Crystal Palace boss Ian Holloway's real challenge yet to come

 

Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway said recently that promotion with the club would be another notch on his footballing bedpost.

After Kevin Phillips - at 39 the oldest swinger in town - scored the goal that secured the Eagles' promotion back to the Premier League at Wembley on Bank Holiday Monday, the 50-year-old can start scratching away.

Holloway said he felt exhausted after his team's 1-0 extra-time win over Watford, fully understandable after a far from straightforward six months since he left Blackpool and succeeded Dougie Freedman.

Holloway inherited a club fourth in the table and said at one point that he just wanted to make sure he didn't "muck it up".

Play-off final specialists

Crystal Palace have appeared in five Championship play-off finals, winning four of them

Yet in the closing weeks of the season it all seemed to be going wrong.

The Eagles won one of their last 10 games of the regular campaign and went eight hours without scoring during that sequence. There was talk of rows among the players and speculation that Holloway had lost the dressing room - something the manager angrily denied after the play-off semi-final triumph at Brighton. "I know where it is," he said. "Down the bottom of the corridor on the left."

He was at it again on Monday, explaining how everybody had written Palace off before their tie against the Seagulls. It is easy to imagine how he could shape that sort of feeling into an us-against-the-world mentality that would work well during a play-off "mini-season".

Perhaps along the way Holloway received a little outside help from unexpected quarters. He reckoned the excrement found in the away dressing ahead of their play-off tie at Brighton negated the need for a team talk.

But it is undoubtedly time to give Holloway the credit he deserves as a manager. It is sometimes difficult to see beyond the wacky quotes, about getting birds in the taxi and Dog and Duck performances. When he walked into his post-match media conference on Monday the first thing he said was: "Did we win?"

But he guided his Palace side to victory over a heavily-fancied Brighton outfit over two legs in their semi-final tie and against Watford there is no doubt that Palace deserved their victory.

When it mattered most, Holloway's players delivered and for that he must take his share of the credit.

Holloway praises 'outstanding' Palace

Apart from a brief period late in the opening half, the Eagles snuffed out Watford's pleasing passing game, a considerable achievement on the wide open spaces of Wembley. The Eagles remained on top until the desperate final minutes of extra time when the Hornets threw everything they could at Palace in search of an equaliser.

Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia was easily Watford's best player - thrice denying Aaron Wilbraham as well as countless more Palace players. Considering Watford can call upon talented footballers such as Nathaniel Chalobah and Matej Vydra, that is saying something.

Holloway has now managed in three of the last four Championship play-off finals, winning (2010) and losing (2012) with Blackpool before the victory with Palace. In the missing year he was in charge of the Seasiders in the Premier League. Good quotes, bluster and belligerence might make you a popular character and build a stock of goodwill but they won't take you to that sort of managerial record.

Holloway said after Monday's game that he was determined to savour the victory but admitted that soon he would have to "scratch my head and wonder 'just how are we going to staying in the Premier League?' I've just lost Wilfried Zaha."

Zaha, who scored both goals in the 2-0 win at Brighton and was fouled for the penalty that Phillips converted shortly before the end of the first half of extra time, will move to Manchester United this summer.

Striker Glenn Murray, who topped the Championship scoring charts with 30 goals, is out until Christmas with cruciate ligament damage. After Murray, Zaha and Phillips were Palace's joint second-highest scorers during the regular season with six league goals each.

Phillips arrived on loan from Blackpool in January and is now out of contract. He had lost three previous play-off finals, with Sunderland, West Brom and Blackpool and his brilliantly struck penalty provided a fairytale ending to the final, and perhaps his career.

Afterwards Phillips, who came on as a substitute at Wembley, said every bone in his body was aching but Holloway reckons that the striker's decision to carry on or retire could be more about logistics than his ageing limbs.

"I'd keep signing him until he was 50 or 60," said Holloway, before adding that Phillips does not want to relocate his family and so stayed in a hotel several times a week while on loan at Palace. That sort of arrangement, Holloway added, can damage a player's desire to continue, especially at 39.

Palace promoted to Premier League

Striker Wilbraham, who started on Monday, managed one goal all season - in a Capital One Cup tie in August - so signing a goalscorer is a definite priority.

The Eagles backline lacks pace and the midfield will also need bolstering ahead of the Premier League season, which starts on 17 August.

When Holloway won promotion with Blackpool it was 81 days before he strengthened his squad but he will need to be a lot swifter this time.

"It all starts now," added Holloway. "The minute the Premier League begins we will be on a hiding to nothing but we want to stay there."

Palace co-chairman Steve Parish has already made it clear that he will fund Holloway in the transfer market and will also be looking to use some of the riches from the final dubbed "the £120m game" to redevelop Selhurst Park.

Next season will be Palace's fifth spell as a Premier League club - each has lasted just one campaign.

Holloway is still sore about Blackpool's relegation with 39 points at the end of their year in the top flight. He mentioned again on Monday how that total would have kept them up over the previous two years.

Arguably, he now faces an even bigger challenge if he is going to keep Palace up.

But if the Eagles are still a Premier League side this time next year then Holloway could be forgiven for taking another chunk out of his heavily battered bed post.