Quiet revolution at Palace

Stephen Brenkley salutes the lieutenants who managed to survive a new regime
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The Independent Online
It is tempting to confer all the credit for Crystal Palace's rise up the First Division on one individual. When Dave Bassett arrived as manager in February the side were ensconced below mid-table, slightly nearer relegation than promotion, and while they might have gone anywhere, the likelihood was that they were going nowhere.

The figures speak for themselves. Of the 26 league matches before Bassett was appointed, Palace won eight, lost seven and accumulated 36 points. Of the 20 under his stewardship they won 12, lost four and gathered another 39 points. Had two of those defeats not been in the final two matches of the season they would have been promoted automatically instead of putting themselves through the cruel, occasionally unbearable sporting ordeal known as the Endsleigh League play-offs. They playLeicester City at Wembley tomorrow in the final.

Bassett's influence is obvious: a prime motivator has been at work these past three months. He has not been working on his own, however, and the identity of his chief lieutenants in fashioning Palace's style and direction makes the advance more extraordinary.

The team have been coached by Ray Lewington and Peter Nicholas, the men who were in charge of first-team affairs before Bassett. Although their responsibility has diminished, their views have continued to be significant, perhaps decisive. This is not usually the way of things in football and instead of grappling with the intricacies of the 3-5-2 method, the pair might have expected to be more concerned with the P45.

"It was a bold decision by the chairman. He thought more experience was needed at the club," said Steve Coppell, Palace's technical director, referring to his boss, Ron Noades. "It was bound to be difficult for Ray and Peter. Everyone looks over their shoulder in situations like that, they do that little bit extra. It's human nature. I don't think they were exactly happy about it to start with. They thought a new broom was about to sweep clean."

The key factor was that Bassett, fresh from the tribulations of Sheffield United, did not meddle with Palace's approach to the game. If his reputation was not quite that of the long-ball game's godfather, he was certainly thought to be one of its favourite uncles; but any concern that he would introduce it at Selhurst Park was unfounded.

"Dave let Ray and Peter coach the way they had started out," Coppell said. "He didn't try to interfere with that but there was the bonus of a strong personality coming into the dressing room. As soon as they saw they were going to be allowed to do the job the way they wanted to, they reassessed the situation. The two boys also realised that any criticism being given out would be likely to be going in Dave's direction and not theirs."

The other person to be directly affected by Bassett's presence has been Coppell. As technical director, he has acted in an advisory role for the first team, but the introduction of a third tier has probably made his influence less potent. "When Dave came in, roles did change but in a way it was better," he said. "He could be more directly involved with the two coaches and I'm still here to give an opinion."

There is still a manager struggling to get out of Coppell and he fully intends one day to return to the office ("not yet because I'm recovering from a knee injury but when and if a job comes up because I'm still only 40").

It would almost certainly not be at Palace, but they are his present concern. He refuses to be more than cautiously optimistic about their chances tomorrow. They shared the spoils with Leicester in their two meetings this season, both winning away. The technical director knows that the Midlanders' late run under Martin O'Neill has been every bit as impressive as that at Selhurst Park.

"If we win, I'm not even thinking yet of whether we can stay up. We want to get there first and if we do, it won't just be down to Dave Bassett, it'll be the three of them together; Dave, Ray and Peter." Or maybe the four of them - Dave, Ray, Peter and Steve.