Crystal Palace’s meeting with Chelsea on Saturday evokes fond memories for Roy Hodgson. It was against them, in October 2017, that he claimed his first Premier League win as Palace manager.
“I sometimes think of that as my first game but it wasn’t, it was my fourth game,” he tells Sky Sports with a chuckle. “It was just the first time we got a result, so I don’t think too much about the others.”
Hodgson can laugh about it now but Palace were in dire straits at the time. Frank de Boer’s tenure had lasted only 77 days and Hodgson’s had started inauspiciously too. Palace sat at the foot of the Premier League table without a point or even a goal in seven games. “People were writing us off,” recalls Hodgson.
They were still among the bottom three when they next faced Chelsea five months later but since that afternoon in March 2018, they have not so much as set foot in the relegation zone.
Palace went on to finish 11th in Hodgson’s first season and four years later they are 12th, safe from the drop again and a picture of stability in the ever-changing landscape of the Premier League.
“Unfortunately, winners these days are only regarded as winners if they have a particular trophy to show for it or if they are taking part in the Champions League or Europa League,” says Hodgson.
“But there is an awful lot of work which goes on at clubs where they are actually winning their own trophies. They are winning trophies that are hard for them to achieve but no one recognises them as trophies.”
Certainly, there are plenty of clubs who must envy the way in which Palace have consolidated their position in the Premier League in recent years, an achievement made all the more impressive by a budget and a level of spending dwarfed by those of their rivals.
Since Hodgson’s appointment, Palace are in fact the only one of 13 ever-present Premier League sides to have turned a profit on transfers. It is borne out of necessity but it is often overlooked in assessments of Hodgson’s time in charge.
“Perhaps it is overlooked but it doesn’t matter,” he says. “The work you do is based around what you have available to work with.
“I’ve been fortunate that the players I’ve had who have been available to do the work and try and get results have been good, so why regret or succumb to any wishful thinking that it could have been better? There’s no guarantee that it would have been anyway.
“We’ve been quite good in terms of our free transfer players and we’ve had a couple of very good loans as well, so it’s not just about transfer fees. We have a very strong core of players who have helped us through these four seasons and seen us to our goals.”
Indeed, nine of the players who started Hodgson’s first win in charge against Chelsea in 2017 are still at the club now, with many of them, including Wilfried Zaha, Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt, in line to start against the same opponent on Saturday.
“The chairman and the sporting director have never suggested that it was going to be easy, that they have money to splash out and give me a new team,” says Hodgson. “It was always going to be a question of working hard and keeping going with what we have.
“But I do feel these players deserve a lot more credit than they are sometimes given, and from my own perspective, I think I shall always regard the last four seasons at Crystal Palace as being one of the better bodies of work that I’ve done in my career.
“I’ve got to say winning five successive championships with Malmo FF was a damn sight easier than keeping Crystal Palace in the Premier League for four seasons.”
Hodgson utters the last line with a smile and he remains sanguine when asked about rising expectations among Palace supporters. One by-product of avoiding relegation year after year is that the fans’ appetite for the next step grows bigger.
“I don’t see it as being frustrating,” says Hodgson. “It’s human nature. Perhaps it’s even positive. I’m not suggesting for one minute that anyone at the club should rest on their laurels and go around boasting, ‘next year will be the ninth season we’ve had in the Premier League, what a fantastic thing’.
“I think you’ve got to accept that people will always want more but I think we have established a very solid base. I don’t think we are regarded as a newcomer any longer. I think people now see Crystal Palace as a good Premier League side who know what they’re doing.
“So it’s normal to think, ‘we want the next thing, we want to move on, we want to be sure we can finish between 10th and sixth in the table, and if we get to that stage, we’ll want to move even further and we’ll be expecting European football’.
I think we have established a very solid base. I don’t think we are regarded as a newcomer any longer. I think people now see Crystal Palace as a good Premier League side who know what they’re doing.
“Unfortunately, it’s not been possible during my four seasons to push on in that way and give people that, because ultimately football is about results and to get results you need a degree of pragmatism.
“Philosophies, ideas and principles are important factors in your work but you’ve got to have the pragmatic element to it as well, because unfortunately, it doesn’t’ matter what you do on the field, you’re only going to get credit for it if it brings about a result.
“So, you have to marry those two things up. It’s a constant marriage which has got to be taken into account.
“But I would hope that, in the seasons to come, the club will push on and we will find it easier and easier to stay in the league and, as a result, we will be looking to finish much higher than we have been able to these last few seasons.”
Portakabins and silent stadiums
Hodgson uses the pronoun “we” in relation to next season – he is Croydon born and bred after all – but the 73-year-old is due to reach the end of his Palace contract this summer and has put all talk about his future on hold until the end of the current campaign.
It remains to be seen whether he will extend his deal or depart the club but whatever happens next, he will always remember the 45th year of his remarkable managerial career as one unlike any other.
“The pandemic has changed everything enormously because one of the things that keeps us going in football is the adrenaline and energy that we get from crowds and what it provokes in us. Home fans pushing us on; away fans trying to put us off your game.
“All these integral parts of the game have been taken away. Often, we’ve been getting changed in portakabins and even in chairmen’s lounges, but then we’re still walking onto the field and getting ready for a game which is going to be at the highest possible level.
“The quality of the football hasn’t dipped enormously, strangely enough, but it’s all happened in a surreal atmosphere, where you can hear a pin drop, you can hear every word that’s being spoken and every exhortation that’s being shouted from the sidelines.”
Hodgson’s love of the game is not in question – his sheer longevity is a testament to that – but have the circumstances of the past year affected his enthusiasm for the job?
He pauses to consider the question. “I suppose the diplomatic answer to that is that it hasn’t affected enthusiasm or anything like that but it probably wouldn’t be 100 per cent truthful.
“We’re human beings and as human beings we depend upon a lot of outside influences and a lot of things going on around us to give us that extra bit of energy and enthusiasm.
I shall always regard the last four seasons at Crystal Palace as being one of the better bodies of work that I’ve done in my career
“I think it’s been a big test of our professionalism and our dedication to football, to making sure these games are played – and at the level we want them to be played at.
“I think this season and the nine games before it during Project Restart have asked an awful lot more of us and I think all of us, if we were to be brutally honest, would say it’s not been the same and it has dented our enthusiasm at times.
“It’s good for us all, players, clubs and coaches, that football may now return to a degree of normality but the people who will benefit most of all will be the supporters, many of whom base their lives to some extent around work and play, and for many of them, ‘play’ is following their teams and going to matches.
“It’s great that they have been able to do that via the television, because otherwise they wouldn’t have had it at all, but they must have been desperately missing the experience of being there.
“It’s like watching a film on your TV compared to watching a film at the cinema, or watching a television play compared to going to the theatre to watch it, or going to a pop concert.
“You don’t need to go to a pop concert to see your favourite band or hear their latest song, but you want to go because then you feel like you are a part of something. For me, that is what we’ve missed.”
Watch Crystal Palace vs Chelsea live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm