2016: a year so bad that it has become an adjective. Celebrity deaths, Brexit and the United States Presidential Election have hogged the headlines. While in sport, the greatest generation of English footballers in a decade crashed out of Euro 2016 after a defeat to international minnows Iceland. It’s hardly been a year worth celebrating.
The year concluded with a plane crash tragically killing members of a Brazilian football team, Chapecoense, as they travelled to their first major final. In England, alleged heinous crimes of sexual abuse within football clubs’ academies have plagued the news.
Palace’s year coincides with general 2016 woes
Crystal Palace’s year, although not quite reaching such the extremes, fits the narrative. The abysmal form that eventually saw club cult-hero Alan Pardew removed as manager left fans begging for the year to end. The only highlight was the run to the FA Cup final, although that in itself was a moment to forget as Jesse Lingard’s fantastic extra-time volley completed a dramatic turnaround after Jason Puncheon had given the Eagles the lead with just eleven minutes of normal time remaining. The repeat of the 1990 final, which Pardew famously put Palace into with his semi-final goal, ended in a Manchester United victory.
The Eagles lost 22 games in 2016 and had the worst record of any Premier League side that remained in the top-flight all year. Additionally, their points-per-game ratio was the worst in the whole of the Football League. It’s a year that Palace fans are unlikely to remember with fondness.
Palace fans were expected to be looking forward to 2016. The club lurked in the Europa League places during the Christmas period in 2015 and ended the year with a six-match unbeaten run. American billionaires Josh Harris and David Blitzer bought an 18 per cent stake in the club, further increasing the excitement among the Palace faithful. Co-chairman Steve Parish urged Eagles fans to look forward to the new year, with aspirations of earning a club-record top-flight finish for the third year in a row.
However, a 2-1 win against Stoke City on 19 December was to be the last victory the Eagles earned until the following April. Palace capitulated. Fourteen games passed without a win in 2016 until a Puncheon goal saw off Norwich City at Selhurst Park.
January the catalyst for a poor twelve months
Injuries to Yannick Bolasie, Connor Wickham and Yohan Cabaye were detrimental to the Eagles’ form in the new year. Pardew’s squad lacked depth and he struggled to find suitable replacements. In addition, Puncheon and James McArthur also spent time out through injury, with the latter not returning until April, coinciding with the team’s bad form. McArthur’s absence ripped apart an extremely successful central midfield pairing of himself and Cabaye so Pardew was forced to utilise Mile Jedinak which meant a change in style was necessary.
On the pitch, Palace looked disjointed tactically and drained of confidence. They began the month with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Chelsea before a heavily disappointing reverse at struggling Aston Villa, who ended up being relegated in embarrassing fashion. This was followed by a 4-0 defeat away to Manchester City, a game involving one of the worst team performances since promotion to the top-flight in 2013.
Dele Alli’s stunner was among the goals as Tottenham Hotspur condemned Palace to a 3-1 defeat at Selhurst. Jan Vertonghen’s own goal in the game, played on 23 January, was the first time the Eagles had scored a league goal since Chung-yong Lee’s winning goal in the victory at Stoke the previous month.
January was, however, the month in which the FA Cup run began. Palace seemed to play with a weight off their shoulders in the domestic trophy, perhaps because there wasn’t anything at stake. Losing wouldn’t matter as a cup run was not expected, but they still played with the confidence that was distinctively lacking in the league. The Eagles defeated Southampton and Stoke in January as they secured a place in the fifth round.
January transfer window fails to go to plan
Injuries and the lack of depth meant Palace needed reinforcements in the January transfer window. Except, money spent on Cabaye, Wickham and Alex McCarthy in the summer meant that there was very little to spend. Chelsea refused to allow Loic Remy to join the Eagles, although he did end up signing for the South Londoners eight months later, and deals for other targets, such as Leeds United defender Charlie Taylor, failed to reach a conclusion.
Eventually, Palace ended up with Emmanuel Adebayor on a free transfer. The former Spurs striker had failed to find a club since being released by the North Londoners the previous September and this was evident as he needed a whole month to be anywhere near match fit. It was a gamble that backfired. A deal concluded out of pure desperation. His only goal for the club came in a 2-1 defeat to Watford in February and by the end of the season he was struggling to earn a starting role.
Palace survive relegation but not without genuine fear of the drop
Pardew failed to find a formula to turn the woeful form around. A victory seemed a world away. The Eagles continued to tumlbe down the table and flirted with the outskirts of the relegation zone until the end of the season. Each month seemed to be worse than the previous one.
February included disheartening defeats at home to both Bournemouth and Watford, before going 3-0 down at West Bromwich Albion only for Wickham’s brace making the score line look a little more respectable.
Palace were desperate for points and finally earned just their second in ten games with a 2-2 draw away to Sunderland. The Black Cats required a stunning late goal from Fabio Borini to earn a point after former Sunderland man Wickham’s second double in a week had put the Eagles 2-1 up.
There were very vague signs that Palace were slowly improving. However, their incapability to see games out became a theme throughout the year. A draw against Liverpool appeared to be on the cards in the next game, only for Damien Delaney to unforgivingly concede a penalty that Christian Benteke – now at Palace – tucked away in the sixth minute of second half stoppage time.
