A month into Roy Hodgson’s return to club football and he finally had some positive news to relay. Crystal Palace will benefit from the return of Wilfried Zaha on Saturday, a player “with the X factor” who has been absent since the opening-day defeat by Huddersfield. “He can dribble and beat people but most of all he has a special place in the hearts and minds of the supporters,” said the manager. “They will feel more comfortable now that he is back, believing he is the type of person who can change a game and turn a defeat into a draw or a draw into a victory. There is a big psychological factor with him being able to play again.”
Then, in keeping with a campaign littered with lows, came the inevitable reality check. Zaha has not played for two months and must hit the ground running against the champions, Chelsea’s visit completing a brutal set of fixtures which have left Palace floundering scoreless and pointless at the foot of the division. There is no recognised striker fit and available and the allocated back-up, Bakary Sako, returned to training only on Thursday after his latest injury issues. The first-choice goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessey, faces a fitness test, with Julian Speroni on standby to start his first top-flight game since the season before last. The 38-year-old’s last league appearance at Selhurst Park was in May 2015.
Then come the statistics, the kind to have Palace supporters rolling their eyes, closing their social media accounts and making plans to emigrate. This side have endured 11 scoreless defeats in their past 12 league games, stretching back into Sam Allardyce’s tenure two managers ago. No English team have lost nine successive league games without scoring but that is a record Palace will set should they succumb without reward against Chelsea, taking into account the final-day loss at Old Trafford.
In the grim circumstances, it is just as well gallows humour prevails. The fanzine Five Year Plan ran a spoof online goal of the month competition for September where all four contenders were Sako’s header against Huddersfield in the League Cup. Pape Souaré was voted the club’s player of the month on Friday and, while the Senegalese’s recovery over the past year from a serious car accident has been the uplifting story of Palace’s season, he played only 45 minutes.
It is no wonder that much of the pre‑match talk with Hodgson revolved around psychology and the need to rebuild confidence within a group which feels battered from pillar to post. This squad worked one day a week with the sports psychologist Jeremy Snape under Alan Pardew, and had a similar arrangement with Lee Richardson under Allardyce. Hodgson used Steve Peters during his time with England but, for now at least, his priorities at Palace are more mundane.
“Personally, I think the best people to repair confidence are the coaching staff and those around the club: the people close to the football who work with them every day on the training field,” he said. “Psychologists can play a part, but first of all you need to have made certain that the people you’re working with are singing off the same hymn sheet. That there is a unity of ideas in things we’re trying to achieve.
“Secondly, having someone just pop in and out … I’m not 100% certain that works. It might do for an individual but, as a team, you have to be very careful to make certain you have got the right format for this psychologist to work with. At the moment, all my thoughts and all my work are really involved in the tactical and technical side of the game on the training field. Using a psychologist regularly would have to be for something going forward when we’ve established some sort of base, which we’re in the throes of trying to establish.
“I’m not anti it, by any stretch of the imagination. Steve Peters was very good and played a useful role, not least of all with the coaching staff and how we addressed the players in our meetings. But, at the moment, it could muddy the waters even further when we’re trying to make it clear for players: ‘To survive we have got to do these things.’ To do those things we need the training field, we need the day-to-day contact between manager, coach and player.” He fell short of suggesting Palace have gone back to basics to rebuild belief but his rhetoric suggested as much. A behind‑closed‑doors friendly was arranged last week against Queens Park Rangers at Selhurst Park, where Palace’s form has actually been horribly patchy ever since promotion in 2013. The game was drawn 2-2. At least the team scored.
The real boost comes from Zaha, a scorer against Chelsea in April and a player who can inspire those around him. Hodgson was the manager who handed the winger his England debut as a Championship player almost four years ago, and who picked him against Scotland at Wembley once he had joined Manchester United. He was also the manager who overlooked Zaha once the player’s career had stalled at Old Trafford, with a player born in Abidjan committing instead to Ivory Coast at the tail end of last year.
“I have seen him change a game,” Hodgson said. “I know he has the ability and capability. But we have to be careful. We have a lot of things to do at Crystal Palace before I am satisfied we are a good team who know exactly what it is doing on the field, a team that is going to be difficult to beat and are capable of winning games and getting the points we need.
“At the moment, to put all that on Wilfried Zaha’s plate would be totally wrong. If we’re not careful, he’ll be trying too hard; trying to do it all by himself. Once players start to do that, their own game suffers. He’s got to be an important cog in a well-oiled machine and our job is to make certain that the machine is well enough oiled to produce that X factor.” For now, the manager would be happy to spy evidence of progress. And Chelsea are a daunting prospect.