Who to turn to among Palace fans for what could be our game of the season. That was my challenge. Then I remembered a former colleague, Mick Brown*, published author and writer of top-rate features for The Daily Telegraph (he mentions perhaps his most memorable assignment: interviewing Phil Spector just before the wall of sound became the walls of a penitentiary). Mick has Never Lost That Lovin’ Feeling for Crystal Palace and agreed to Be our Baby. Er, I’ll get my coat …
Salut! Sunderland: From looking dead and gone, Palace suddenly seem as capable as many in that bottom 7-11 places to survive. Is is what you expected of Tony Pulis and how has he managed to give you at least a sporting chance?
We’re not out of the woods yet by any means, but I don’t think anyone realistically expected us to survive when Pulis took over – except for Pulis himself. One of the things he’s done is instilled a confidence and self-belief that had almost totally evaporated; and he’s organised the team so that we’re playing to our (admittedly limited) strengths. We were conceding a horrific number of goals; he’s organised the defence and made us very hard to break down, as Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal have all found. There were the predictable fears when Pulis came in that we were going to be playing a negative, long-ball game; and not everybody is happy with letting other teams dominate so much of the possession, and trying to hit them on the break. But it’s proved very effective, and we’ve also been playing some very good football at times. Pulis is a fantastically experienced manager, tactically astute and he clearly commands the respect of the players. I like the way he just gets on with the job in a very thorough, professional way. No posturing, no whining. Overall, he’s done a brilliant job.
Will the cup bounce help or hinder Sunderland in this crucial game?
It’s the classic either-way justification for a struggling club on a good cup run, isn’t it? If you win, it’s not a distraction from the league because victories breed confidence. If you lose, it’s one less distraction from the relegation battle and you can concentrate on that. On balance, your going out to Hull is probably to your advantage; everybody is going to be focused on survival, with no dreams of Wembley.
I normally ask this later in the questionnaire but our positions, and the timing, make this a real six-pointer. So who, at the end of the season, will be going down?
Fulham, Cardiff and West Brom
Hardly matters but what will be the top four in order?
Back to Palace, who have been the key figures in the mini-revival and where are you still weak?
Julian Speroni has been consistently brilliant in goal; I think he’s one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, and a true Palace legend. Damien Delaney is a strong, uncompromising centre-back – he’s been a real tower of strength. Mile Jedinak has been outstanding in mid-field; he has one of – if not the – best tackle ratios in the league, but his distribution is sometimes suspect. The biggest problem is that we simply haven’t been scoring enough goals: Glen Murray coming back from injury is a huge plus for us.
What do you make of the Hosking/Long/ Browett/Parish ownership and how far can they realistically take your club?
They’ve been fantastic. They saved us from extinction. They’re all die-hard fans. They’ve spent within their budget, and, George Burley aside, made the right decisions on managerial appointments. I think when Freedman left us for Bolton, Holloway was exactly the right choice to replace him and get us over the line; and when Holloway was unable to continue, they dug in for Tony Pulis, who again, was obviously the right choice. I really do believe they’re in for the long term, and with plans for a new ground we can become a major force. But a lot depends on surviving this season, of course.
Ian Wright, Freedman, Sansom, Andy Gray, Salako, Nigel Martyn may be contenders but who have been the greatest players you’ve seen in Palace colours?
All of the above were great players, and marvellous servants for the club. The Wright and Bright partnership was electrifying. My childhood hero was Johnny Byrne, who was capped for England when we were playing in the old Third Division (hard to imagine anybody achieving that now). We also had a terrific goalkeeper in those days called Bill Glazier, which always seemed wonderfully apt for a team whose original nickname was the Glaziers.
Don Rogers was a fantastic player for us; when he got the ball and set off one his mazy runs you could feel a palpable shiver of excitement run through the whole stadium. I think his performance against Man Utd in 1972 when we beat them 5-0, and he scored twice, was the greatest I’ve ever seen from a Palace player.
And who should have been allowed nowhere near the club?
Tommy Brolin and Neil Ruddock would have to fight that out between them – and that would be some fight…
Will Zaha make it at the highest level and what do you know of Man Utd’s apparent reluctance to let him return to a London environment?
I think he will. He’s the most naturally gifted player I’ve seen at the Palace in years – possibly for as long as I’ve been following them. Watching him torment defenders was one of the highlights of last season – Hugh McIlvanney’s marvellous phrase about George Best giving his oppnents “twisted blood” comes to mind; Zaha can be that good.
I’ve been mystified by Moyes’s reluctance to play him at United: one knows all the rumours, of course but it seems to me a failure of management, rather than any question mark over Zaha’s ability. I think there are some issues about the company he keeps, or might keep, that made United reluctant to let him come back to London.
It will be interesting to see what happens to him during the close season. Dougie Freedman and Ian Holloway were able to bring out the best in him. I wonder if Moyes can do the same thing.
What have been your own highs and lows as a supporter?
