Overseeing a promotion, four different managerial changes, an historic FA Cup run and a Premier League top ten finish, Keith Millen saw it all at Crystal Palace and was an instrumental figure in the rise of the club he loves.
It very nearly didn't happen. Millen explains, “I was working with Ian at Blackpool and three jobs came up at the same time, at Ipswich, Birmingham, and Blackburn. Ian had been linked with all three of them. He was asking me about what I thought. Coming from London, none of them were particularly great for me. At one stage, Ipswich became the favourite."
Whilst it was becoming apparent that Ian Holloway was set to end his love affair with Blackpool, craving a new challenge after the success he bestowed upon The Tangerines, down at Crystal Palace, Dougie Freedman had built something special.
Palace were still finding their new identity, recovering from the dark, soulless pit of administration, which had seen the club hours away from extinction. In Freedman's first full season in charge, he guided the club to 17th place, which was respectable, considering the aftershock of administration was rippling through the club.
Three straight routine defeats on the bounce, looked to have sentenced Palace to another season slogging it out at the foot of the Championship. But on a sunny Saturday September afternoon against Sheffield Wednesday, the whole trajectory of the season changed.
It clicked. The emerging, talented Wilfried Zaha flourished alongside the newly arrived Yannick Bolasie. The pair formed a sporadic, off-the-cuff duo, who dazzled defences into a frenzy. In between them was Glenn Murray, a striker who lived off instinct; he had insatiable intelligence at finding spaces in opposition defences, which proved perfect for the unpredictability of Zaha and Bolasie. Behind them, was the intimidating partnership of Mile Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi.
Having conceded nine goals in the opening three matches, the experienced Damien Delaney arrived, bringing leadership and composure to the back four, forming a rock-solid partnership with Peter Ramage, and the two full-backs, Joel Ward and Jonathan Parr. And of course, Julian Speroni, the stalwart of the side, was ever consistent.
The architect was Dougie Freedman. The 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday sparked Palace’s season into life, providing the catalyst for an eight-game unbeaten run that would scale the south Londoners up the Championship table, climbing from 23rd to 4th. There was an anticipation, a tangible possibility that something unique was unfolding.
Freedman left his masterpiece unfinished. He had his head turned by Bolton Wanderers, who despite being 16th in the league at the time, offered the Scotsman an incredibly attractive deal.
Palace needed a new manager, someone with experience, a figurehead who could cultivate the impressive start into a potential promotion push. Steve Coppell was mentioned, Mick McCarthy too, before Ian Holloway was highlighted as the manager to drive the club forward.
His charismatic figure, prowess, and expertise at getting out of the Championship captured Steve Parish’s attention straight away. "Dougie leaving was a bit of a surprise,” says Millen. “But when Ian told me that there was a possibility (to move to Palace), I was desperate for him to get the job."
"I felt like I was coming home"
After Lennie Lawrence and Curtis Flemming extended the unbeaten run, overseeing wins against Blackburn, Leicester, and picking up a point away to Barnsley, Holloway took charge, bringing Keith Millen down from Blackpool as his assistant manager. "It was a dream come true. I felt like I was coming home,” says Millen.
He continues, “I had supported Palace all my life. I went there as a player whilst on loan from Brentford, I also trained at Palace as a schoolboy, nearly signing for the club when Alan Smith was manager. I ended up going to Watford, but there were a couple of times that I had almost got to my club during my playing career, so for me to get back as the assistant coach, it was the next best thing.”
“It was an unusual situation, because typically when you come into a new club, it’s because the results have been bad, but I think Palace had been on a 12-game unbeaten run. When we arrived, we were welcomed by a group that was full of confidence, playing well, and had a certain way of playing that was incredibly structured, which was quite different to the way Ian works. We realised pretty quickly that we couldn’t change too much too early; that was something we had to address in the early days.”
A 5-0 demolition of Ipswich Town welcomed Millen and Holloway to their new home. This was followed by a 2-1, Zaha inspired, away win at Peterborough United which propelled Palace to the top of the league table.
As the season went on, Palace remained in touching distance of automatic promotion. Kevin Phillips rolled back the years, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Hull City in March. The promotion dream was quickly manifesting into a reality.
