Football: Palace profit from youthful fling

Norman Fox discovers how the Bassett boys forced a change of heart
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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace should be playing Sheffield United at Selhurst Park this afternoon but they successfully appealed to the League to call the game off on the grounds that they had too many players on international duty. Too many internationals? Crystal Palace? Surely not.

Surprisingly, Palace have seven players who are current internationals at senior or under-21 level or are on the verge. Dave Bassett gave this as a reason to an unimpressed Francis Lee when he recently turned down the Manchester City job after all but sipping from the poisoned chalice. The other reason, of course, was that it never hurts to make sure plenty of people know you are being head-hunted, even by a club with a reputation for regular public executions.

"I knew we had a good crop of youngsters," he said. "I thought we were going places - I just didn't want to walk away when we seemed to be seeing the results of a lot of work with the young players." Suddenly, after an indifferent start to the season, they began to play exceptionally well and Ray Houghton captained inspirationally.

Best of the crop is Dougie Freedman, a 22-year-old Glaswegian who began his career as a trainee at Queen's Park Rangers, and moved to Barnet, where he scored 27 goals in 47 appearances, before joining Palace. His promise as a striker who is at his best attacking from behind other attackers was emphasised last weekend when Scotland's manager, Craig Brown, watched him at Portsmouth and on Thursday added him to his full international squad for the matches against Latvia and Estonia. Freedman made one goal and scored himself at Portsmouth but Palace only drew. A win would have been their sixth in a row. Even more remarkably, they had scored 22 goals in five matches, twice had 6-1 wins and, poignantly, had beaten Manchester City 3-1.

Although Freedman has attracted most of the attention, Palace's progress to fourth place in the First Division is really based on a spread of potential goalscorers. Ten different players have contributed to the club's total of 24 goals scored in the last six games. "It's good to know that even if I don't score, we've always got others who can finish the job," Freedman said. They include the forward-looking midfield player David Hopkin, whose shots from a distance have often been successful.

Remembering too many false dawns at Palace, Bassett is planning for the long term. The chairman, Ron Noades, is promising patience, which would make a pleasant change at any club, but Bassett has been around long enough to know that a few bad results towards the end of the season and, who knows, Steve Coppell, at present director of football, could be making his third comeback as manager. On a number of occasions last season, when Palace seemed to be making a habit of thinking they only had to impress for 45 minutes, Noades was not quite so sure about the value of a future based on a youth policy.

The immediate danger is that a few injuries could do a lot of damage to Palace's small and youthful squad. Bassett has seen it happen before and says that the recent run of good results could all too easily be made to look misleading. He says it pays not to be too optimistic, so he has to be prepared for any eventuality. The club's early-season disappointments made it seem that the sort of run they have had over the past six weeks was highly unlikely.

Bassett, who has been at Palace for less than nine months, acknowledges that he is probably never going to change his reputation for being the "Send for Harry" character. "They reckon I'll get them out of trouble." Manchester City thought that way but when it came down to basics there was no cast-iron guarantee of sufficient spending money to do the job properly. Bassett said he slept on the offer, considered whether in a few years' time he would again be in a position to turn down one of the biggest clubs in the land, and decided it was worth the risk.