The guru who talked Palace into fulfilling their dream

Soon after joining Crystal Palace from Oldham Athletic last December, Iain Dowie and his fitness conditioner, John Harbin, addressed the players about their ambitions for a team lying in the bottom six of what was then the First Division. "We said the dream was to be playing Manchester United and Arsenal," Harbin recalled. "And the most noticeable thing was that all eyes went to the ground. You could see them thinking, 'As if. What are these clowns talking about?' " Four weeks ago, Arsenal duly turned up in South London and were a missed open goal away from shattering defeat; in two weeks' time it will be Manchester United v Crystal Palace at, appropriately, the Theatre of Dreams.

There are no downcast eyes around Selhurst Park or the club's leafy suburban training ground these days. Even when a squad hastily strengthened after shooting to promotion last May were lying in the Premiership gutter early on after five successive defeats, players were looking at the stars. Dreams, dreams... Harbin is big on them, more so than might be expected of a 58-year-old Queenslander schooled in the down-to-earth world of rugby league. But he is full of surprises.

Keeping people on their toes, metaphorically and literally, is an important part of the regime that he and Dowie have developed since their early days together at Oldham. Whenever a training session is scheduled - which could be as early as 8am - it might be for boxing, dancing or something called plyometrics, which apparently consists of "bounding" exercises - or did he say bonding? The aim is the same. "We did movement to music last week, we still do regular swimming sessions, regular gym work, flexibility and mobility on a daily basis and a lot of agility work."

And how do the Premiership's finest find "movement to music"? "Mate, the ones in tune take to it very well, the tone-deaf ones struggle a bit. But they have to overcome their inhibitions and get on with it. We're not just doing things for the sake of it. For instance, the boxing helps with mental toughness. Not everyone's a good swimmer, so that can be a challenge.

"We had Curtis Fleming last season, took about three weeks to get him to swim a length, and within a few months we had him doing 50 or 60. And his face when he touched the wall for the first time after doing a length - there was no Olympic gold medal winner with a bigger smile on his face.

"For me that was as good as winning that [play-off] final in Cardiff - you've made a massive difference to a human being's life. It improved his confidence and therefore he became a more confident footballer. You get players doing things they're not confident with and then when you ask for an extra yard in a game, that doesn't pose as much a challenge as dancing in front of other people."

The extraordinary run from relegation contenders to promotion in the space of five months last season clearly imbued the squad with sufficient self-belief to withstand taking only two points from the opening seven games at a higher level. Since then there have been three wins, three draws and three defeats, as well as a morale-boosting League Cup win with a virtual reserve side away to this afternoon's Premiership opponents, local rivals Charlton.

"We've always had belief," Harbin says, "but it was matter of coming to grips with the higher level and adjusting. While it was great to get promoted, it was rather thrust on us. We seemed to have about four weeks for recruitment, then a couple of warm-up games and you're off. And there's a massive gap between that division and the Premiership. It's a lot more cutthroat and a helluva lot faster between the ears."

It takes a certain type of player - and person - to fit in at Palace, and the impression is that those who have given rise to the stereotypical image of the high-living prima donna would do well to avoid going anywhere near the pugnacious Harbin, with or without his boxing gloves on. "Mate, I'd like you to print this, I think a minority of footballers should be hung, drawn and quartered for dragging the game into disrepute and casting aspersions on their fellow professionals. The vast majority of players I've encountered are honest, hard-working people who do a helluva lot for charitable organisations, and their reputation is being tarnished by the spoilt, pampered minority, guys who are getting involved in court cases and spitting incidents, sexual stories, coming out of nightclubs at three o'clock, they're not fit to call themselves professionals.

"The problem is a lot of the guys who get that publicity then become role models. We ought to be doing stories on guys like the captain of Portsmouth [Arjan de Zeeuw] who got spat at - how he held his discipline and didn't just grab the Bolton bloke [El-Hadji Diouf] by the scruff of the neck and hang him up, and his interview after the match was the best example for any young kid. We need to highlight people like the Curtis Flemings and the Andy Johnsons, whose work-rate and demeanour are exceptional." Overall, however, he seems quite pleased that while coaching Oldham Roughyeds rugby league team he accepted an invitation one day to visit the local football club and had his first conversation with the then assistant manager Dowie, who recalls the chat developing into "a two-hour talk about things like water-recovery".

The former Australian abattoir worker and the erstwhile Home Counties aerospace engineer discovered that they had an unexpected amount in common - not least university degrees. Dowie, more open-minded than the average football man, borrowed a book by an Australian rugby league coach from Harbin, who, when he next called round to collect it, was offered a job. Among the things they now share are regular trips back up north to visit their families; and a passionate desire to establish Crystal Palace as a Premiership club and, in Dowie's words, "leave a legacy".

"Have a dream and chase it with every ounce of energy you've got," Harbin insists. Dreamers, dream on.

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