That would be Palace’s last win for nine games. Millen suggests why the results plummeted, “As the weeks went by, Ian wanted to start implementing his own philosophy and way of working across the squad and this was hugely different to what the players were used to. Ian has a fantastic imagination on how he wanted his teams to play; you only have to look at how attacking his Blackpool side were.”
Although still in the play-off places, automatic promotion was out of the question. Heavy defeats to Birmingham and arch-rivals, Brighton, started to cast doubt over the Eagles’ play-off place, which they were hanging onto by a thread.
“There was a bit of a difference in what the players had been used to, and what Ian was wanting from them,” says Millen. “That was the only real problem which created the poor run of results. However, we knew it was a good team and that it would only be a matter of time before results started to go our way again.”
In the eleventh hour, when Palace needed to step-up, they did. A dramatic 3-2 win at home to Peterborough set up the eagerly awaited semi-final tie against their old nemesis, Brighton.
“There isn't anyone else I would rather take it than Kevin Phillips"
Millen recalls the preparation and the lead-up to the semi-final clashes, “It was very exciting, very nerve-racking. Having been involved in play-offs in the past, it’s an extremely nervous and tense time because you know what the rewards are at the end of it. It’s life changing for everyone. There is a lot of pressure on those games, and to play Brighton as well, it couldn’t get any tougher.”
He adds, “The play-offs are completely separate occasions, and despite what had gone on earlier in the season, it didn’t really have any bearing on the mindset. We were very focused on doing the job. I think the experience definitely helped us.”
After a cagey 0-0 at Selhurst Park, Palace travelled down to the south coast, knowing it was a ‘winner takes all’ scenario, with eternal bragging rights and a place in the final at Wembley on the line.
After losing Glenn Murray in the first-leg, due to an unfortunate anterior cruciate ligament injury, it would be the departing Wilfried Zaha who silenced the Amex Stadium, scoring twice and booking Palace’s spot in the final.
“I have been to play-off finals as a player with Bristol City. I know what the game means, it’s so emotional,” says Millen. “The atmosphere with the Palace fans was the best I have ever experienced, it was fantastic. The final was against my old team Watford, Kevin Phillips’ old team too. I kept saying to myself, ‘This is meant to be, this is our year.’ Sometimes it’s written in the stars.”
“It was a very tight game; Watford had been a very good team that year, but when you get nervous, you are not as brave as you can be. They didn’t play as well as they could have been. That’s why I felt like we always had the advantage, and we always knew we had the likes of Wilf, who can create a magic moment that can change a game.”
Change the game he did. Having failed to break the deadlock in normal time, and with the second half of extra time looming, Zaha bruised and battered, took one more run at Marco Cassetti.
The Watford defender backtracked with fear in his eyes as Zaha glided across the Wembley pitch. Bearing down on goal, Cassetti panicked, tripping Zaha inside the area, handing Palace an opportunity from 12-yards to clinch Premier League football. With a sense of euphoria in his voice, Millen knew, “There isn't anyone else I would rather take it than Kevin Phillips. It was meant to be.”
Philips dispatched the penalty into the top corner. Holloway and Millen had masterminded the play-off run, leading Palace back to the top-flight, ending an eight-year absence.
“The celebrations went on for a very long time!” chuckles Millen. “A lot of emotion, Ian is a very emotional person, so you can imagine he was jumping all over the place. You are exhausted also. The dressing room was fantastic, there was a good spirit amongst the group.”
“The play-off Final was my proudest moment at Palace. Look at where the club is now, it’s not just a short-term memory. Where the club is now, is down to the reward of that day; it played a massive part in the history of the club.”
“We came back very quickly; it did seem very rushed.”
“If someone asked you how you wanted to get promoted, you would say through the play-off Final all day. It’s the best experience ever. But the downside is, you have less time to prepare for the following season.”
No sooner had the celebrations begun, the realisation dawned upon the management and hierarchy that the club needed to adjust to the Premier League lifestyle; this would mean a brand-new television gantry, ripping out the old wooden seats in the Arthur Wait Stand, and of course, addressing the task of building a squad capable of competing in a league commonly known as the toughest in world football.
“We came back very quickly; it did seem very rushed.” Millen continues, “I know Ian and Steve (Parish) were constantly talking about players every day. That was really difficult for everyone. For the chairman, Ian, for everyone involved, it was a slightly new experience and we had to rush as we were playing catch-up.”
