This part of the football season is my hands-down favourite. The all-too-brief lull between the fixtures being announced and the transfer market getting serious is just so fecund with hope and potential. We live in an acquisitive, consumerist age where any problem can be solved with a shiny new toy. So Liverpool fans can believe that if only they can bring in Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk their defence will no longer buckle against teams in the bottom half. Wengeristas will feel confident that buying Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon will stop Arsenal being such snowflakes. Football really does have a fantasy element right now: Bournemouth, Brighton and Burnley are all squatting in the Champions League spots, albeit only alphabetically. Anything is possible.
And then, fast-forward a few days/weeks/months later, it isn’t. The guy you want prefers to sit on the bench at Real Madrid. Or you get the guy and he has the impact of George Weah’s cousin. The season starts and you still drop points in the rain to Huddersfield. Reality is overrated.
Still, there must have been a spring in the step of Crystal Palace supporters this week. More even than a star striker, the arrival of a new manager can offer the promise of a radical overhaul of a team’s fortunes. So it is that an unfashionable outfit whose main reason for getting up in the morning has been to lose, but lose slightly less often than three other teams in the same division, is being told that come August it will join the storied ranks of Barcelona and Ajax. A stadium whose main distinguishing characteristic up till now has been its proximity to a big Sainsbury’s will become the new cathedral of total football.
The man with the vision is Frank de Boer, one of the most elegant and unhurried (read: smallish and slow) defenders of modern times. As a manager, too, the 47-year-old has a medal-heavy CV, especially with Ajax, where he won four Eredivisie titles in six seasons. Not long ago, Liverpool or Spurs might have felt lucky to land De Boer. But investments can go down as well as up and, after a suboptimal 85 days at Internazionale last autumn, the Dutchman finds himself posing with a shirt round the corner from a mid‑market superstore on the outskirts of Croydon. (Further proof that football management can be a ruthless, though well-remunerated, profession came as that lovely man Claudio Ranieri was required to sound suitably psyched this week about taking over at Nantes.)
At De Boer’s unveiling at Selhurst Park there was much discussion about his style: shrunken trousers and no socks, apparently. He, however, seemed keener to concentrate on on-field concerns. “Ajax is famous for total football,” said De Boer. “So it’s in our DNA to try and play tactical and technical football, to try to dominate. If you do that well it’s a plus because it’s attractive and it looks nice.”
Here, the new boss did not seem to be entirely in harmony with his new boss, Steve Parish. “Our fans, I don’t think they are particularly fussed about the style of football we play,” the chairman said. Parish went on, slightly harshly: “Our fans aren’t too discerning.”
Tosh and piffle, as Boris Johnson might say. At this point in the season – that is, six weeks from a ball being kicked in anger – only a fun sponge gets bogged down in nit-picking. In no time, Palace will be zipping the ball around like a pinball machine. European football is on the horizon. And in Wilfried Zaha, they have nothing less than our own Johan Cruyff.
I should note that I’ve taken an extracurricular interest in Crystal Palace of late. A couple of years ago I moved to south London and Selhurst Park is easily my closest ground. When our kids were born, I lobbied my partner concertedly that the Eagles could become the family team.
There were some compelling enticements, I felt. No one could accuse you of glory-hunting by choosing Palace. And if you want your children to learn Kipling-esque life lessons about treating victory and defeat with equanimity, then that’s harder to square if you follow a team bankrolled by a foreign oligarch who can effectively buy success. Plus, match tickets are probably easier to come by at Selhurst Park than some Premier League grounds (notable exception: West Ham United).
The deal-sealer, I imagined, for a four-year-old anyway, was that they have a real eagle called Kayla who, wind permitting, flies around before matches. Millwall fans once heckled her: “You’re just a pigeon!” The Eagles is certainly an improvement on their previous, memorably obtuse and unintimidating incarnation as “the Glaziers”. That nickname was changed in 1973 by Malcolm Allison, newly appointed as manager, and the Eagles chosen in homage to Benfica.
Discussions at home continue. It’s hard to get a straight answer when you’re watching football with someone whose most perceptive comment is: “He fell over!” again and again. Besides, I feel like I may have underestimated the importance of bragging rights in a family. If everyone supports the same team, it’s kind of boring. Even pointless.
But maybe De Boer will change all that. Perhaps the football he orchestrates will be so beguiling that it will be like a siren song to south London and far beyond. Stranger things have happened, right? Right? Let’s just hope that his first week is not an omen of what’s to come. On Monday, Palace’s media team was so excited that it tweeted two pictures of the new signing during his playing career. The problem was that the shots were of Frank’s twin brother, Ronald de Boer.
Ronald, always a cool customer himself, shot back some strong sibling bantz: “It’s very difficult to find action photos of Frank,” he wrote on Twitter, “that’s why they use me instead #urnotthefirstandnotthelast.”
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