The boys are back in town

By - Friday 12th September, 2014

Nadim Lilani assesses the return of Neil Warnock, Wilfried Zaha and Andy Johnson, as Palace looks to kick-start their season

In times of need, we turn to those who we know well. Whether it be problems regarding injury or illness, a falling-out, or relationship troubles, the first resort is always a family member or a good friend.

Why is this the case? It is because long-lasting relationships are habitually born out of trust and faith.

Thus, the recent arrivals of Neil Warnock, Wilfried Zaha, and Andy Johnson at Crystal Palace make logical sense. Between them, these three people boast over fifteen years of experience at the club.

When the outspoken Warnock departed SE25 in January 2010, the Palace panic alarm was well and truly sounding. Stripped of 10 points in addition to 2 key players in the shape of Victor Moses and Jose Fonte, survival appeared inconceivable. Not just survival in the Championship, but as an institution full stop.

On all the previous occasions that Warnock has worked in England’s highest tier, he had lifted a club up from a lower division

The feeling of negativity was aggravated due to the dizzy heights that the Eagles had scaled during the previous season. Reaching the Championship play-off semi-finals with a respectable – but not outstanding – squad was a noteworthy achievement. One day you’re the cock of the walk, the next a feather duster.

Herein lies one of the principle reasons why the much-maligned Warnock is more than capable of helping Palace to extend their Premier League stay; this is the first time he has taken over a club in the top division.

On all the previous occasions that Warnock has worked in England’s highest tier, he had lifted a club up from a lower division. Guiding Notts County to back-to-back promotions from the old Division 3, between 1989 and 1991, was arguably his greatest managerial success. However, the squad was not strong enough to last more than a single season in Division 1. Warnock then came painfully close to halting his hometown club Sheffield United from tumbling down the abyss into Championship mediocrity in 2007. When he was his dismissed as QPR manager in January 2012, his team was hovering just above the dreaded Premier League relegation zone. Furthermore, his pragmatic hands were somewhat tied by a lack of transfer funds.

As far as tactics are concerned, the appointment appears practical, due to the similarities in style of Warnock and his predecessor Pulis. Both managers like their sides to be well-drilled, squeeze every drop of hard work out of the squad, and do not take defensive risks. They also appear the type to be brutally honest to a player if he is not pulling his weight.

Most followers of English football have grown tired of Warnock’s tyrannical tongue-lashings. Nonetheless, beneath the rough, almost reptilian skin, lies a man who has an unrelenting passion for the game. After all, that’s why he’s back.

Never has this passion been more palpable than on Warnock’s return to the Palace dugout last month. The outburst of joy that followed a fateful swing of Wilfried Zaha’s right foot, and the rippling of the Newcastle net at Saint James’ Park, was unrivalled.

It was almost an inverted microcosm of the previous fortnight’s events. A club with no direction, no manager, and no hope had eked a point out of nothing. And they had done it thanks to a player who bleeds red and blue, entrusted with such a task by another familiar face.

Irrespective of the relief that followed this injury-time salvo, there is clearly work to be done in defence. The 3-3 draw means that the Eagles have conceded three goals in consecutive league games for the first time since October 2013. This never happened under Pulis. Said goals were shipped in the 3-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield and a 4-1 home reverse suffered against Fulham – results that ultimately cost Ian Holloway his job.

The startled young buck who could not adapt to the rigours of the Premier League must mature

Likewise, Zaha needs to realize that now is the time to focus – rather than allow too much room for sentiment.

As previously stated, the move is a logical one – in theory, that is.

“That’s why I came back to Palace – they (Zaha’s family) know I’m comfortable here”. This was the reasoning behind the winger choosing Palace as the destination to flee to from his nightmare at the Theatre of Dreams.

Is fretting over the 21-year-old’s choice of the word “comfortable” pedantic over-analysis? Perhaps not.

Despite his tender age, this season is make-or-break for the young man. Whilst on loan at Cardiff City last season, on occasion it appeared as though he was not completely up to the challenge.

During his stint at the Welsh club, the forward drifted around with a lethargic demeanour. Opponents were able to bully him off the ball, and his desire to help his team to defend was left wanting.

These issues will no doubt be scrutinized by his new mentor, Warnock. He is as familiar with Zaha’s raw talent as anyone else. It is to be hoped that the youngster’s poor form last campaign was a result of a dearth of confidence, rather than the absence of courage and commitment.

The startled young buck who could not adapt to the rigours of the Premier League must mature. If the boisterous brouhaha of the Palace support cannot serve as a tonic to reignite Zaha’s ailing career, it is difficult to imagine what can.

Dwight Gayle and Frazier Campbell have the chance to prosper under Johnson’s tutelage

And what of the aforementioned Andy Johnson? Like Warnock and Zaha, it is unlikely that much persuasion was required in order to entice the forward back to the club.

The mutual respect that remains between the striker and Palace’s supporters has much to do with certain traits they hold in common.

During his heyday, Johnson was sprightly, effervescent, and did not stop moving throughout the 90 minutes of a match – just like the Selhurst Park faithful.

The 33-year-old is not expected to participate in many first-team games this season, as his fitness levels have dropped in recent years. An occasional appearance from the substitute’s bench is the most probable scenario.

Nevertheless, Johnson will play an important part on the training ground, as he takes on a player-coach role. Imparting his wisdom to Palace’s attacking talents could prove key in their development. The likes of Dwight Gayle and Frazier Campbell, as well as up-and-coming reserve team strikers Sullay Kaikai and Reise Allassani, have the chance to prosper under Johnson’s tutelage.

Considering last season’s meagre goal tally, bringing in such an experienced striker is a massive fillip. Only two Premier League teams scored less than Palace in the 2013/14 campaign.

Warnock’s second Selhurst Park debut takes place this Saturday, as the ship-steadying mission continues against Burnley. Fasten your seatbelts, and get ready for a tempestuous ride.

Nadim Lilani

Nadim Lilani

Nadim Lilani is a recent Hispanic Studies graduate from the University of Birmingham. A keen football fan and writer, he enjoys expressing his love for Croydon by documenting all things sport in south London.

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