First, the necessary signings were made. The ACL injury would result in Glenn Murray being sidelined for most of the upcoming season. Therefore, Dwight Gayle and Marouane Chamakh were signed to add pace and Premier League experience to the forward line. A touch of class was next on the list, with José Campaña and Jason Puncheon brought in to fit Holloway’s philosophy.
As the window progressed, the supermarket sweep began. Palace would welcome 16 new faces through the door that summer window, from Jimmy Kebe to Elliot Grandin and Jerome Thomas.
“I think you try and plan what players you want to bring in, but when you get promoted to the Premier League, you get offered so many players wanting to come to your club, so many options, that it's difficult to focus on what you want to achieve.”
French left-back, Florian Marange, who joined the club on a free transfer, epitomised Palace’s window. The defender was left out of the Premier League 25-man squad, despite only signing for the club 10 days prior to the announcement. "That summed up the problems we were having,” sighs Millen, “We ended up having too many players and someone you sign can't even be named in the squad; that was typical of that period.”
Holloway struggled to integrate the overwhelming number of new arrivals with the core group of leaders who had won the play-off Final only months earlier.
After nine games into the season, Palace had just three points to their name. Written off already, the Championship was prepared to welcome the club back with open arms, the Premier League dream was over before it had even begun.
A deflating loss to relegation rivals Fulham would see Selhurst Park turn against Holloway, who departed shortly after. Millen would take charge as caretaker manager; a reliable, stable pair of hands to guide the club through the period of uncertainty.
During this time, Millen steadied the ship, earning a hard-fought point at home to Everton, before inspiring his Palace side to their second win of the season away to Hull, courtesy of a last gasp Barry Bannan goal.
“I remember trying to say to the players, ‘Let’s remember what brought us success over the last year, let’s go back to the basics of what we have done before.’ That was the main focus, getting back to being organised, hardworking and with a great team spirit. You have to give the players something to hang on to, some form of confidence.”
Tony Pulis - ‘I need you to work with me.’
During his short spell as caretaker, Millen had instilled belief back into the side, reassuring the players that they deserved to be in the league. The crucial three points away to Hull would breathe a new lease of life back into the campaign, laying the formidable foundations of the side for Tony Pulis, who was watching on from the stands.
“Because I knew the squad and how it had been playing over the last year and a half, I felt that Tony’s profile was perfect for what was needed. I said that publicly in the press and to the chairman, when Steve asked me for my thoughts. I thought Tony would be the perfect match.”
When a new manager arrives, it usually signals the end for the backroom staff too. “I knew Tony personally,” said Millen, “But you’re never quite sure from a professional point of view. But from day one, Tony said to me, ‘I need you to work with me.’ He could see the respect I had from the players. I really enjoyed working with Tony.”
Together, Millen and Pulis achieved the unthinkable, defying the odds and taking Palace to an 11th place finish in the Premier League, taking the scalps of Chelsea and Everton on the way to safety. “I was surprised with how the season finished, but as the season went on, I could see why we achieved that,” says Millen.
“We were organised before, but Tony took it to another level. Tony had the experience of Premier League football, and that was vital that season. We did loads of work with set-pieces, Tony said to me, ‘We’re going to be strong defensively and if we can score a goal from a set-piece, that will be enough to win us a game.’ I remember a quote Tony said to me very early on, ‘If we have 10 clean sheets, we will stay up.’
With Keith Millen’s approach, set pieces were a big weapon in Palace’s artillery, both defending and attacking dead-ball situations, making Palace ferociously feared by the opposition. “I had always been interested in that side of the game,” says Millen. “In all of my career, that was probably the most intense work we had done with set-pieces, and it paid off. I think we were top two for defending and attacking from set pieces. It played a massive part in our success that year.”
An end of season parade at Selhurst Park saw a game that will live long in Palace history. The comeback against Liverpool from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 highlighted the work ethic and ‘never say die’ attitude which Pulis and Millen had entrenched deep into the DNA of their side.
“The 48 hours prior to the Arsenal match were really difficult."
