You would imagine for any footballer who was looking back on their career, missing out on a major international tournament, especially one that takes place in your home nation, would be a regret. Not for Johnny Ertl; he describes it as a, "blessing in disguise.”
Ertl was a part of Austria’s squad in preparation for Euro 2008, however, was excluded from the final 23-man team that would take part in the tournament. “Honestly, it was a blessing in disguise,” says Ertl. “I thought it would be hard for me to play a single minute at the European Championships. If I had been there, I would have never experienced England.”
Crystal Palace had just suffered the disappointment of a semi-final playoff defeat to Bristol City, and a mini rebuild was required by Neil Warnock, who wanted to manifest a squad of his choice in his first full season in charge. Leaders, characters and key players were either sold, moved on, or let go; Mark Hudson, Tom Soares, Carl Fletcher and Clinton Morrison, just to name a few.
Palace were searching for a utility man, someone capable of playing in multiple positions, Johnny Ertl fitted the bill. He explains, “Palace invited me to come over to see their facilities and train with the team. After four days of training, Mick Jones, the assistant manager at the time, said to me, ‘Johnny, you are a Crystal Palace player.’ I put pen to paper the week after, and my chapter in British football started at this wonderful club.”
If swapping picturesque Vienna for the cosmopolitan town of Croydon wasn’t enough of a culture shock for Ertl, then working under Neil Warnock would provide the new signing with his abrupt introduction to British football. Ertl recalls, “During my first four days at the club, I hardly saw Warnock. I remember Jose Fonte saying to me, ‘He is a crazy man, and I should not wear coloured boots if I wanted to play at centre half.’
“When I met him properly for the first time in his office, he said to me with a twinkle in his eye, ‘I must take you. You’re a perfect fit.’ Warnock was eccentric, but at the start it was a huge difference for me.”
Ertl explains that in Austria, he had been used to a significantly alternative approach to pre-season, jetting off on training camps around the world and having a vigorous routine to adhere to.
However, Warnock would take the players to his home in Cornwall, “He would turn up in his classic car, taking us around town and having barbecues at his place. But it was interesting for me how Warnock saw a pre-season camp. It wasn’t about training, more about the lads coming together and having a good time.”
From European qualifiers to Championship rough and tumble, to a new country, language, and teammates, Ertl was struggling to adapt to his new surroundings. “The first months were extremely hard for me,” says Ertl. “I had my debut away against Leeds United in the League Cup, playing instead of Danny Butterfield at right-back. Jermaine Beckford gave me a hard game; we ended up losing 0-4.”
Ertl failed to impose himself on the starting line-up, biding his time with a place on the bench, having to battle to earn Warnock’s trust. No sooner the season starts, so does January’s annual transfer window.
Limited to just half-an-hour of Championship football, Ertl reveals he was tempted to leave the club, desperate for regular first team action. “I couldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel in my first few months at Palace.”
He explains, “I asked Warnock if I could go on loan to Viking Stavanger, in Norway. But Mick Jones and the gaffer told me that, ‘my time will come’ and that ‘simplicity is beautiful.’ Mick Jones told me this several times. He wanted me to stick to my strengths on the pitch and not to get carried away with other things.”
Ertl believed that he could fight his way into the starting line-up and become an imperious figure in the heart of Crystal Palace’s midfield.
“I had a terrible start, but I learnt how to cope with setbacks along the way. I got into the playing style and understood what Neil Warnock wanted from me. First, I got myself a dictionary, where I put down all relevant words I needed in and around football. You can image that there were a lot of rude words in there, as I needed to get up to speed in terms of ‘pitch’ language."
Ertl adds, “Secondly, I needed to build up my strength. Thirdly, and most important of all, I did a lot of mental training and visualisation before each game. That was my breakthrough and made me better than the players who stood in my path to the first team.”
After a 14-game absence from the side, Ertl’s hard work and patience was duly rewarded. The Austrian midfielder had a frank conversation with Neil Warnock, where they both agreed that Ertl was wasted in the back four, and a role alongside Shaun Derry was where he could flourish.
“Dezza (Derry) was great to me. I really enjoyed playing alongside him. He knew he could always count on me. He was the best skipper I had, and he taught me the trade of British football. The likes of Shaun Derry, Danny Butterfield and Paddy McCarthy helped me a lot.”
He continues, “They treated me like a friend and made me feel a part of the changing room. When you come from abroad, especially to a side with a strong core of British players, you need to adapt. They really took me under their wing. I was no longer an Austrian - I felt British.”
