Crystal Palace fans cherish chance to give Roy Hodgson a proper goodbye

Roy Hodgson bid farewell to Crystal Palace fans a year on from his departure as manager

Saturday will go down as not just the day Watford were relegated from the Premier League for the fourth time but also the day Roy Hodgson trolled their fans so hard I think he’s now banned from Hertfordshire.

Despite being one of the nicest men in football, Hodgson is a strangely divisive figure; Liverpool and England fans hate him, Fulham and West Brom fans love him, and everyone else knows him from memes. But the club where it really felt like a perfect fit was Crystal Palace. Local boy turned youth team player turned (eventual) manager. And it was to begin with; Hodgson helping drag his boyhood club away from the Premier League relegation zone in his first season in 2018 after the team had started the season with seven defeats and no goals remains a top flight record.

However, by the end, almost a year ago, his tenure had soured. The football was at times unwatchable, the squad was seriously under-funded and many fans’ love towards him had dwindled. His final game against Arsenal in front of just 5,000 covid-restricted fans at Selhurst Park was fun but wasn’t quite the send off he deserved for comfortably keeping Palace up for four seasons.

That chance to say farewell to a full house in South London arrived this weekend, the perfect opportunity for a proper goodbye. There was just one small hitch; he was returning as the manager of pseudo-rivals Watford, who needed a result to avoid relegation back to the Championship. Palace meanwhile are flying under Patrick Vieira, playing brilliant football, in his first season in the job since taking over from Hodgson.

Palace and Watford have a complicated history that involves a play-off final in 2013, an FA Cup semi-final in 2016, Wilfried Zaha and a man in a hornet costume. “I hope Roy gets a massive reception,” says my mate Will Thomas as we grab a pint in the Polish bar by Norwood Junction I’ve started drinking in before the game. “I’m disappointed he took the Watford job, I’m not going to lie, he never had a chance there, and I don’t like the way they have seemed to try and create this rivalry, especially with Wilf [Zaha] and Harry the Hornet.”

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Bloody Harry The Hornet. Even Hodgson had issues with him at one point during his stint as Palace manager. “Anyone that gets upset by a man in a hornet costume probably needs to take stock at some stage,” says Mike Parkin, a Watford supporting friend of mine who is also at the bar with his kids and Hornets-supporting mates. “It’s a friendly rivalry really,” he adds, which is pretty much proven by the fact we are all standing there drinking and joking in the sun before kick-off.

But how will ‘Agent Roy’ – as he’s been dubbed by some Palace fans online for going to our so-called rivals and almost instantly relegating them – be received by the Selhurst faithful? I wondered this as I walked to the ground with my dad for my 20th game of the season, having witnessed all but one of the team’s league wins and just four defeats. I think that possibly puts me in line for Manager of The Year.

A warm but polite reception it turned out, as Hodgson emerged from the tunnel behind his players before kick-off and shared a few cursory hugs with Palace subs including Jeffrey Schlupp. But his afternoon’s love affair with the home fans was only just getting started.

Balloons streamed down from the Holmesdale Road end and it weirdly felt like a promotion party. Referee Graham Scott then made everyone wait for kick-off until every balloon had been popped, while Ben Foster took the chance to theatrically pop each one near him to cheers from the fans behind his goal.

Palace fans were in party mood on Saturday

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On the touchline Vieira was dressed in a smart looking cardigan, chinos and trainers while Hodgson was a few feet away in a suit and tie, perhaps a sartorial nod to the younger, fresher approach Palace have moved to. Roy’s faithful assistant Ray Lewington, meanwhile, was wearing tracksuit bottoms and not his infamous shorts, which just didn’t look right. No wonder Watford were going down.

On the pitch the Eagles are now fresher, more stylish and aesthetically pleasing. Zaha, Michael Olise and Ebere Eze glided through the Watford defence with only Foster denying Olise a goal after a superb move. Palace played with a swagger and confidence rarely seen under Hodgson in his final couple of seasons at Selhurst.