During the summer, there was an expectation that Palace had the necessary resources to dismiss any second season syndrome, and with a full season under Pulis and his backroom staff, the club could plan another assault on the Premier League, establishing itself as a mainstay in the top-flight.
However, there was a shadow looming over Selhurst Park; the recruitment strategy and signings, or lack of them, had been a discussion point over the pre-season, with Pulis clearly frustrated at the business.
“I wasn’t really involved in so many of the meetings between the chairman and Tony, perhaps like I was with Ian.” Millen adds, “I know he was frustrated with the recruitment and the signings. I know that was the big issue between the chairman, the club and Tony. I knew that was going on, but that happens at all clubs. Everyone has an opinion, so I really didn’t think too much of it.”
The first game against Arsenal was approaching. 48 hours before the season was to commence, a small whisper of rumours had started to circulate that Pulis’ frustration had manifested into him leaving. Quickly the rumour picked up pace, spreading rapidly. A frenzy had broken out on social media, denial turned to hysteria. It was true, Pulis had walked, leaving Palace in the lurch.
Once again, the calming influence of Keith Millen was called upon. For the second time in less than a year, he was asked to take charge of his club and guide the Eagles through a period of sheer chaos.
Millen recalls the two day rollercoaster prior to the season beginning, “When Tony left, and the timing of it, it was a huge surprise,” he takes a deep breath. “The 48 hours prior to the Arsenal match were really difficult. It was a big shock to the players, trying to get over that was really difficult. It was trying to get the players to focus on the game, but it was almost impossible because everyone was talking and asking questions in the media. It was a very tough time.”
When asked if anyone felt let down by Pulis’ departure, Millen says, “I think it was the not knowing what was going on. Players were asking me, the press were asking me, and it was very difficult for me to really answer without giving the answer that I didn’t know. That was so tough, and a real difficult situation to handle.”
Millen yet again cut a level-headed figure; he had been in this position before. He dealt with the pressure of the media, blocking out the intense noise that could have easily disrupted preparations for the start of the season.
Although the Eagles would fail to win their opening two games, whilst Neil Warnock was readied for the main position, Millen had cemented his place in Eagles’ folklore, becoming a beacon of hope for fans during a time of vulnerability.
Neil Warnock's short stint
After a four-year absence, Neil Warnock came back to take up the position of manager. He instantly signed Wilfried Zaha back to the club, a player who had been pinpointed as the main disruption to Palace’s business and the cause of friction between the club and Tony Pulis.
Warnock’s reign was over before it really began. It was seen as a backward step by some. When Palace dropped into the relegation zone on Boxing Day, after a 3-1 loss to Southampton, Warnock was dismissed, having only managed one win in his previous twelve games.
Millen believes, “Whoever came in after Tony, it was going to be a tough job. It’s really clear how Tony works and how he plays. When people have followed Tony, they find it very difficult to pick up the pieces. Neil was fantastically experienced. A lot of the players still had Tony in mind and the way he played. I think that trying to change from that perhaps affected the players’ confidence.”
It wasn’t long before Millen was asked yet again to take temporary charge, restoring calm and order to a side that had by his own phrase, ‘lost the Palace way.’
He oversaw crucial draws against QPR and Aston Villa, reconstructing the defensive bedrock and a resilient work ethic, two traits that players were prepared to give Millen due to their admiration for him as a caretaker, coach, assistant and as a man.
“There were some good leaders in that dressing room,” explains Millen. “Mile Jedinak and Damien Delaney I really got on with. They were big characters, and I had a good relationship with them. They respected me as a coach, whether I was caretaker or assistant manager. My relationship with the senior players was extremely good.”
The next manager in line to the throne was Alan Pardew, who had achieved the maximum with Newcastle, taking the club to a 5th place Premier League finish and to the Europa League. Pardew was shunned by the Magpies’ faithful, win, lose or draw, due to his relationship with owner, Mike Ashley.
“I knew Pards, we knew each other from when we were younger growing up in the same area. We had that connection and trust together straight away,” says Millen. “I really enjoyed working with Alan. He was a very different character and personality to the other managers at Palace. He wanted to be a bit freer and more open in the way we played.”
Pardew, in conjunction with the previous occupants of the Crystal Palace managerial hot-seat, quickly realised that Keith Millen’s integral influence would be a mistake to relinquish, with Millen staying on as Pardew’s assistant.
