A disbelieving smile appeared on Roy Hodgson’s face as Michael Olise attempted a sprint, pulled up and rolled his hands in his manager’s direction.
With that, he must have known the game was done. With 55 minutes played, at 3-0 down to arch-rivals Brighton & Hove Albion, without Olise, Eberechi Eze and Marc Guehi through injury, Crystal Palace were hapless, hopeless and helpless.
This was the nadir of Hodgson’s Palace days. His side had been humiliated and humbled, a 4-1 defeat representing their worst result against Brighton since 1956.
Brighton’s fans ironically cheered as Olise made clear he could not continue, 10 minutes after coming on. Then, they turned their attention to Hodgson. “Super Roy Hodgson,” “Roy Hodgson, we want you to stay,” and “Hodgson, give us a wave,” they sang. The relentless mocking was not unexpected, but given the context, it stung that little bit more. Even Hodgson admitted it hurt him.
A small but audible section of the away support sang that they wanted Hodgson and chairman Steve Parish out, as they had at Arsenal last month. At full-time defender Joachim Andersen was pulled away by assistant manager Paddy McCarthy after confronting disgruntled supporters.
Crystal Palace fans fuming after the 4-1 defeat to rivals Brighton today. pic.twitter.com/M8SVJgGBCi
— Football Away Days (@AwayDays_) February 3, 2024
Palace can only look enviously at their rivals as they gloat in their success, the result of a stable club with an obvious identity and strategy from top to bottom.
At Palace, there is little sign of any of that. Just under a year ago, Patrick Vieira was sacked after a defeat in this fixture. Since then, the conditions which helped condemn his second season to failure have not changed, exposing the dysfunction that has seeped into the club.
They are desperate to stay afloat in the Premier League, and probably will do so, but decisions made off the pitch are now reflected on it. This was simply the latest example.
So, where is Palace’s defective decision-making being laid bare?
Hodgson’s position as manager
Palace could be in the embarrassing position of sacking a manager after defeat at Brighton two years in a row.
A section of fans turned on Hodgson on Saturday, to a greater extent than they have done before — more so than following the 2-0 defeat by Bournemouth in December after which he said they had been “spoilt” before retracting those comments. The taunts from the home fans at the Amex Stadium will have been painful, but the fury from the travelling contingent was more significant.
“My years in management have given me the resilience to cope with that,” Hodgson said. “Taunts from (opposition) supporters are part and parcel of our lives. Our own fans are not happy with anything that’s going on at the club so they’re making their feelings known as well.
“I signed up to be the manager of this club and I’ve got the strength, resilience and determination to see things through. I’m certainly not going to be cowed by that sort of thing and not going to give you the satisfaction of saying it hurts me because it’s pretty obvious. Everyone wants to be liked and praised. Everyone wants to be told they’re the best and when that doesn’t happen the answer is yes, it is a little bit hurtful.”
Not everyone at Palace was satisfied by the decision to keep him on last summer, or by the decision to stick with him after that Bournemouth defeat.
The disagreement in the boardroom over his future corresponds with the diverging views on the direction the club should go in. This loss is likely to have only entrenched the view of those in favour of making a change.
But the situation Palace found themselves in after defeats by Bournemouth and more recently Arsenal remains the same. Although there is risk in not making change, Palace are not yet in significant danger of relegation: they are five points clear of the bottom three, with possible points deductions hanging over at least two rivals (Everton and Nottingham Forest).
There are no firefighters left to guide them through and stabilise things, while victories over Brentford (albeit injury-depleted) and Sheffield United suggest that there is still enough in this team under this manager to stay up, however painful it is.
Meanwhile, the alternative managers — including Julen Lopetegui, Steve Cooper, Oliver Glasner and Kieran McKenna (the latter is currently at Ipswich Town) — come with risks attached. Appointing a longer-term manager in the middle of the season is not necessarily conducive to success, and whoever comes in would inherit a squad with holes and key players absent through injury.
However bleak it felt on Saturday, sacking Hodgson is not a straightforward decision.
The decision to refresh an ageing squad in 2021 after investment from John Textor, one of Palace’s four General Partners alongside Parish, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, was a sensible one. It transformed Palace and they enjoyed a successful first season under Vieira.
But since then it has been a familiar story — an inability to plug gaps in the squad and failing to replace or relieve pressure on key players.
Even in the January window, in which Palace were the Premier League’s highest spenders, there were failings. That much became evident without Olise and Eze on Saturday.
Adam Wharton, who joined for a fee which could rise to £22million from Blackburn, may well prove to be a shrewd acquisition, but he is not a replacement for the injured Cheick Doucoure, neither is he particularly experienced. Meanwhile, signing the Colombian Daniel Munoz meant Palace now have three right-backs compared to one senior left-back.
Neither a left winger nor a Doucoure replacement were signed — failing to address those holes in the squad already feels like a mistake.
There is tension between Palace’s medical team and Hodgson, who has regularly bemoaned the injury list at the club this season.
But there are reasonable questions to be asked over whether he has always been judicious in his use of Olise and Eze, Palace’s best creative players.
In the victory over Brentford on December 30, Olise — who did not feature this season until mid-November due to the hamstring injury he sustained on international duty with France Under-21s in the summer – sustained another hamstring injury late on.
Palace were 3-1 up at the time and Hodgson later acknowledged his dilemma in trying to manage players’ fitness while putting his strongest team out.
During the 1-0 FA Cup third round replay defeat by Everton, he was greeted with chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” after he replaced Eze after 64 minutes with his side trailing. He referred to medical advice when his explaining his pre-planned decision.
He defended the decision to bring on Olise at half-time against Brighton, despite the game apparently being lost with Palace 3-0 down, by pointing to the fact that the medical team and the player himself had given it their approval.
“I was told he couldn’t start the game and everyone was quite comfortable with that,” Hodgson said. “They (medical staff) told me and he told me he was fine to be on the bench and play in the second half.”
Hodgson has used substitutes sparingly this season — although that is partly down to the absence of suitable alternative options.
His decision to use Matheus Franca, Naouirou Ahamada and David Ozoh sporadically has caused consternation among supporters, particularly given his previous comments on their apparent lack of impact.
Much of the responsibility for the malaise is at the top of the club.
It is rare for Parish specifically to be the target of vocal criticism at games, but banners criticising him and the other board members have now been held up on multiple occasions. They were there again on Saturday at Brighton.
There is a battle of ideas in the Palace ownership. The general partner structure is problematic and in effect makes Parish the decision maker despite a shareholding of under 10 per cent. Where Parish has sought to prioritise safe choices, such as infrastructure projects like the proposed new Main Stand and the academy, Textor has preferred squad investment.
Palace’s decision to vote for a moratorium on multi-club ownership models at a Premier League meeting in November — a proposal that was ultimately rejected — frustrated Textor. He is not actively looking to sell his 45 per cent stake in the club, however, and would still prefer to have a greater say in the direction of the club.
As widely reported last month, Palace have also had a meeting with Raine, the American investment bank that specialises in helping to sell or seek fresh investment in football clubs.
The problem is that the cumulative effect of the issues at the club, for which responsibility ultimately lies with Parish, show no obvious signs of being addressed. Removing Hodgson from his position may offer a short-term relief, but it will not stop the long-term rot.
(Top photo: Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)