How Crystal Palace became England’s go to club, explained by chairman Steve Parish

Crystal Palace quartet comprising of Eberechi Eze, Marc Guehi, Dean Henderson and Adam Wharton pose for a photo before an England training session

The club who have provided the most players for the England Euro 2024 squad are not Manchester City, Chelsea or the great staple of previous generations, Manchester United. Instead it is Crystal Palace who have supplied four of Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad – Marc Guehi, Adam Wharton, Eberechi Eze and goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Unlike the England manager himself, a Palace youth team graduate, none of the four were homegrown.

Yet Palace have proved that an academy of prodigious talent, and a recruitment model that does not try to compete with wealthier clubs can be honed to a fine point. The club have learned from their missteps over a club-record 11 years and counting in the top-flight. Chairman Steve Parish alongside director of football, Dougie Freedman, have come up with a plan that works.

Trading in a different market

On an annual turnover of £160 million, Palace are not at the table for the biggest names in the game, or even the tiers below that. Eze and Wharton came from the Championship – also the source of arguably the club’s best player, Michael Olise. Henderson and Guehi were academy graduates of the top six clubs and surplus to requirements. “It’s an advantage sometimes not having as much money, and less expectation of instant success,” Parish tells Telegraph Sport. “It means we have to go looking in all sorts of different places. There’s less temptation to say, ‘Let’s spend £50 million and take the short cut.’”

Wharton’s deal was worth a total of £18 million. Dougie Freedman and the scouting department watched the player live. The club compiled videos of clips and whole games for Parish to watch. They were surprised there was not more competition although the word in the market was that Bayern Munich were prepared to do the deal that summer. “Sometimes it’s just timing,” Parish says. “That January was a quiet window.”

Adam Wharton warms up before England's friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina
Adam Wharton was a potential target for Bayern Munich in the summer before Crystal Palace made their move for the midfielder in January - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

After a defeat earlier in the season, Parish had joined his inner circle and lamented the absence of a passing midfielder similar to those of the past like Yohan Cabaye or Luka Milivojevic. “Dougie and his team were unanimous, ‘Steve, sign Adam Wharton’,” Parish recalls. “We are very lucky to have a hard-working scouting team. They stand by their decisions.”

Doing the deals

The preliminary work on deals is done by Iain Moody, an experienced multilingual transfer negotiator. Ordinarily Parish will deal directly with the selling club to finalise the terms. The Eze deal was finalised in August 2020 by Parish from the beach in the south of France. The £17 million Palace paid for the silky attacker barely merits a mention now. The club always believed they were signing one of the best young talents around.

Even through his long injury absence at the start of the 2021-2022 season, that never faltered. Eze worked to get back from his Achilles rupture and now Palace have a player who could play in any Premier League side. There is another obvious sell to players joining Palace. “We don’t have the biggest squad,” Parish says, “so it’s not like you’ll be waiting months for your chance.”

A manager on board

“Oliver [Glasner] has to get a lot of credit,” Parish says. “You don’t get picked for England if you’re not in a winning team.” Under the Austrian, a run of 19 points from their last seven Premier League games took Palace to a club record 10th place, as one of the form teams of the season’s end. “Roy [Hodgson] had that same attitude,” Parish says. “The pressure would be on with results and we would be discussing this and that and then he would say to me of a young lad, ‘He’s going to be some footballer.’”

Parish learned from one of his predecessors as Palace chairman, Ron Noades, an important lesson: Freedman and Parish insist that the manager looks at every academy graduate option before the club commits to a signing in that position. Palace have produced many that way. Wilfried Zaha, Jonny Williams, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Tyrick Mitchell – who was capped by Southgate two years ago – all got their chance. Wan-Bissaka only joined his first senior training session because they were short of a right-back on that day. He ended up earning the club £55 million in a transfer fee that went a long way to settling their profitability and sustainability compliance.

A club that knows what it takes

“Our fans are so encouraging of young players,” Parish says. “They love watching good football and they love watching good young players.” It helps that historically Palace have launched careers as big as those figurative giants of the English game, Ian Wright and Kenny Sansom. Guehi, a South London boy who had spent his developmental years at Chelsea, and cost around £20 million, was an instant hit.

Henderson, whose £15 million price was a lot for Palace to spend on a goalkeeper, replaced a favourite in Sam Johnstone. At the time the fans wanted a new right-back but Parish and Freedman stuck to their guns.

Marc Guehi in action for England against Iceland at Wembley
Centre-half Marc Guehi came through the Chelsea academy and has been instant hit with the Crystal Palace faithful - Shutterstock/Nigel Keene

The big picture

In the professional history of Palace, one of the oldest clubs in English football, only 20 of its players have been capped while representing the team that plays at Selhurst Park – going back to Horace Colclough who played left-back against Wales in 1914. There were four Palace players in the squad for Graham Taylor’s Australia and New Zealand tour in 1991 but that was a trip that many established England internationals of the era sought to avoid.

Olise and Jean-Philippe Mateta are both likely to play for France in the Olympics. Jefferson Lerma and Daniel Munoz are representing Colombia at the Copa America with Chris Richards plays for the US at the same tournament. Joachim Andersen will face England for Denmark in Frankfurt this month. As Parish points out, for Euro 2024’s Group C, Palace have supplied 4.8 per cent of all players.

The future

“We are not trying to post-rationalise it to make ourselves look like geniuses,” Parish says. “We get some wrong as well. You can never think you’ve cracked it, or that you have a formula. That’s when you come unstuck.”

From the academy, rebuilt and expanded in the biggest investment the club have made in years Jesse Derry, son of former player and coach Shaun, is one of a number of promising players. Jesurun Rak-Sakyi, 21, should play more for the first team next season. Academy wingers David Obou and Asher Agbinone, both 18; striker Zach Marsh, also 18; and centre-back Mofe Jemide, 17, are all players with potential.

The challenge will be hanging on to the likes of Olise and Eze, especially if they make great strides again for their national teams this summer. Others will surely take an interest in Palace targets. In the end it is about the players, Parish says. “Most credit has to go to them,” he says. “They have the talent. They live their life the right way. They work hard to recover from injury. They make all the sacrifices. What we have to do is show them the club is progressing.”

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