Crystal Palace have brought Roy Hodgson back for the rest of their increasingly turbulent season, but is this a return to the familiar or a panic decision?
It doesn’t take much to imagine the look of surprise on Roy Hodgson’s face when the telephone rang. “Hello Roy, it’s Steve here. We’ve got ourselves into a bit of a pickle and could do with a helping hand.” And so it was that, in a season of managerial merry-go-rounds, perhaps the most surprising return of the season of all came to pass. Hodgson is back at Selhurst Park, and his mission is about as straightforward as they come: he needs to keep Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
Since the start of the year, Palace’s position has been quietly diminishing despite the team remaining in the same position in the table. Slowly but surely over the course of the last two-and-a-half months, any comfort has been slowly chipped away. On January 4, a 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur – yes, that’s how long ago that was – nudged Palace down a place to 12th in the Premier League table, just as they finished last season.
They’ve been there ever since, but the scenery all looks very different now. The five-point buffer between them and 13th-placed Leicester City has evaporated. Palace are now only separated from the bottom of the table by four points, and they’re the only team in the Premier League not to have won a single game in 2023. Seldom has a league position felt so tenuous, so likely to deteriorate in the very near future.
But despite atrocious form and the recruitment shortfall which has left their first-team squad looking unbalanced after a failure to signifcantly strengthen in January and shorn of confidence, the decision to sack Patrick Vieira was enough of a surprise to feel like an act of desperation. To make such a decision in the middle of March, long after the January transfer window has shut and with the season starting to hit its final sprint… it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a decision fuelled by a sense of panic rather than strategic thinking.
The suggestion that Hodgson could return to the club initially seemed to be regarded as some light tabloid froth, a little bit of speculation to fill a few column inches, but the confirmation of his appointment at least gives him the opportunity to bed himself back in before the team returns to action on – uh-oh – April 1 with a home game against Leicester City.
It’s likely that the decision to bring Hodgson back for the rest of this season was inspired in no small part by this need to hit the ground running. After the international break, Palace return with six successive relegation six-pointers against teams just below them in the table. Not until May 6 do they play a team from the top half of the league table again, when they travel to play Spurs. Indeed, of their 10 remaining league games of the season, only two – the Spurs match and a trip to Craven Cottage to play Fulham in their penultimate match – are against teams above them in the table.
But while Hodgson is one of the most likeable people in professional football and there’s no doubting the connection between him and the club to which he’s returned, is the decision to bring him back wise? After all, his previous departure from the club at the end of the 2020/21 season felt like a retirement as well as a fin de siecle, with Palace winning just four of their last 16 league matches of that season.
Hired by Watford as their 2021/22 season atrophied, he could only win two of 18 league matches, with two of their defeats coming against Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace. Turning 75 years of age a few days into this season, it felt as though it was the right time for him to retire.
With a career in the game that stretches back 60 years, there’s little doubting Hodgson’s experience. But none of this means that there aren’t storm clouds gathering over Selhurst Park. While his popularity is unquestionable, his previous departure from the club came amid rising criticism about the style of his team.
Bringing in Patrick Vieira was supposed to be a return to a more progressive style of management, giving a relative newcomer their first Premier League managerial opportunity standing in stark contrast to their departing septuagenarian. But that perception has now flipped back the other way again.
To be bringing him back less than two years later, with the team on the precipice of a scrap to stay in the Premier League for which they have looked ill-equipped in recent weeks, looks from the outside like a decision made because no-one else of much substance was available at this time of the year.
Had the rescue job at Watford last season gone well, there would be a sound logic behind it. But it didn’t, and this leaves the appointment looking like an error of judgement heaped upon the earlier error of judgement of reflexively sacking the manager at a critical point of the season after a bad run of form, but with little idea of who might replace him.
The Premier League has never seen a battle to avoid relegation like this before, and this gives Roy Hodgson both cause for optimism and cause for concern. The bad news is that they find themselves in this position in the first place. On this date last year, Crystal Palace were in 12th place in the Premier League, but they’re seven points worse off than they were then, having played one game more, while the gap between them and the bottom of the table was 17 points.
But with their matches against the division’s strongest teams already played, their final 10 fixtures give them a window of opportunity. Only time will tell whether Crystal Palace have pulled off a masterstroke by bringing back Roy Hodgson, and they won’t know whether they’ve done so until the fate of this reappointment is decided.
There is an argument for saying that something had to be done at Selhurst Park, but there is little about any of this change to suggest that this decision at this time was the right thing to do. It’s quite a gamble to take with so much money on the line.
READ: Five managers who should never have gone back to their old clubs as Roy returns to Palace
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