Hassane Kamara then hands Palace the chance to capitalise on their pressure, literally, by giving away a penalty and Zaha, so often the villain to Watford fans, converted for his 13th goal of the season, his best ever return taking him level with Harry Kane. Former Watford midfielder Will Hughes clattered into a tackle in front of the Main Stand and a chorus of “That’s why you’re going down” rings around the ground.

Wilf and Watford is a funny one. Palace fans adore him, Hornets fans hate him and I’m not even sure why but he gets under their skin and they clearly get under his. “For someone that is so skilful and demonstrably brilliant he’s easy to get at, as Watford fans have proved over the years, and I think perhaps that mental aspect of the game has hindered him a little bit,” Mike says afterwards. Of course, then, it would be him that sends them down.

At half-time I buy a bottle of Diet Coke which has become a weird little routine I do at games. It started with getting one during the West Ham game in January where Palace were 3-0 down at half-time, and they were so good in the second half I decided it was clearly magic and had to be used responsibly. In the six games since I’ve bought a bottle of Diet Coke they’ve won four and drawn two. Anyway, with Diet Coke in my hand the three points were now surely secure.

The real cause for Palace’s recent run of good form

Watford’s first shot on target came during the half-time challenge from six-year-old Riley, who nailed his penalty. He should get a start next week. Hodgson got his second polite reception of the day from the home fans as he walked out for the second half, the highlight of which was a fan a few rows down from me getting hit on the head by the ball.

Kamara compounded his miserable afternoon by getting a second yellow for a foul on Olise but as he trudged back down the touchline to the obligatory goodbye waves from the home fans he seemed completely unfazed, like he was just out for a walk with friends. Perhaps a nod to some of the issues Watford have had this season.

It struck me during the second half that it was a case of past meeting future as a pragmatic if uninspiring Hodgson team battled to stay in the game – something Palace fans had witnessed many time before over the previous four years – against a youthful, exciting side with the likes of Olise, Ebere Eze, Marc Guehi and Odsonne Edouard delighting the crowd. I wondered if Hodgson was standing there on the touchline secretly quite proud of what his old team had become, because in truth none of what Vieira is doing now would be possible without Hodgson’s four years in charge and the platform he handed over to his replacement.

Foster, easily Man of the Match, pulled off his 400th save of the game to keep the score respectable while the home fans sing “Oh Wilfried Zaha, he’s sending you down” to the Watford fans, who are about to get even more wound up. The final whistle comes and Palace relegate their fifth team in five years. Hodgson immediately embraces Palace sub James Tomkins and Zaha and then walks straight down the touchline to the changing rooms, applauding the home fans and blowing them kisses as they serenade him with “He’s one of our own”. It was a beautiful moment.

Not for Watford fans, of course, who were on the other side of the pitch wondering why the manager who had literally just relegated them didn’t bother coming over to say thank you and sorry. “Unfortunately they were a bit too far away” was Hodgson’s official reason given in the post-match press conference which felt like even more trolling.

“I think he didn’t do a tremendous job of reading the room,” Mike Parkin told me later. “It doesn’t take much to go over to the opposition fans and give them a cursory clap, although ultimately Watford have got far, far greater issues to worry about this summer than Hodgson’s reaction at the end of the game.” He certainly won’t be blowing kisses to the Vicarage Road faithful on Wednesday night against Everton.

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Hodgson spoke after the game about having missed the Palace fans over the past few years and how much the moment at the end of the game touched him. In truth it touched all of us in red and blue. “It was great to have the opportunity to say goodbye and thank you to him,” says my dad as we walked back to Selhurst station. “He was able to see how appreciative the crowd were of him, it was absolutely the whole ground which was saying thank you Roy for what you did and he did do an awful lot for us.”

In a way it was the perfect chance to close the Roy Hogdson at Palace chapter, which had weirdly rumbled on for a year since his departure with some fans taking Vieira’s success as a chance to have a swipe at Hodgson. His spell may not have ended the way many of us had hoped but all that is water under the bridge now and everyone in SE25 is looking forward not backwards after a very exciting first season under our new manager. We just need to make sure Selhurst is well stocked with Diet Coke next season.

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