As the season drew to a close, Ertl had muscled his way into the team, adopting the enduring character that Warnock demanded of his players.
“Warnock was the most honest and authentic manager I have had. He would say to me either, ‘Johnny you were shit,’ or ‘Johnny I need you.’ He was brutally honest, but that helped me a lot, because I knew exactly where I stood with him. It would really hurt at the start, but I would do the same. It’s about being authentic and treating people with respect. He helped me to understand the British game, and I am so, so thankful for this.”
The 2009/10 season
With the emergence of Victor Moses, Nathaniel Clyne, and Sean Scannell, fused together with a core group of leaders and match winners in Darren Ambrose and Julian Speroni, there was an unambiguous sense of optimism around the 2009/10 season. “We were such a tight squad.” says Ertl, “So many great characters who really cared about the club. We had the perfect balance of experience and youth. We were pushing for a playoff place, played some good football and we were hard to beat.”
Crystal Palace fans and football people alike had developed an impression that Simon Jordan was struggling to cope with the financial pressures of owning a football club, especially during a global recession. Ertl and the squad flew up to take on promotion certainties, Newcastle United, knowing a win would cement Palace as potential playoff candidates.
The squad landed at Newcastle Airport to calls and text messages from loved ones, saying that the club had been placed into administration. Ertl describes that moment as a “bombshell.”
On the coach to the game later that evening, Ertl says, “There was a certain insecurity around the team. But we shook it off, because we were all in the same boat, knowing now we needed to fight.”
Crystal Palace’s position was perilous. The players were fully conscious of the fact that being placed into administration would prompt several uncertainties - from the next pay cheque, to a 10-point deduction that would plunge the club into a relegation battle. In addition, whether that game against Newcastle would signal the last time they would all be in the same dressing room together, as prize asset, Victor Moses, was banned by the administrators from playing in the game.
The unbreakable mentality
Despite the uncertainty around the future of the club, the characters in the squad overpowered the dark looming cloud that was about to engulf Selhurst Park.
Sky cameras were poking their heads into Palace’s dressing room at St James' Park, expecting to be met by a group of players, shocked, spiritless and demoralised. “They must have thought we were a bunch of lunatics!” chuckles Ertl. “Before every game we would listen to two special songs; ‘500 miles’ from The Proclaimers and ‘I got a feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas. This game before Newcastle, everyone was dancing at their best in the changing room. Believe me, I didn’t need to warm up anymore, the dance was enough.”
This mentality would become the catalyst that dragged the club kicking and screaming through the intense inferno of administration. Ertl portrayed this spirit, personifying the fan base, developing into one of the players who offered a glimmer of reassurance that the club would be able to survive.
Ertl had fallen in love with Crystal Palace. “It was the people in and around that club which allowed me to buy into Crystal Palace.” He adds, “It starts with the kitman and the training ground staff, to the physios and fitness coaches. It was all coming together. But the fans were incredible, especially when we entered administration. There were so many times when they would thank us for staying at the club. There was so much insecurity around the club at the time, and I think the fans carried us along that season, during such a difficult period.”
The squad was thrown into turmoil once again, when manager, Neil Warnock, was sold to Queens Park Rangers for a nominal fee of £500,000, as administrators looked to strip further assets from the club, having allowed Jose Fonte and Victor Moses to depart in January.
Paul Hart was called upon to guide Palace headfirst through the barrage of uncertainty crashing against the club. His task was simple - keep Crystal Palace in the Championship.
Ertl says, “Honestly, Paul Hart didn’t do much. But the group of players were so strongly knitted together that he really didn’t need to. The foundations of the side were already there - having a good spirit, funny training sessions to boost morale and most importantly, just being a good guy. That’s all we needed from him.”
Although Hart had minimal impact on the side, due to the tenacious, cohesive mentality the squad had built when confronted by anguish, perhaps his greatest and most integral piece of the jigsaw that he had carefully cultivated, was asking former Palace hero, Dougie Freedman, to quit playing and become his assistant manager for the short assault that was required for the end of the season.
Ertl believes, “Dougie was instrumental in our success. He understood everybody in that squad and that helped a lot. Derry and the other players could speak to him on the same wavelength, which was another part crucial for that season.”
Palace reached the final game of the season, knowing their destiny was to be decided in 90 minutes of football against Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls were in the relegation zone on merit, needing all three points to secure safety. However, for Palace, a draw would be enough to secure Championship survival and maintain an attractive status to any potential buyers.
