Football: Lombardo takes throne at Palace

An invisible Italian is the new man in charge at Selhurst Park.
ITALY have not had much to laugh about at the expense of the English this season ever since our national team jeopardised their World Cup qualification in Rome last October, but there must have been loud guffaws around the board rooms of Serie A clubs yesterday when Crystal Palace announced that they were placing their fate in the hands of the invisible man, Attilio Lombardo, who will act as player-coach until the end of this season, when the club hope that Terry Venables will take over.

A fleeting appearance as substitute in the 6-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday apart, one could be excused for thinking that the Italian had long since left the club, so little has been seen of him, due to a catalogue of injuries since his arrival last summer.

But there he was large as life at the club's ramshackle Mitcham training ground yesterday to hear Steve Coppell, who he replaces, announce to a gobsmacked gathering of English and Italian media that Palace were pinning their hopes of survival on a complete novice. And before the assembly could close their mouths, he added that Lombardo would be assisted by fellow striker Tomas Brolin, who is on a week-to-week contract at the club and has an English appearance record even more limited than Lombardo's.

"I realise it is a bold, massive step," said Coppell, who returns to his role as director of football, "and a step that a lot of people will look upon as being foolish, but something had to be done. It might not work, but at the moment everyone expects us to go down anyway - it's only the people within these walls who think we've got a fighting chance of staying up."

It is an appointment that is probably par for the course at the moment at a club which seems intent on upstaging itself when it comes to bizarre decisions. Ron Noades, the chairman, and Mark Goldberg, the club's prospective owner, were both conspicuous by their absence (though Goldberg had been at the training ground before the press arrived, possibly practising his ball-juggling skills a la Michael Knighton) and it was left to poor Coppell to field the questions that rained in on him.

He accepted responsibility for the club's plight and the appointment of Lombardo, following consultation with Noades and Goldberg. Recent months at the club had been like "slow strangulation", he said. "In an ideal world I wouldn't be speaking to you - Palace would be in mid-table and I would be manager. But we are drifting down the league and I felt very strongly something had to be done.

"I'm very sad at the club's position and I am responsible, the buck always stops with the manager. I want as much as possible to release Attilio from that kind of pressure. I want him to concentrate on what matters - the preparation of the team - and not get involved in any of the off- the-field politics."

Lombardo was given half an hour to think about the offer, after being summoned to a hotel on Thursday evening by Goldberg. Having agreed, he said through an interpreter, that he felt as if, "the hotel roof was falling in on me." He was still reeling from the magnitude of his decision and hoped that he would not get home and find his wife packing to leave.

He did not envisage too many changes just yet with today's game at Villa Park followed smartly by another, on Wednesday at Newcastle, after which they have 10 days' respite.

He lamented the shortage of midfielders at the club (not helped by the recent sale of Andy Roberts) and will no doubt be relieved to hear that the club is in the process of negotiating the transfer of Sasa Curcic from Aston Villa for pounds 1m on Monday.

The player-coach stressed that it was only a temporary appointment and that he intended to return to being "simply a player" at the end of the season.

It was on Wednesday that Lombardo's fellow countryman and friend, Gianluca Vialli, did his own player-manager career some good with that annihilation of Palace. Lombardo said that he would be ringing Vialli. "Gianluca is in a similar position, although he is driving a Formula One car, as it were, while I'm in charge of a sinking ship," he said. "His advice will help but he will not solve my problems."