Case for the defence

Ian Holloway, a lovely guy, has shown what a good manager he is by winning a second Championship play-off final in three years, his success last week with Crystal Palace following the achievement he had with Blackpool. Now, as then, Holloway has an even bigger mountain to climb if he is to keep his club in the Premier League. Blackpool won the hearts of the neutrals with their open, attractive football, but they did not survive because they could not defend well enough to keep out the Premier League strikers. It is going to be a familiar problem for Holloway as he embarks upon a frantic summer of hasty planning and, hopefully, prudent transfer dealing. For, make no mistake you Palace fans, your team needs an overhaul if it is to survive the challenge next season. The blunt truth is that, in Wilfried Zaha, Palace had only one player of obvious Premier League quality. He is on his way to Manchester United.

I don’t have any idea what size of budget Ian will have at his disposal, but I do know he needs a lot of new players, starting with four defenders. It is easy for fans of clubs promoted to the top flight to dream that their heroes can, and will, rise to the occasion. But the reality is often different. The gulf in quality between the Championship and Premier League is distinct. That is why, if palace have any chance of keeping the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero at bay, they must have strength in depth in their defensive ranks. An even bigger problem is goal scoring at the top level. Of all the positions, striker is the toughest when moving up to the top flight. Simply because the defenders are that much better than those you have faced in the Championship. In Glenn Murray, Palace have a player whose 31 goals last season is a marvellous achievement. But, believe me, Murray will find it much harder to hit the net when tussling with the likes of Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Vidic. Top flight defenders tend to be bigger and quicker and that is why the majority of promoted strikers who have scored 20-plus the previous season struggle to get 10

A quirk of the play-offs is that they delay your ability to finalise your preparations for the next season and, so, though successful, your plans can be thrown into the melting pot. Ian will most probably be trying to re-arrange warm-up games, possibly now cancelling friendlies against Premier League teams, and he will face complications such as expectations of top-flight contracts from the players who won promotion. All in all, it adds up to an intense summer for Ian, who may need to be ruthless in his dealings with some players. When my Manchester City team won back-to-back promotions to return to the Premier League in 2000, we signed three or four players, but needed seven or eight, and were relegated. Ian, after his experience with Blackpool, will be well aware of the size of the challenge. The biggest step up is for the forward players – but the case for the defence is imperative. Good luck, Ian.


Penalties – hit ‘em hard

What a fairytale at Wembley where one of football’s good guys, Kevin Phillips, secured the richest prize in the game for Crystal Palace, while ¬†ensuring he will again play in the Premier League – in his 40th year. Now, believe you me, that takes some doing, especially for a centre-forward. On the rare occasion that players continue past that age milestone, it is invariably goalkeepers. Phillips clinched this exciting extension to his remarkable career by executing the perfect penalty, struck hard and true, high to the keeper’s right. It was the ideal model for any would-be penalty taker, the fusion of good technique and cool nerve.

The first piece of advice I would give a young player on the art of penalty-taking is “don’t change your mind.” You must make up your mind where you are going to place the ball and stick to it. Do not allow the keeper’s antics to influence you. Your opponent will try to “show” you which side to hit it, but you must ignore him and stick to your plan of action. And don’t indulge in this modern habit of strolling up and chipping the keeper, like Sunderland’s Jeff Whitley famously did in the Division One play-off semi-final of 2004 against Palace. Whitley hesitated in his run-up and chipped the ball straight into the keeper’s arms. Palace went through 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out, with Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy furious with his midfielder. You should hit the ball hard and, above all, hit the target. Put the shot either side of the keeper or blast it down the middle – but hit the target. Phillips, who started his career as a right-back before being released by Southampton and going into non-league football with Baldock Town in 1992 was brought back into full-time football by, of all clubs, Watford, whose hearts he broke with that penalty. He has had a wonderful career, scoring many goals for Sunderland, Southampton, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham and Blackpool, from whom he is on loan at Palace, and been a fine ambassador and a good role model for youngsters, never arguing with referees. I presume manager Ian Holloway will make sure Phillips gets a permanent move and one more shot at scoring at the highest level. The other star of the show was a player just starting out on what promises to be a good career, Wilfred Zaha, the winger who will face Palace next season in the colours of Manchester United, who have paid ¬£15million for his services.