In the build-up to the game, Ertl recalls Derry speaking to the squad in a moment he describes as “perfect leadership.”
“It was on Thursday before we left for Sheffield. After the training session, Shaun Derry pulled the whole squad to one side. We all sat together in a small circle and I remember him saying, ‘This game is all about us now. Nothing else matters.’
The players traveled to Sheffield, knowing the pendulum of the club’s future swung in the balance of one game of football. “I personally had a trapped nerve from playing so many games that season. My body was crying out for a break,” says Ertl.
“But I knew I needed to play this special game. Nothing was going to stop me. We had a good pre-match talk before the game. Dougie Freedman pulled all the senior players together, where we talked about the future, what lay ahead and the build-up to the game. I could sense then there was a bright future ahead for Dougie. He was so professional.”
After the religious singing and dancing of The Proclaimers and The Black Eyed Peas,’ Ertl and Palace took to the tunnel, knowing their opponents stood in the way of completing the task that the Eagles had fought their way to achieve. “I will never, ever, forget that day,” says Ertl.
The game summed up Palace’s season - a pure eruption of erratic emotions. The Eagles took the lead through Alan Lee’s bullet header. Sheffield Wednesday made it 1-1 prior to half time, when Leon Clarke robbed Danny Butterfield, curling a shot out of Speroni’s reach. However, his questionable celebration of kicking the advertising board rendered Clarke unable to play on, as he had broken his toe and was carried off on a stretcher. Advantage had swung back in the Eagles’ favour within a matter of moments.
The second half was overflowing with jubilant celebrations, unparalleled nerves, heated words, and of course, trepidation.
Palace went 2-1 up, through their talisman Darren Ambrose, someone Ertl describes as a “true game changer.” In a chaotic last five minutes and with Palace holding onto their lead for dear life, Darren Purse gambled at the back post, giving Wednesday a chance with three minutes of normal time plus added time to still be played. Ertl, still a little frustrated at conceding the equaliser, says, “Stern John was lazy, completely forgetting about his man in the box.”
The Owls accelerated the pressure, knowing each Palace player was on their last drop of energy, having given every ounce that was physically possible throughout the season.
As Paddy McCarthy headed a chance clear for one last Wednesday corner, the Eagles’ fans waited with bated breath. Time was up. The referee blew the season to a close, sparking wild euphoria amongst fans, management, and players.
“That uncontrollable emotion on full time, I will never forget.” He continues, “I was running to the stand where all the Crystal Palace supporters were, hugged as many as I could and ran back to the tunnel, as Sheffield Wednesday supporters came on the pitch and hit Clint Hill. Back in the changing room, we were singing and crying. I felt like I had just conquered the world.”
The players had given everything. Together, they cemented themselves in Palace history for eternity, all playing integral roles in keeping the club afloat, handing it a fighting chance to claw its way back from the hollow depths of administration.
After continuing the celebrations at the service station, bumping into serval Palace coaches on the way back from the game, the realisation dawned upon Ertl that he was out of contract.
He explains, “I didn’t receive any phone call in the summertime. I was wondering what was going on with the club, whether it was still alive. Then Shaun Derry and Clint Hill left, and Sheffield United expressed an interest in me. In hindsight, I think it was too early for Palace to offer me anything, I don’t think they knew what was going on themselves.”
“Looking back, it was sad that nobody approached me, because I would have loved to stay at Palace. I called Dougie, saying ‘I have this offer from Sheffield United,’ Dougie replied telling me that ‘The club would love to offer you a contract, but didn’t have the money to do so right now.’
Ertl continues, “In a climate where you want to have security for yourself and your family, how long do you wait? I had a very good season in the Championship with Palace, but what if I turned this opportunity at Sheffield United down? I didn’t know in two weeks' time whether Crystal Palace was still going to be alive.”
Johnny Ertl became a cult hero, someone who represented the fans during a time of crisis. Although off the pitch, anarchy and beldam was breaking out in the boardroom, with rap mogul, P Diddy, named as one of many potential buyers.
In a time of instability, it felt reassuring that players such as Ertl would supply his paramount effort once he crossed onto the pitch - fighting for every loose ball, climbing mountains to win every header, he would have given his body to wear the Palace shirt.
He left with the blessing of all the Palace faithful, grateful for the dedication he gave the club during a time when many turned their backs on it.
Ertl says he still reminisces about that special day at Hillsborough, “It’s something incredibly special to me. I am so proud that I helped lay the foundations for where Crystal Palace is now. It was such a crucial moment in the club’s history.”