After a prolonged period of instability, the Eagles manager is happy just for the club to be noticed for the right reasons
A wry smile flickered across Dougie Freedman's face when he was asked how his team were coping with the pressure. The question was posed purely with Tuesday's second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final at Cardiff City in mind, an occasion when tension will grip corners of south Wales and south London. Yet as those, like the manager, benefiting from a long-standing association with Crystal Palace would attest, stress is always relative.
"Pressure?" he replied. "I've got players here like Paddy McCarthy and Julián Speroni who could hardly go through any worse than they have already. They've been in a situation where they haven't been paid, where they didn't know if the club was even going to exist the next day and in last-day relegation battles. They've come through them and are in a completely different place going to Cardiff, enjoying something they maybe thought they never would in their careers." It may be hostile on Tuesday evening but Palace have been through far worse.
Freedman, at 37 and a little over a year into his first managerial position, is attempting to change common perceptions of his club. Since the play-off final of 2004, back when Iain Dowie was still cherished at Selhurst Park, too many of Palace's biggest occasions have been played to a backdrop of bitter desperation, seized by fear of the true implications of failure. Last-day survival scraps have been endured from The Valley to Hillsborough. Even the improbable play-off campaign mounted by Neil Warnock in 2008 ended up feeling like a costly flop given the financial pressures mounting at the time.
Breaking point came almost two years ago to the day when the previous owner, Simon Jordan, watched helplessly as a hostile creditor summoned the administrators, a process that sparked an exodus of talent for a pittance and a prolonged period when Palace's future appeared in serious doubt. The subsequent fan mobilisation, from a rejuvenated supporters' trust to a mass protest in the City, was born of a will to survive but, although a takeover by the CPFC (2010) consortium provided financial stability, the legacy of squad-stripping inevitably lingered into last season. Survival in the second tier was secured only on the penultimate weekend. In that grim context, to be a game away from Wembley is the stuff of dreams.
The manager has galvanised and inspired. Palace have found resilience this term that will be severely tested on Tuesday night, but their blend of battle-worn old pros and exuberant homegrown talent has served to revitalise. The world noticed when Manchester United were eliminated at Old Trafford in the quarter-final but the fans took as much pleasure from triumphs at Brighton and Millwall. "There is a different atmosphere these days," said Freedman. "It's one of sheer enjoyment. We can't believe we're here and, suddenly, there's plenty to be proud of. The team's not in the relegation zone, we're not seeing our best players picked off. We're being noticed for the right reasons: for winning big games and for the development of our own young players.
"I have a group here hungry for success, many of whom have been knocked down over the last two years on and off the field. The likes of Speroni, McCarthy, Darren Ambrose, [Nathaniel] Clyne and [Sean] Scannell have had to take a lot on the chin, but we've turned this around with practically the same squad in such a short space of time. Pretty much everybody round the country watching the game at Old Trafford got to the end of the 90 minutes, went and made a cup of tea and thought: 'Crystal Palace did quite well but that's them done.' But we didn't only go on to win the game; we actually finished the stronger side. Nobody expected us to be in a semi-final. Now this is about taking the club on further."
The new owners – monied fans in Steve Parish, Martin Long, Stephen Browett and Jeremy Hosking – have sought to strengthen links with the local community, capitalising on the academy's continued success and rekindling enthusiasm among the support. The youth system has traditionally been productive and United are among the list of suitors monitoring Clyne, whose contract expires in the summer. Freedman will spend the last week of the window attempting to deflect interest in his other prospects but, even if players such as Wilfried Zaha and Jonathan Williams are coveted, they will not be permitted to depart for peanuts.
Reaching Wembley would be an incentive for all to stay, at least until the summer, with the pressure of expectation apparently thrust firmly on to their hosts. "We were interested in signing some of the players Cardiff went for in the summer but, when the financial packages were put to us, we were nowhere near," said Freedman. "They are a great club playing in a wonderful arena but their fans will be expecting them to succeed. They have always been a nearly team, so the expectation levels there, right now, are a lot higher than we have. The heartache they've had over the last four or five years must be difficult to take."
Cardiff have been runners-up in an FA Cup final and consistently flirted with promotion to the Premier League. Even with those disappointments, a first League Cup semi-final in 46 years feels like the maintenance of steady progress. For Palace, it is a very visible step on the road to recovery.