The 2-0 victory over Burnley in 1979 that won us the Second Division title, in front of the biggest crowd ever – 51,000 – at Selhurst Park. Dougie Freedman’s goal in the 87th minute away at Stockport on the last day of the 2000/2001 season to avoid relegation to the third tier. I was on a train to Scotland, listening on the radio, and the whole carriage learned about it. Beating Watford at Wembley last season was a marvellous day – made all the sweeter by having seen off Brighton in the play-offs.
One of the most memorable games I’ve ever seen was when – unbelievably – Real Madrid came to Selhurst Palace for a friendly in 1962, to inaugurate the club’s new floodlights. They fielded their full European Cup winning side – Di Stefano, Puskas, et al. Our regular keeper Vic Rouse, let in four goals in the first half. Bill Glazier came on for the second half and kept a clean sheet. We lost 4-3.
The lows – losing the Cup Final replay against Manchester United in 1990, and all the uncertainties over whether we’d survive at all as a club through the Noughties.
Do you have any good, bad or amusing memories of past encounters with Sunderland?
Historically, its been pretty much honours even between us over the years, I think. But I’ve never felt terribly optimistic about our away games at Sunderland – and my pessimism has usually been well-founded. Our home victory earlier this season was a sweet moment. We desperately needed a win at that point, although it proved to be a false dawn. We’re both very different teams now, I think. (Mick sent a ps today: ‘Blast – I’d forgotten the game when we knocked you out in the playoffs; you’re probably glad I did’. Think he means the one when they took it to penalties thanks to a foul on Mart Poom – ed)
And any thoughts on the club, the fans, the region?
I’ve always had a particular respect and affection for Sunderland. You’re a proper football club, in the same way that I regard Palace as a proper football club, which is to say a combination of history (yours more distinguished than ours); wildly fluctuating fortunes (ours fluctuating more wildly than yours); resolutely unfashionable; a loyal, not to say fanatical following; the sense that you don’t choose to support the club, but that you are chosen – branded – by virtue of geography, family tradition; the fact that following the club is not a pastime, but a desperate and irrational love.
I’ve never seen a match at the Stadium or Light, nor at Roker Park, although I did once visit Roker Park. I happened to be in Sunderland and made a point of going to see the ground; there was something very evocative about it – surrounded by terraced houses, the view of the cranes on the river; the sense that the club was absolutely central to the place and the people who lived and worked there. I’ve always had a strange obsession about seeing football grounds. If I’m on a train passing through Swindon, Newcastle, Chesterfied – anywhere – I’ll find myself looking for the floodlight pylons. One of my abiding childhood memories is of being on a family holiday in south Wales, driving back through Newport, and my father making a detour to find the Newport County ground so I could just…look at it. It’s tragic really.
What inspires you about the modern game – and what appals?
I’m sure the standard of football overall is higher now than it has ever been: the players are fitter, stronger and, on balance, more skilful; managers more tactically astute. At its best this makes for a faster, more beautiful game; at its worst for cagey, robotic football-by-numbers.
What appals – all the usual things; grossly inflated salaries and egos; gamesmanship; diving, of course. Players being tackled and falling over as if they’ve been shot – generally faking it – drives me mad. I think referees should be able to show a card at their discretion for that. And I still hanker after describing players as “right half”, “inside left”…
Brazil 2014: relishing the spectacle or left cold?
Looking forward to it. I can’t see England getting any further than the quarter finals – if that far. But hope springs eternal.
Will you be at our game, how will you keep tabs if not and what do you reckon will be the score?
I shan’t be there, but I’ll probably watch it streamed on my laptop – something you couldn’t do for away games in the Championship. You’ll come storming out of the traps; we’ll be very defensive. I reckon it will be a very tight, edgy – and probably ugly – 1-1 draw.
You work in an interesting area of journalism, major feature writing: which people or subjects have given you most pleasure to work on/with?
I’ve been extremely fortunate in the range of subjects I’ve covered, and the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet. Probably one of the most remarkable stories I’ve worked on was interviewing Phil Spector, the record producer who made all those hits by the Ronettes, the Crystals and the Righteous Brothers in the 1960s, and produced the Beatles and John Lennon. Spector had become a recluse and hadn’t given an interview in 20 years. I managed to secure an interview and went out to meet him in his mansion in Los Angeles. He was a fascinating character, and astonishingly candid, talking about having ‘demons inside’ and being ‘relatively insane’. The day after my interview appeared in the Telegraph magazine he took an actress named Lana Clarkson back to the mansion and shot her dead. It was a shocking tragedy. He’s now in prison in California.
* Mick Brown on himself: I’m a journalist and author. My grandfather worked at the original Crystal Palace, and played in the works brass band; he was there the night it burned down in 1936. So he was a supporter, as was my father. Dad took me to my first game, against Gillingham in 1958. We won 4-1. There’s no way back after that, is there? It’s a life sentence. And this has been the most fun commission I’ve had in ages!
‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector’, by Mick Brown, is published by Bloomsbury
Interview: Colin Randall
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