A further month of near misses elapsed before Palace recorded their first victory in almost five months. A tedious and tense affair with Norwich was concluded by a wonderful goal from Puncheon that was met by a huge sigh of relief rather than adulation. The game also included the Eagles’ first clean sheet since the end of December.
The Norwich win was followed by two draws against Everton and Arsenal which secured the club’s top-flight status for another year. Although just one win in the final four games – a 2-1 win against Stoke – meant that there was a huge amount of work to be done in the summer.
FA Cup run offers rare 2016 highlight
While Palace continued to under-perform in the Premier League, a shock run in the FA Cup saw them reach the final on 21 May.
Following wins against Southampton and Stoke in the early rounds, the Eagles beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane to set up a quarter-final tie at Championship side Reading. Palace left it late and suffered plenty of scares to overcome the ten-man Royals, with goals from Cabaye and Fraizer Campbell enough to earn the club’s second appearance at the new Wembley Stadium.
Palace’s first appearance at the national stadium involved a play-off final victory against Watford in 2013, and the cup semi-final offered the same opponents. Bolasie opened the scoring just six minutes in, nodding home from close range after Delaney flicked on Cabaye’s corner. Troy Deeney equalised for the Hornets soon after half-time, only for Wickham’s header to secure Palace a place in just their second-ever FA Cup final.
The Wembley showdown was billed as a replay of the 1990 final, a thrilling game that ended 3-3 and went to a replay which the Red Devils won by a single goal. the 2016 final was far from the same, though. Neither side had been in good form and this was evident as both teams struggled to create chances and looked nervous.
The deadlock was finally broken with just eleven minutes remaining when Joel Ward’s looped cross found Puncheon in space and the midfielder’s powerful drive found David de Gea’s net. The delirium among the loud, passionate Palace faithful at Wembley soon turned to heartbreak, though. Juan Mata equalised just minutes later before Lingard’s volley turned the game around in extra-time. It just wasn’t meant to be for Palace.
The Eagles desperately needed to move on from the previous season. the summer offered Pardew his final chance to rebuild a squad and turn it into his own. Steve Mandanda, James Tomkins and Andros Townsend were all signed early in the transfer window and deadwood such as Jedinak and Dwight Gayle were sold for a combined £15 million.
Towards the end of the window, Palace were forced into selling Bolasie to Everton for a hefty £22 million which helped to fund the £27 million that Palace gave to Liverpool to secure the signature of Benteke. Palace completed two more low-key signings, bringing in Mathieu Flamini and Christian’s brother, Jonathan Benteke, both on free transfers with one-year contracts.
Pardew hinted at a willingness to change the style of football. The ball was going to be kept on the ground more, rather than being direct and utilising the wingers whenever possible. The former Newcastle United boss even likened the potential style to that of Barcelona, calling it ‘tiki taka’ which would soon backfire as Palace lost their first two games of the new season.
2016 culminates with more poor form and a managerial change
The defeats to West Brom and Tottenham in the opening matches of the campaign proved that plenty of work was still to be done. Of course, the Eagles were still yet to complete four of their seven summer signings but the side still looked far from what Pardew promised it would be.
Those two defeats were followed by a five-game unbeaten run and there were a few signs that the South Londoners had finally turned a corner.
However, as is a theme with Pardew’s teams, a good run of form is generally met with a capitulation. Palace, as they did the previous season, tumbled down the table having suffered yet more terrible form. Injuries were once again partly to blame; for instance, Pardew lost Remy before he had even donned the red and blue striped shirt.
A six-match winless run ensued. The most sickening defeat came at Swansea City where the Eagles had gone 4-3 up in the first minute of added-time, only to concede twice and astonishingly lose the game 5-4.
The defeat in South Wales sparked a mini revival as Palace earned four points in their next two games, including their first victory – a surprising 3-0 win against Southampton – in seven games.
Although two further defeats to Man United and Chelsea left the Palace board to make a big decision about Pardew’s future. The boss could arguably have been sacked following the dismal run last season but was allowed the summer and the start of the season to rebuild the team. however, there was no signs of long-term change. He was eventually sacked three days before Christmas.
Palace, to their credit, moved quickly to replace him with former England manager Sam Allardyce. The ex-Three Lions boss had been sacked by the Football Association just 67 days into his tenure but he remained Parish’s first choice to succeed Pardew.
Allardyce’s first task was to oversee a 1-1 draw away to Watford, a game which provided fans with more signs of improvement than had been on display through Pardew’s final months. The Eagles could have even won the game having gone ahead through Cabaye’s goal, only for Deeney to net a penalty for the Hornets.
Palace need to improve, and fast. Allardyce will certainly keep the side in the top-flight in the short-term but needs to install long-term stability.
Allardyce is renowned for having defensively sound teams which will be a boost to a Palace side that conceded far too many goals under Pardew. The former Sunderland boss has already impressed Palace fans by his willingness to discuss intricate details of matches, rather than be vague in press conferences like his predecessor.
Palace, like last season, will not have too much to spend in January so will need to find cheap, yet first team-ready, players. Wilfried Zaha, Palace’s most consistent player over the last twelve months, needs to be offered a new contract to deter interest from bigger clubs. Despite him not going permanently, the Eagles will have to find a replacement for the first six weeks of the year while he competes at the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast.
The minimum expectation is to avoid relegation. Succeed at that, and this very talented Palace squad could eventually go very far.