The pair guided Palace to their first, and to date, only top-10 Premier League finish, with Pardew’s attacking style of play capturing the imagination of the Eagles’ fans in the first six months of his reign.
The magic of the FA Cup
Pardew’s second season left much to be desired. 5th in the table at Christmas, above Manchester United and Liverpool, it looked like the club was about to shatter the glass ceiling, joining the elite and swapping relegation dogfights for a seat at the top table.
The second half of the season, however, would see the Eagles wait for their reservation, unable to break through the barrier. The form had dipped severely.
Following the turn of the year, Pardew’s Palace would pick up three points in thirteen games, going from European hopefuls to slipping into the relegation abyss.
The FA Cup was a welcome distraction from the league, and it seemed romantic in some way. Pardew had such a rich history with the competition during his time as a player with the Eagles, taking Palace to their first final in 1990, and scoring the winner against Liverpool in the 4-3 semi-final victory at Villa Park.
Millen recalls the opening run fondly, “I remember around January, February time, the league performances were not good. We won the third and fourth round of the cup and it took a bit of pressure off the league situation, before, all of a sudden, the cup started to look really good and we thought we could have a good chance.”
In the opening rounds, wins over Southampton and Stoke City created a palpable possibility that an FA Cup charge was on. Palace drew Spurs away in the fifth round, reality quickly set back in. Fans were ready to pack away the red and blue balloons and the tinned foil FA Cups for another year, coming to terms with the adventure being over before it had even begun.
Martin Kelly had other ideas, and dismissing the narrative, he meandered forward from right-back, latching onto a Zaha pass. Unmarked in the penalty area, Kelly unleashed a powerful strike past Michel Vorm, sending the Palace fans at the opposite end of the stadium into raptures and the club into the hat of the quarter-finals.
The path was becoming clearer, “When we drew Reading in the quarter-finals, we knew that we had a real chance. That’s when the excitement started to build,” says Millen.
Circumnavigating Championship Reading, Palace had reached Wembley, one game away from potential glory, with Watford the side who stood in their way to the final. Of course, Watford at Wembley? There was only going to be one outcome. Palace booked their place in the FA Cup Final against Manchester United.
The cup run highlighted the journey the club had been on, from protests outside Lloyds Bank to keep the club alive, to five years later, competing in the prestigious FA Cup Final. “The buildup, the week before is very special, it’s an incredibly special game,” says Millen.
A feisty encounter on the day, neither side looked to be able to break the deadlock. The story nearly had the fairytale ending when Jason Puncheon came on, hungry to prove a point, whilst still frustrated at being left on the bench.
Puncheon took his anger out on the ball, arrowing a viscous shot past David De Gea, prompting a delayed roar from the 35,000 Palace fans, and a questionable dance from Alan Pardew.
Bursting out with laughter, Millen says, “I remember Pards doing his dance. I was thinking, ‘What are you doing!’ but I was jumping up and down. We were doing well at that stage of the game and we had a chance.”
With twelve minutes left on the clock, The FA Cup was on stand-by, preparing to have a new name engraved on the trophy. Pardew and Millen were minutes away from creating history.
But it would be the world-class, Wayne Rooney who would make the difference on the day. Rooney ran the game, creating the equaliser for Juan Mata to take the final to extra time, which was followed by agony as Jesse Lingard broke Palace hearts with minutes to go.
On a subject that I sensed was still tough for Millen to talk about, with a sorrowful sigh he says, “There’s nothing you can say really, it’s the disappointment. How often do you get a chance to win an FA Cup Final? Some people never do. The fact that you have come so close, and I felt like we deserved to win it, we were not outplayed on that day.”
He continues, “It was a big disappointment, and trust me, that disappointment doesn’t go away for quite a long time. I remember going away on holiday after, sitting there still gutted that we could have been FA Cup winners, and for the players you certainly get a hangover from it.”
Out of the frying pan into the fire
Going into the 2016/17 season, the hangover from the FA Cup was permanently suffocating the air around Selhurst Park. The players and management had come so close, achieving a great deal in such a brief time period.
It felt like perhaps it was time for a change, a bold move, however, it was necessary to progress the side. It was time for the old guard to depart or step aside, making way for the new crop of players.
