Dean Davenport speaks to VAVEL UK after a busy day delivering essential pharmaceuticals to hospitals and pharmacies during this unprecedented pandemic. He discusses his journey to becoming Crystal Palace women's manager, his 16 year involvement with the Eagles, the highs and lows of management and the exciting future of the club.
Davenport explains that his first introduction to the women's side came through his daughter, Jade Davenport. "Because I played football myself, my daughter wanted to play football, and there was an advert in the local papers for Palace. So I took her down there at the age of eight and she got in."
Davenport attended training sessions to support and watch his daughter follow her passion, however he quickly found himself in the mix, helping out. "The then manager at the time knew I played football myself, so he asked me to do a bit of coaching with the girls. For some reason he then left."
What turned out just to be Davenport lending a helping hand to his daughter’s team quickly turned into much more. "I was asked by the then Chairman to take the girls until they found a new manager. Little did I know that new manager was going to be me! "
Davenport took charge of the academy, helping the women to progress to all the way to the Under 18’s side, where he was then given the opportunity to manage the first team. He recalls how the vacancy came about, "The first team job became available because the girls had just been relegated, and they were looking for a fresh face with some fresh players, so it was quite handy for me because I took my team into a really young first team."
Davenport and his new set up quickly hit the ground running. "The rest was history. We did really well getting three promotions, and of course we had that fantastic year where we went unbeaten."
After a very respectable 3rd place finish the season prior, Davenport and Palace were hungry for promotion to the FA Women’s Premier League, which would provide an excellent pathway for the club into the newly formed Women's Super League.
Not only did the Eagles achieve their goal of promotion in the 2015/16 season, but Davenports' side would also go on to create a piece of Crystal Palace history in the process.
Davenport instilled a strong work ethic amongst his side of experienced players who had played in the Women’s Super League and added them to the talent that he had helped nurture through the academy system to the first team. This combination would allow his side to go on and achieve 'Invincible' status, going the whole season unbeaten and picking up an impressive 20 wins and only 2 draws for the whole campaign.
The superb season was topped off when Palace managed to do the double and lift the Surrey FA County Cup after a hard fought 2-1 win over AFC Wimbledon in the final.
The remarkable progression of the club
The landscape of Crystal Palace football club on the whole has been rather turbulent since the turn of the century; before 2010 Crystal Palace men’s side was a very unstable outfit, with the club’s finances in a very precarious position. The club had suffered two administrations in the space of just over a decade and penny pinching was seen in every area of the club, with the main focus solely on the men's team under former Chairman, Simon Jordan.
When asked just how far Davenport’s side had progressed in the 16 years he has been at the club, he assertively replies with no second thought, "Massively. When I first arrived, we didn't really have that connection with the main club at the time. Simon Jordan was the Chairman, and we weren't really for me, wholeheartedly part of the club at the time. We were just really left on our own to use the name and the badge for me. When Simon Jordan was in charge we ran our club on its own, the players had to pay subscriptions to play, the club rolled by itself. All we had was the kit and the name."
The administration in 2010 saw Steve Parish and CPFC2010 take over as custodians of the football club and they immediately set about making everything about one big Crystal Palace family. "When I took over the first team, and the new Chairman came in, Steve (Parish). Things started to progress and now our relationship with the main club is fantastic. The support we get from them is just unbelievable. We really couldn't ask for anymore."
Davenport continues, "We really feel now, and for the past three or four years, we now feel really a part of the club going forward. Financially we are supported really well and anything else we ask for. It’s fantastic for the girls because at the end of the day, that is what they want. They want to feel part of a men's professional team, and it's great we are."
Just as when the Men’s side play at Selhurst Park, Davenport leads his team to battle with an army in the stands cheering them on, as Palace’s women’s team in recent seasons have received a number of plaudits from the vocal core fan base that comes to support the women’s side.
Davenport is extremely proud of the support for his side, “For me being a Palace fan myself, and all my family is Palace too, and the kids have season tickets. One thing I will say about Palace is that we have tremendously loyal support. It’s amazing and they have been there since the day I took over. We always get asked about our support everywhere we go.”
The bid to join the Championship
In 2018, Crystal Palace Women had put together a dossier which they believed would be successful in allowing Davenport’s side to be welcomed into the Women's Super League set up.
Somewhat surprisingly though, the Eagles bid was overlooked by the FA in favour of a newly formed Manchester United side, who had not had a women’s organisation playing any football for thirteen years.
The bid was also rejected in favour of Lewes FC's, despite the fact they finished below Palace the season prior.
To top it off, West Ham's bid saw the Hammers fast-tracked straight into the top tier of the Women's Super League, and yet again they also finished below Palace, but were seen as a more fitting outfit from the FA.
"We were really, really gutted, because we thought we had put a package together that would see us get into the Championship." Davenport recalls how the news filtered through, "I still remember that day, it was myself, the Chairman, General Manager and a couple of committee members all down the pub, all waiting for the phone call. We were all sitting there, laughing and joking, assuming we were in, and all of a sudden, we received a phone call to say we weren't. It was really gutting. We thought we had done enough."
Palace were reportedly considering an appeal to the FA after their bid was rejected in favour of what could be seen as more 'commercially appealing' sides in West Ham and Manchester United. However, the Eagles would ultimately end up in the Championship after the Doncaster Belles had to drop out due to being unable to keep up viably with the financial pressures of the Women's Super League system.
The future of Crystal Palace
Palace are now part of the Championship set up which has helped the development of the women's side in a hugely significant way. Davenport explains, “It is fantastic. It allows us to do more things, and it allows us to be more professional in the way we do things. It is a lot easier to attract players and a better calibre of player, which we have been doing. It helps us because it gets us to ultimately where we want to be, and that's the WSL. Hopefully we can keep building these platforms and get to the WSL in potentially the next two or three seasons."
At the beginning of the 2019/20 season, it was announced that the Davenport’s side would be playing the season with a new identity; 'Ladies' was dropped from the end of the sides name, meaning they would enter the league as Crystal Palace Football Club, with the message going forward that everything will be under one club all pushing for the same goal. "It was fantastic. That is what we have wanted for such a long time. It really makes us feel part of the club. It is massive, and it is all we have really ever wanted as a women's team. It was really major for us as a club because it gave us the right to play under the badge."
With Davenport heading towards two decades of service with the club, he looks back at his time with immense fondness, but is still driven to achieve even more with his side and take the Eagles to push the barriers to become a top side in the WSL set up. When asked what the 'five year plan' was for his side, Davenport says:
"In five years, hopefully, we will be in the WSL, up there or confirming a mid-table place in the WSL and that we can perform at the highest level. It's not to going out and winning trophies or leagues. That's all nice but, if you have the structure right, for me then you have to perform and stay in these leagues, and once we do that the trophies and everything else will follow."