Burley raises hopes at Palace, the league's other chaos club
Manager finds silver lining despite tough times at Selhurst Park forcing him to put his faith in youth
Alan Hansen famously suggested that "you'll win nothing with kids" but, sometimes, managers have little choice.
"We only have about 10 players over 21," Crystal Palace's George Burley said as he looked ahead to the new Championship season, starting with today's opening fixture at home to Leicester City. "One thing is for sure. The young players here will get opportunities."
It is just as well that Burley has built a reputation for developing young talent through 19 years in management with Ayr United, Colchester United, Ipswich Town, Derby County, Hearts, Southampton and Scotland. Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Darren Bent, Kieron Dyer and Tom Huddlestone are among the players the 54-year-old Scot has turned from promising boys into men of international potential.
Burley took over at Selhurst Park in June during a traumatic summer, in which a consortium of Palace-supporting businessmen agreed a last-minute deal to rescue the club, which had gone into administration with debts of about £30m. Palace had avoided relegation, following a 10-point deduction, by drawing at Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of last season.
A host of experienced professionals, including Shaun Derry, Danny Butterfield, Clint Hill, Nick Carle and Matt Lawrence, left the club during the close season. Darren Ambrose, last season's leading scorer, and Paddy McCarthy, the new captain, have both signed extended contracts, but the futures of some other players, including Julian Speroni, one of the best goalkeepers outside the Premier League, remain in doubt.
Burley has begun rebuilding, but money is clearly tight. Owen Garvan, a midfielder recruited this week from Ipswich for about £200,000 to become the new manager's fourth signing, is the first player for whom Palace have paid a fee for two years.
Palace have been working hard to tie up the loose ends to come out of administration, but were told at a meeting only last week that Football League rules mean clubs are restricted in the number of players they can register until those arrangements have been completed. Burley, whose one fit left-back is Julian Bennett, signed on loan from Nottingham Forest two days ago, said that "most" of his squad would be available today but admitted team selection would be "a juggling act".
Nevertheless, it is not only through necessity that youngsters such as 17-year-old Wilfred Zaha and 19-year-old Kieron Cadogan will be given their chances today. "I've always said that if you're good enough, you're old enough," Burley said. "Crystal Palace have a reputation for bringing kids through and I feel that working with young players is one of my strengths. The youth policy and the young players coming through here had a big appeal to me."
From the days of Clinton Morrison and Hayden Mullins, who helped keep the club going through a previous period in administration more than 10 years ago, Palace's highly-regarded academy has regularly paid its way. Wayne Routledge, Ben Watson, Tom Soares and Victor Moses are among those who went on to shine in the first team before being sold on for sizeable transfer fees.
"You don't get a bigger thrill than actually seeing a youngster come through," Burley said. "I look back at players like Darren Bent, who was with me [at Ipswich] from the age of 14 through to 17 in the first team, and Gareth Bale [at Southampton]. When you've seen them make their debut and keep improving, you keep an eye on their progress as they go on to international level, even when you've left the club. Bobby Robson gave me my debut at 17. I eventually moved into management, but he always kept in touch with me."
Asked what his realistic expectations were for this season, Burley cited the example of Blackpool, who surprised almost everyone by winning promotion to the Premier League last season. "Who's to say what is realistic?" he said. "What was Blackpool's realistic aim? Anything's possible.
"I've been in the Championship, I've been in four play-offs, I've had promotion, I know what it takes. It's a tough, competitive league. We're not setting any targets. We'll try to do our best and who knows where it might take us. We're not going to say we'd be happy to finish halfway. We'll try our best but, at the moment, it's difficult to gauge because we still have a lot to do."
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