Millen explains, “I remember that summer having discussions with the chairman and the club about maybe trying to be even more expansive in our game, and some of the players we were going to recruit were going to be able to help the change.”
The new arrivals would see Palace stand down their leaders and captains of the team who had been the foundations for the club's success.
The change of strategy failed to work; whilst the scoring record improved, Palace were shipping goals at an alarming rate. Throwing away leads against Burnley and Swansea City proved to be the kiss of death for Pardew, who registered the worst points-per-game record in all four English leagues for 2016.
Millen says, “That period was when the players who had been at Palace for a quite a long time and had been successful, that’s when they started leaving a little bit more and there was a new dressing room.”
The spine of the side was broken up; Speroni and Delaney took a step back from the starting line-up, with Yannick Bolasie sold to Everton in a deal that was too good for Palace to turn down.
The biggest change was losing Mile Jedinak, the club captain, a voice on the pitch that previous management and Millen, during his time caretaker, looked to as a leader, a focal point to rally the team in times of crisis.
“In hindsight, (in Jedinak) we lost a fantastic captain and leader. We were trying to change what we were doing on the pitch, but in return we certainly missed his leadership in the dressing room and around the training ground. That was a big loss,” explains Millen.
Millen believes that the club, “came away from the Palace way.” He continues, “It’s funny, even after my time and Sam Allardyce came in, then the chairman went down the route of Frank De Boer, trying to play total football. We always seem to go back to the tried and trusted Palace way.”
He speaks of his admiration for current Palace manager, Roy Hodgson. The former England manager also influenced Millen’s own decision to take the leap into management abroad, with Millen now manager of Örgryte IS, in Sweden, the same country where Hodgson started his career. “Roy is doing a fantastic job now, because it's simple and quite basic in what they do, but they do it so well. That is Palace, and people who have tried to change that have not been too successful.”
"That’s football. It was tough to take."
There was a suggestion, after Pardew was sacked, amongst the Palace faithful, that their new manager was already at the club, studying and observing in the wings, whilst having a taste of the leading role in spurts.
Millen already had achieved a cult hero status and would be a very welcome appointment. He had earned the trust and respect of the club hierarchy, fans, and players. But it wasn’t to be.
Millen reveals in his interview with VAVEL UK, “That was the nearest I got (to becoming manager) was when Tony left. The chairman wanted to continue the philosophy which had played such an enormous role in the success the season before. I had been there for a year with Tony, so I knew what we were doing. I spoke to the chairman and said, ‘I can take it forward, if you want to continue down that route. I feel like I can do that.’ I had the respect of the players."
Not afraid to bat away the question that he was in some way frustrated at being ignored for a role that many suggested he could have fulfilled, Millen says, “Not really, no. My main thing was to work at Palace. That was my dream job, to continue working at Palace, but I did feel at the time I could have continued the work we were doing.”
After helping new manager, Sam Allardyce, settle into the side, Allardyce decided he wanted to bring his own coaching staff, signaling the end of Keith Millen’s time at Crystal Palace.
“When Sam Allardyce came in, the chairman didn’t really want to do it, but he understood Sam wanted to come in, make a significant impact and change things, bringing his own people in. I have no problem with that. That’s football. It was tough to take. The chairman found it quite difficult to sit down and tell me. That was probably the saddest moment of my time at Crystal Palace.”
No matter your views on the four managers during that period where the club looked to establish itself as a Premier League outfit, there was one constant, someone who embodied the fans, a calming influence who guided the club through several periods of uncertainty.
Keith Millen’s loyalty and constant passion for Crystal Palace saw him etched into Eagles’ tradition for eternity.
A banner was unveiled by the Holmesdale Fanatics thanking Millen for his dedication during times when all hope had vanished. “I really did appreciate that,” says Millen. “The fans know that I supported Palace as a lad, and I have a massive connection with the club. The fans create a fantastic atmosphere at Selhurst."
He continues, "I’d love to come back to Palace. I would always look at the chance of coming back. It’s my home team. You never know.”
“I do feel that I have some unfinished business at Palace. I do feel one day I will be back there. I keep an eye on the results, and I speak to Roy every now and then. The club still means a lot to me and I loved the work I was doing.”