’s support, to accept football’s ups and downs.
Most importantly, they don’t lose sight of what football should be about – namely, pride in the collective and, above all, having fun along the way. Even the resumption of Palace’s unusual rivalry with Brighton and Hove Albion this season, following the Seagulls’ promotion from League One, has been conducted with more good humour than can be said of other derby days across the country.
Loyalty from a star player
Peter Whittingham is certainly among the best five players in the Football League. Maybe one of the best three. Perhaps even the best of all. Wherever you place him in a pantheon that few ultimately care about, it is refreshing to see such a gifted footballer willing to remain with the club that showed faith in his ability when signing him from Aston Villa in January 2007. Whittingham now has 50 league goals for the Bluebirds after choosing to stay on last summer when the rest of Cardiff’s front six was dismantled.
Out, or departing after the end of their loan spells, went the likes of Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy, Seyi Olofinjana and Chris Burke. It would have been easy for Whittingham to see the end of the Dave Jones era as a signal for him to leave. Admirably, he decided to stay on to experience the brave new world of Malky Mackay’s reign and he is currently reaping the rewards. Pictures of Mackay’s squad returning for pre-season training told a story – there were so few players that Whittingham seemed to feature in every image. In retrospect, this now seems apt, as he is the man around whom Cardiff’s new-look side is built.
An inexpensive overhaul
In rebuilding that feared front six, Mackay had a huge task on his hands. Without the same transfer funds available to the likes of Leicester City and West Ham, the Scot needed to source key players on a relative shoestring. And so he turned to players such as Coventry’s Aron Gunnarsson, a player who often flattered to deceive at the Sky Blues despite showing glimpses of real promise.
He also turned to Kenny Miller, fending off Glasgow Rangers in the process. He turned to his former Watford midfielder Don Cowie, to unknown foreigners Rudy Gestede and Filip Kiss, to promising Plymouth youngster Joe Mason and to Robert Earnshaw. Hardly a big name or a large transfer fee among them, yet Cardiff are flying high. Mackay’s refresh of Cardiff City is evidence that you don’t always need a transitional season when making wide-ranging changes to a football team.
A quiet comeback
From an outside perspective, it seems that Earnshaw’s return has been handled extremely well. As a renowned Cardiff goalscorer – Earnshaw scored over 100 goals during his first spell with the club – and established Welsh international, Cardiff’s number ten was given a warm welcome back to the capital, but we didn’t appear to see quite the same levels of fawning adulation that have been all too evident in the past few days as Paul Scholes and Thierry Henry have returned to Manchester United and Arsenal respectively. Admittedly, Earnshaw may not quite be on their level.
Nevertheless, Cardiff City hasn’t been all about Robert Earnshaw this season. He is just one member of a squad that is performing to exceptional standards. Perhaps Bluebirds supporters were wary of a grand occasion after the receptions afforded to Robbie Fowler and Craig Bellamy in recent seasons. This term Cardiff look more like a cohesive team and less like a collection of talented individuals, despite the presence of local hero Earnshaw.