By Roy Hodgson’s own admission, the safety of another season in the Premier League has been a welcome relief for Crystal Palace in the most disjointed of seasons.
A run of four successive wins – three before the football suspension and one after – soared the Eagles out of the ever-perilous relegation battle and into the comfort of mid-table.
Crystal Palace have often found themselves hovering close to the danger zone since Hodgson arrived at his boyhood club three years ago but are currently 15 points clear of 18th place with five games to go and, with a significantly better goal difference than most of the teams below them, are assured of their Premier League place for another season.
Now, Hodgson wants the club to start looking up rather than warily behind.
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, he said: “Crystal Palace has always been a club very dear to me and you never forget your boyhood team and the team you supported from the terraces first of all, that’s always going to stay with you.
“Of course, it’s a club I think has potential too. We’re finding that it’s always a battle to stay in the league, but less of a battle this year and perhaps even less of a battle last year than the one previous to that.
“We need to work that little bit harder to make sure our squad is strong enough to make certain that every year, there’s not going to be a question of ‘are we going to stay in the league’, it’s going to be more of a question of ‘how high can we get? Can we make certain we finish in the top half rather than the bottom?’
“That’s the next challenge for the club. That’s the next step forward that I like to think we can take and it would be nice to be a part of that just like it’s been nice to be a part of the last three seasons, albeit the first two of them were a little bit hair-raising at times because it was all about looking over your shoulders and worry that you were going to be sucked into that dreaded relegation zone.
“We had a very good spell of four straight wins, which is fantastic and took us into a really good position. That lifted us up into a very comfortable mid-table position and a top 10 position at that moment in time. We always knew there were some very tough games coming up to get through in the last eight, as it would have been then, and there was a risk that you wouldn’t necessarily keep that run of victories going.
“We’ve got to keep our sense of perspective and most importantly of all, we’ve got to be more than satisfied with the season the club has had and what these players have done for the club. My previous two seasons with the club has been a fight against relegation from the first moment to the last and on this occasion, we found ourselves in the situation with nine games to play, free of relegation worries and it is testament to the excellent work the players did to get us into that position.
“Are we satisfied with it? No, of course we’re not. We would like to win every game, but we also know we have our work cut out because teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, Spurs – who are all coming here – will have a lot to play for and have a lot of quality in their team and will be asking many questions of us.”
Crystal Palace have had one of the toughest runs of any Premier League side since the restart and have lost their last three games against champions Liverpool plus Europe-chasing Burnley and Leicester.
“I think we’ve found [the restart] very hard as we always knew we would because we have a situation where the average age of our squad is quite high – it’s the highest in the league – and we don’t have a very big squad,” Hodgson explained.
“We don’t have an awful lot of players, we’ve still got three senior players out injured and the size of our squad didn’t really allow for that. We really need a full week of preparation and a full week of recovery, but we always knew that wasn’t going to happen so it’s not a complaint, it’s just an explanation about why we have found it a bit harder.
“We will continue to find it hard, not least of all because the remaining games were going to be very tough but fortunately, we were able to use the previous 29 to get ourselves into a good position.
“The only game really we can look at and say we were disappointed that we didn’t do a lot better was the Burnley game but credit to them, they came here and played well, we had our chances in the second half to equalise but we didn’t take them.
“Against Leicester, I thought the performance was more than satisfactory and the result wasn’t actually a true reflection of the game. We paid for the mistakes we made and they defended well and they won the game and deservedly so because they got the goals. But it wasn’t a question of being bitterly disappointed with the teams performance, I think you’ve always got to look at the form and the results.
“Sometimes you get results that don’t necessarily reflect the way the game has gone and when they go in your favour, you tend to dismiss the good fortune or dismiss the things that weren’t that good and you got away with. Conversely, when you lose a game, you tend to dismiss a lot of the things that were quite good and concentrate on the fact that some things didn’t go so well and you lost the game.”
Facing Lampard and Chelsea
Next up for Crystal Palace is the visit of Chelsea, live on Sky Sports, and their manager is someone Hodgson knows well, having coached Frank Lampard with England. He noticed the managerial qualities in the former midfielder, as well as current Rangers boss Steven Gerrard.
He explained: “Their intelligence, their understanding of the game, their interest tactically, they were definitely the thinking man’s player. When you get a player like that, it’s hardly surprising if he wants to [become a manager] because these days, there are very good players who probably do have the potential, they go down a different route in football.
“With management, every week you’re being judged and criticised and it puts your reputation and body on the line every week. I’m really glad Frank chose to do it and Steven as well and I certainly didn’t have any doubts that if they chose to go down that route, they would be big successes, not only because of their knowledge, but also their personalities and their interest and depth of knowledge about the game.
“They were always bound to be thinking coaches and managers too so it’s nice to see both of them getting the chance in their first jobs at a very good level. It seems to be that both clubs have got behind their choice, they believed in their choice and rightly so. As a result, they’re reaping the rewards.”
Barring a dramatic 3-2 defeat to West Ham last week, Chelsea have won six of their last seven games in all competitions, and Hodgson is expecting a similarly tough encounter on Tuesday.
He told Sky Sports News: “I thought Chelsea were looking good before the break and they’ve come back and continued that. They’re a very good team with many good players and irrespective of our own position at this moment in time, it would have been a very difficult game to play in.
“All we can do is prepare for it and look forward to it, I know we will do our best and work very hard to try and make life as difficult for them as possible but we are 100 per cent aware of the challenges which are going to be presented to us with the quality they have.”
Advice from a 44-year career
Incredibly, Hodgson has been managing for 44 years, beginning his career with Swedish side Halmstad before spells at clubs such as Malmo, Inter Milan, Fulham and Liverpool as well as international jobs including Switzerland, Finland and, of course, England.
What advice does he have for those looking at a managerial or coaching career?
“It’s a bit dangerous giving advice but you’ve got to really want to do it. I don’t think you should go into coaching on management unless you really believe this is something you want to do. You’ve got to be prepared that it won’t be all sunshine and roses, there’s going to be plenty of difficult moments. The really good moments you find sometimes get cancelled out by the doom and gloom, that’s going to be part of your life however successful you are. You’ve got to come to terms with that so you have to have quite a strong constitution.
“Then I think you’ve got to be prepared to do the relevant amount of studying. These days, it’s not just a question of hanging up your boots after being a good player and going straight into the manager’s office the next day and dictating what training is going to be like, you’ve got to go through all the preparations with your coaching badges and you even need to do management diplomas. You need to get yourself onto those courses and there are a lot of leadership seminars et cetera that is all out there for you.
“Then after that, it’s making certain you get a strong body of people around you that are going to support you through the difficult times. Most people will have a family and then when you’re in the football club itself, you want people around you who are really prepared to help you, not necessarily always telling you the things you want to hear, but helping you in the sense that they see the pitfalls and where the danger is coming from and they alert you to help you head it off.
“I was fortunate that I got the opportunity to go abroad when I was quite young which I suppose to a certain extent, short circuited my career. If I had started as a youth team coach somewhere, it can take a long time for someone to gain the real opportunities to go in and take a group of senior players in a serious football league.
“I was quite lucky that I short-circuited that process by going to Sweden and it’s certainly something I’ve never regretted so I would also put that point in there that as a young coach, you may have to be bold and courageous in some ways to take that opportunity to try and cut your teeth somewhere else other than England.
“If you really want to succeed at it, don’t be afraid to go out and give it a try and don’t just sit back and hope that the perfect job is going to one day land in your lap because that’s not really how it is.”
For now, Hodgson is focusing all of that experience into his next Crystal Palace challenge as they look towards breaking the top 10.