Watching Andy Thorn launch defensive clearances that threatened to cause untold damage to the Hubble Telescope was actually quite pleasurable

FAN'S EYE VIEW; No 136 Crystal Palace SUE DONATO
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With two promotions and two relegations in the last seven years, we're used to not knowing what lies around the next corner at Crystal Palace (though if Darren Pitcher is going to take it the answer is probably a goal-kick). But the events of the last nine months have left the Selhurst Park faithful with about as much hope of a stable future as a groom about to plight his troth to Elizabeth Taylor.

First there was last year's long drawn-out divorce with Alan Smith, whose popularity seemed to grow in direct proportion to how badly his team played and, more importantly, to the worsening of his tiff with the chairman, Ron Noades.

Quite how a manager could have the fans chanting his name during the team's Premiership death throes when he could not mould such talented individuals into a winning unit was bizarre. Six of last season's first team are now playing Premiership football elsewhere, the majority of the squad having left or asked for a move.

The establishment of a new management structure last summer, with Steve Coppell returning as technical director and Ray Lewington and Peter Nicholas appointed first-team coaches, was greeted with little enthusiasm by the fans, but at least there was the promise of a change from the years of pre-modernist football.

"It is the explicit intention and instruction to the football management side of the club that we wish to play football as distinct from the long- ball game," the club announced in a messianic statement to the waiting hordes of believers in the south London wastelands. "The style of play for which Ray Lewington has a reputation is attractive pass and move style and is considerably different from the long-ball game that we have at times played in recent years. We are sure our supporters will appreciate the style of play..."

Well, yes, we have actually. Although the not-so-super Eagles have hardly soared up the First Division table this season, the quality of the football has improved and, bearing in mind the huge turnover in players, the current run of 11 games with only one defeat had given real hope.

Big Ron, however, has not been among the converted and after weeks of speculation came the announcement on Thursday that many of us had been dreading: Dave Bassett, high priest of the long ball, had been appointed manager.

The announcement was accompanied by vague statements about a continuing commitment to "playing good football", but I have my doubts. While Bassett is a man of many talents, on past evidence it would seem that asking him to send out a team to play a passing game would be rather like asking Meatloaf to sing the leading role in Turandot.

Long-ball football seemed to have been justly booted into history with this season's departures of Bassett and Graham Taylor from Sheffield United and Wolves. If Bassett is handing out one-way tickets to the Ice Age then many of us would rather he had parked his time machine somewhere else.

It is true that hoof-and-hope tactics took Palace to their finest hours under Steve Coppell. We finished third in the old First Division and played in a thrilling FA Cup final against the club memorably labelled Moan United by the Palace fanzine.

In those days watching Andy Thorn launch defensive clearances that threatened to cause untold damage to the Hubble Telescope was actually quite pleasurable. You had time to take a sip of Bovril, have a munch of the Wagon Wheel and enjoy a quick chorus of "Noades out" before the ball finally re-entered the atmosphere and landed somewhere within a 50-yard radius of Ian Wright or Mark Bright.

With forwards of that quality you could appreciate that it was better to give them the ball as quickly as possible rather than watch our midfield drones attempt to control the ball with all the mastery of a drunken blindfolded juggler trying to catch bars of soap.

The long-ball game is fine so long as your team are winning, but the last two years under Coppell, particularly after the departure of Wright and then Bright, and Smith's final season were painful to watch.

If there are protests over Bassett's appointment they are likely to be directed at Noades, for whom the fans have little affection, despite his undoubted achievements: the stadium has improved beyond all recognition, the club is now on a sound financial footing and has generally played the transfer market to good effect (for every Gabbiadini and Sinnott there has been an Armstrong and a Wright).

However, older fans have never forgotten the talk in Noades' early years of a merger with Wimbledon and the connections with his former club that have resurfaced throughout his reign have not been appreciated.

Dario Gradi, who followed Noades to Selhurst, was regarded as an unworthy successor to the likes of Venables and Allison and had a miserable year and a half in charge. The despair over Bassett's appointment as manager in 1984 was matched only by the joy when he decided not to leave Plough Lane four days later. The ground-sharing scheme with the Dons may make financial sense, but in the early years at least their presence was not welcomed.

Can Noades win the fans around with Bassett's appointment this time? It probably depends on whether the ball is up in the air long enough to start the chants of "Noades out".

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