Picture c/o Chris Hopkins
It had been far too long since attending my last match, 438 days to be precise. I and thousands of others have sorely missed the matchday experience. Meeting up for a drink beforehand, bumping into familiar faces and then watching the game itself with its combination of anxiety and exhilaration. After viewing endless televised games in empty stadiums where the only sounds generated were the continuous barking of instructions by assistant manager Ray Lewington and the odd profanity of exasperated players, it was good to be one of the many barking out instructions alongside the odd profanity.
The context for Wednesday’s game against Arsenal had changed radically once Roy Hodgson’s departure had been announced on Tuesday. Prior to the announcement there was a degree of ambivalence towards the manager, with reservations about the style of football that had ensured the club extended its longest spell in the top flight to a ninth successive season. Success had come at a price, some argued.
The prospect of watching another stodgy display where attacking flair is sacrificed on the altar of organisation did not exactly get the juices flowing. However, there had been encouraging signs in the second half of the Villa game that given a little more freedom to express themselves the players could respond. A giddying total of 23 shots, with eight on target, smacks of untold riches.
The focus of the evening was quite rightly dedicated to giving a fitting tribute to the man who has laid solid foundations for the next stage in the evolution of the club. Hodgson was accorded a guard of honour by both teams and his name was sung lustily to the rafters by the 6,500 present. It is significant that the announcement of his exit had been met with such warmth and respect from everyone inside the world of football.
It is also telling how so many of the players referred to not only his influence as a coach but also on them personally. As Andros Townsend said: “He has made me into a better all-round player, he’s made me into a better man and so I owe a lot to Roy Hodgson.” Similarly Wilf Zaha tweeted “Your wisdom has helped me understand a lot about who I am as a man and a footballer.”
The burning question beforehand was would Hodgson’s Selhurst swansong be played out in an uncharacteristic blaze of glory? That fanciful notion took a knock with the news that Eberechi Eze was missing after sustaining a potentially serious Achilles tendon injury. The irony that Hodgson’s best purchase, and a player who will be instrumental in any future evolution, could be out for a long period of time certainly dampened the mood. The young buck had left the stage clear for the old stager.
The match started as expected with Arsenal passing the ball around pleasantly but with little threat initially. Most of the fans’ attention turned towards the Arsenal players’ propensity to accentuate any contact and Kieran Tierney did not endear himself to the Selhurst crowd by collapsing into a heap after Joel Ward brushed past him. His every touch was subsequently met with a chorus of boos and to put it politely the suggestion that he was spending too much time on his own in his bedroom.
I have always had a sneaking suspicion that booing a player more often than not leads to retribution and my theory gained more evidence when, having been released by a Bukayo Saka backheel, the Scot teed up Nicolas Pepe for the opening goal. It was a goal met by a stony, slightly surreal silence because of the absence of away fans. Palace fans retorted with a chant of “1-0 and you still don’t sing” which is the sort of humour that reminds us that one of the essential requirements of being a football fan is the ability to stand back and laugh.
The second half was meandering along until a few challenges were dished out that raised the crowd’s fervour. The team responded with renewed vigour, which culminated in an equaliser from the rejuvenated Christian Benteke. The Belgian had oozed confidence throughout the game even indulging in some deft flicks and the odd pirouette and this was his fourth goal in consecutive games. Or was it?
The celebrations were stalled by the dreaded intervention of VAR and by the time the boys in Stockley Park had decided they couldn’t intervene, the joy had been sucked out of that moment of exhilaration. One of the legion of arguments against VAR is this dampening of joy, the loss of that release of spontaneous pleasure, which is surely not worth the odd hair breadth’s decision. What has become part and parcel of the televised experience does not play to a live audience.
In the end it was a typical Hodgson performance with plenty of obduracy and fight but one that was tarnished by the familiar concession of two late goals. This season Palace have conceded more goals in the last 15 minutes than any other Premier League club and the fact that they also top the table for the oldest average age of the starting eleven is surely no coincidence. While those two goals took some of the shine off Hodgson’s farewell, the disappointment of the result could not detract from his positive influence as a manager and, more importantly, as a man.
The final words are his: “I am delighted with the reception they gave me. It seems they appreciated me as much as I appreciated them and that’s a nice feeling. In a year or so I might say tonight was the standout moment. A guard of honour, people cheering you throughout and the reception at the end. Not all managers have experienced that in their life.”