Barry Bannan should be reduced to a quivering wreck at the mere mention of Chelsea. Players who are scarred as he was at Stamford Bridge a little under a year ago, a member of the Aston Villa side thrashed by eight goals without reply, would usually shudder at the prospect of a return to that merciless arena, particularly when their current club is nestled beneath the cut-off without a win across the capital in 31 years and must confront elite opponents whose manager has not lost a home league game in 67 matches.
Yet mention of last December's shoeing prompts little more than a nod of recognition, a hint of a sheepish smile and something akin to a shrug. That trauma was then, and this is now. "We can get something," offers the midfielder in his new guise as a Crystal Palace player. "With the confidence we have at the minute, and everything we have in the team, we're capable of beating them there. Of course it'll be about everyone putting in 'that' performance – you can't carry players – but, if we all bring our best games …" Palace, it seems, will travel to SW6 on Saturday anything but braced for a beating.
That flash of confidence is born of recent results and displays under Tony Pulis's management though, with Bannan, it also stems from involvement. This season is about reinvention for the Scotland international, a fresh start provided by his deadline day move from Villa for an initial £500,000 to re-establish his credentials. A player who has brimmed with self-confidence from the day, as a nine-year-old ball-boy at Albion Rovers, he collected from behind the dugout, flicking from foot to foot, then dinked the ball cheekily over a visiting Montrose player, had rather lost his fizz. For a while, the youngster lured from Celtic as a teenager, had been the great hope of Villa's Bodymoor Heath academy. There were glowing reports, and wild proclamations of similarities with Xavi or Andrés Iniesta from managers and team-mates alike. Then came stagnation.
His progress "stalled", to use his word, with off-field issues fuelling suggestions he had lost his way. There were 64 Premier League appearances for the seniors interspersed with loan moves to Championship clubs, but a midfielder whose promise had been mouth-watering under Gérard Houllier's stewardship saw his form drift under Paul Lambert last term. "I was one of the ones to look out for coming through, but it just didn't pan out that way," he says. "I'd have good runs at times, but when things weren't going so well, I'd take most of the flak. Last year, when we weren't doing so well, it would come on me and away from certain other players in the team. I'd grown up there, coming up through a club I loved, and I'd always give 100% on the pitch, so it was hard to take.
"Maybe it was because of the expectation. They might have expected things I wasn't capable of and, in fairness, I didn't have the best of seasons last year. But I don't think many players had a good season last year. It was tough for all of us. If it could have gone differently, I would have loved it to. Paul Lambert was brilliant, but sometimes you have to move on to kickstart your career. I needed a different, well, everything really. Certainly a change of environment. I was stalling at Villa. I needed something to freshen it up, get me moving again."
Palace's interest, expressed by the then manager Ian Holloway, crystallised late in the summer while Bannan was contemplating life as an outcast at Villa Park, dismissed as he had been to work with the likes of Alan Hutton and Stephen Ireland in the reserves.
At least his idol, Stiliyan Petrov, was overseeing that squad at the time. "Stan pushed us really hard and set me up for the move. I remember being star-struck when he first came down to Villa from Celtic: he'd be the scorer, the creator, the kind of player I wanted to be when I was growing up. I was lucky to work with him in that period. His doctor eventually told him he had to take a break from it – it was all too quick for him, really. Stan's Stan. You wouldn't know he had been struck down with leukemia. What's happened to him is so unfair. But I thank him and Gordon Cowans for pushing me.
"Palace took me out of my comfort zone. If I was back in Birmingham, I'd always have a mate back at mine after training. It would be the same after a game and, if you'd lost, you'd never get a chance to think through what you could have done better. Down here, while we've been losing games, I've had to sit there on my own and think about it, analyse it. That's kind of helping me, really. I'm thinking about the game more than I ever have, because it's just me and my dog and no distractions. It's about self-improvement."
Much about Palace has been rehabilitated in recent weeks. When Holloway departed in the wake of a 4-1 home defeat to Fulham, the newly promoted side appeared broken, out of their depth and dazed by a frantic shopping dash over the summer that saw 16 players signed up and the team spirit that had earned elevation wrecked. Keith Millen steadied the ship for a month before Pulis's appointment. The last five games have yielded 10 points and only one goal conceded, with Bannan having started every fixture since the end of October. He has scored a winner at Hull, and assisted a revitalised front pairing of Cameron Jerome and Marouane Chamakh. The latter, with three goals from four shots on target this season, was all high-fives and beaming smile as he strutted around the club's Beckenham training complex in a pair of comic-strip boxer shorts. He may make an unlikely saviour but this team and its perceived damaged goods have been collectively revived.
"With Cham, he's been getting knocked a lot, but he's been a brilliant team player," says Bannan, his own mood presumably pepped by the reality he has swerved an 11.30am yoga session to contemplate the season to date. "He's started to score now, he's not had that many chances, and his work rate's unbelievable. He has a point to prove to the Premier League. He's been getting knocked pillar to post, from every angle, and no matter how strong you are it must be hard. But he's been one of our best players in the last couple of weeks, and he's probably out there to prove everyone who's doubted him wrong. It's the same with Cam: the pair of them bully defenders, work opponents, and that's massive.
"Things feel more settled now. There haven't been that many changes in the team recently, and that brings togetherness. If you're out there in the battle with the same players almost every week, you grow closer. That's what we've picked up from a solid team, solid formation, and everyone's working for each other. It's shown on the pitch with the results we've had recently. The new manager has given everyone a lift. The first day he was here he called us in and gave this brief, sharp meeting. He said: 'I've never been relegated and I don't plan to start here.' He's not going to let us just go down.
"He's massive on work rate, so if you're not working you ain't going to play. We've tried to press teams high up because, if you just give the opposition time, any side can look good in this league. If you press them higher up, you're winning the ball higher up the pitch, and you have fewer yards to go before you're in sight of goal. It all makes sense. It needs that energy to maintain it. But if you want to stay in the division, it's the least you must do. The message is to work as hard as you can, and he expects his wide men to work hardest of all. I don't mind that. I've done that all my career. It's second nature, really."
Bannan has bought into the philosophy. As the team's set-piece taker, he has studied footage of Chelsea conceding three times from free-kicks and corners at Sunderland last week in the hope of spying some vulnerability to exploit. "But it's not like Chelsea to be conceding from set pieces," he adds. "Their previous sides have been so solid, and I really don't think this team have got any weaker. It's just this season's been funny. The gap between the top six and the rest is closer. Clubs are spending more money to bring in better quality, and that's bridging the gap. You're getting more results you didn't expect."
Palace extracting anything from Stamford Bridge would constitute one of the more eye-catching shocks to date but, as unlikely as that feels, the Scot in their midst travels across town expectant.