The final round of raising capital among Crystal Palace’s shareholders for the club’s new Selhurst Park main stand was in its last stages this week, in what will be the first major work on the stadium since the 1990s – although for many it will not represent change enough.
There was more discontent at Goodison Park on Wednesday night – with FA Cup defeat, Roy Hodgson’s substitutions and a general dismay of a section of the club’s support that has declared itself unhappy with the status quo. What is that status quo? Strictly speaking it is the most successful period in the history of one of Britain’s oldest clubs. Palace are in their 11th successive Premier League season – their longest unbroken spell in the English top-flight in more than 100 years of league football.
Palace have also gone close to a first major trophy – an FA Cup final in 2016 and a semi-final six years later – but football clubs are never simple. The mood of fans plunges and soars according to many factors that cannot always be offset by projections for a better future.
Hodgson has kept Palace in the Premier League for five seasons, including when he came back last March, post-Patrick Vieira. If this season is to be the end of a 48-year management career, then Hodgson’s run has been remarkable. He has outlasted all comparable European peers. He may, for instance, bump into Arsène Wenger when Palace visit the Emirates on Saturday. The Frenchman is almost two years Hodgson’s junior. Hodgson might not have as many trophies as Wenger or others like him, but none have been in demand for so long.
Hodgson has seen enough in football to know that however sound the long-term strategy, when results take a turn for the worse there are many who just do not want to hear it. In a game that runs on emotions the mood can shift quickly. The Palace plan to convert Premier League and investor money into infrastructure – stadium, training ground, academy - is the only viable long-term strategy. Yet the clamour for a transformative signing – someone, anyone – can be overwhelming.
There is a need for momentum to be generated in the last few days of the window. The chairman Steve Parish and director of football Dougie Freedman are active in the market, and Kalvin Phillips might yet be an addition in a midfield department badly affected by injuries. Like many others, Palace are also looking at a striker and a right-back. But this is a club that has built slowly in the Premier League since an unexpected promotion in 2013. That plan will not change.
Palace are in the bottom eight in the division when it comes to generating revenue. Over 13 years, since the club came out of administration in the consortium led by Parish, around £80 million has been invested. Nothing compared to the big-ticket investments from owners at Manchester City, Newcastle United, Chelsea, Everton – and even the likes of Tottenham recently. But those kinds of fossil fuel billionaires, private equity and nation state investors are not queuing up to buy Palace.
The club now generates, depending on league finish, around £130 million from central television rights disbursements and around £40 million in commercial and matchday revenue. A mere droplet compared to the big hitters of the league. The £160 million investment in the new main stand, the first serious modernisation of Selhurst Park since the 1990s re-build of the Holmesdale Stand, could eventually contribute another £20 million annually in revenue.
All this takes time. In the meantime, the competition is fierce. Aston Villa have wealthy owners who are expanding Villa Park. West Ham have a stadium effectively built and subsidised for them by the government. Tony Bloom has invested more than £400 million in Brighton. All these clubs were once lower mid-table rivals of Palace and all have spent time in the Championship in the last 15 years. Yet in 2024 the standard among that cohort gets ever higher.
Hodgson has steered Palace through a crucial era in the rebuild of the training ground and academy, which has cost £50 million including land acquisition. The club recognises it has to do more to develop and sell academy players and the investment is partly with that in mind. The final stage – a major injury rehabilitation centre – opens in May and with it the rebuild of a training ground that was never really a training ground in the past. For a very long time it was just some temporary cabins and accompanying pitches.
For Hodgson, the challenge this season has been coping with some of the restrictions on spending that investment in other parts of the club can bring. Injuries to Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze have severely affected his team this season. Cheick Doucoure ruptured an Achilles in November and will not play again until 2024-25. These three, as well as Marc Guehi, represent the club’s best assets and Hodgson’s successor may well have to cope with the sale of one or more in the summer.
But that is the reality of life at a club where the two previous ownerships suffered administration, including the separation of stadium and club. The current regime is determined to do it differently. Yet with just five league wins all season frustration can boil over, as it did at Goodison on Wednesday. Hodgson was trying to manage an ankle tendon problem Eze has been suffering from and substituted him with a lunchtime kick-off at Arsenal on Saturday in mind. The travelling fans reacted badly.
There are many reasons why Palace’s squad is thin. The wage bill is around £100 million when all extras and bonuses are added, which means under the new financial fair play regulations likely to come in – known as squad costs - Palace need to increase revenue to comply. The club take profit and sustainability rules (PSR) as seriously as one would expect and, in the current climate of enforcement, that is not a small consideration.
The club has tried to forge a different path at times. The signing of higher-paid established players like Yohan Cabaye and Christian Benteke, with no resale value, had a distorting effect on the wage bill and is unlikely to happen again. The success of the Olise, Eze, Guehi, Doucoure and Joachim Andersen signings have set a high bar. The recruitment department has recalibrated to accept that not every player can be expected to tick every box, including good resale value.
There has been some plain-talking from Hodgson in past months about what is realistic for supporters to expect. He would later apologise for declaring fans had been “spoilt”. Yet the point raised holds true. Are fans prepared to tolerate the process of building a club in the modern era? Especially when that build is from a very low base, amid extraordinary competition, and under the auspices of PSR. The recent PSR charges for Everton and Nottingham Forest offer a new dimension.
Palace’s situation could be better and it is not hard to chafe against lower mid-table survival, or the relative success of peers. But it could also be a lot worse, and with this approach there is a clear strategy: raise Palace’s financial capability to move them out of the reach of the division’s lowest earners and look beyond the annual Premier League survival battle.
“They’ve seen the trials and the tribulations, and I’m certain they dream one day that there will be no more trials and tribulations,” Hodgson said on Friday of the fans. “But they’re used to helping the team get through these periods.”
There is no billionaire waiting to buy Palace and spend up to PSR limits and beyond on the stadium. We know as much because, had that been the case, the current ownership would have sold. Around 55 per cent of the club is owned by Parish, American investors Josh Harris and David Blitzer, and assorted small shareholders. Eagle Football, led by US investor John Textor, has 45 per cent. All shareholders will contribute to the new stand with Parish personally guaranteeing around £5 million. Harris, a US sport franchise owner, is a billionaire but not the kind that is prepared to throw a fortune at Palace.
In the meantime, it is Parish and Hodgson who find themselves on the frontline taking the criticism. Being prepared to be unpopular, for a period at least, is a requirement that not everyone in football can live with. That said, neither man has built their respective careers worrying constantly about what people think.
The alternative, of course, is to promise what you do not have and spend what you cannot afford, although there are consequences for that. Palace have sailed close to the wind in the Premier League and, over 11 years, have turned survival into something of an art form. The long-term prize – building infrastructure to increase revenue and ultimately add squad depth - is the only sensible route to sustainability. It is a good destination, although the ride there can be wild.