SELHURST PARK, LONDON — The turmoil at Crystal Palace spilled onto the pitch on Saturday—as was perhaps always going to happen—as they fell to a 3-1 defeat to West Ham United that would surely never have happened during the Tony Pulis era.
With Pulis leaving his post on the eve of the new season and club chairman Steve Parish subsequently forced to pull out of a proposed move to replace him with Malky Mackay this week due to unsavoury revelations about the Scot's previous conduct, per John Cross of the Mirror, Palace ended up playing like a side without clear leadership or a cohesive plan—which might be exactly what they are at the moment.
West Ham took full advantage, although the three goals they scored should not necessarily be taken as evidence that Sam Allardyce is bringing the new attacking vibrancy to his team that was so publicly demanded of him in the summer. Palace were simply very poor.
"We spoke about it being our first home game, [there being] a good atmosphere, and we were flat," Keith Millen, Palace's caretaker, acknowledged afterwards. "In general, we were lacklustre.
"I'm in charge of them, and I don't like to make excuses, but it has been tough for the players."
Pulis, it must be acknowledged, did also see his side concede three in what would turn out to be his last home game at Selhurst Park. On that occasion, however, his side were facing a side with Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling in their ranks—and the Eagles still came back to grab a 3-3 draw.
This time, there was no comeback—only a litany of uncharacteristic defensive errors as Millen watched on helplessly from the sidelines. Bar a flurry of intent shortly after half-time—a spell of pressure that brought Marouane Chamakh's goal but was soon abruptly ended by Carlton Cole's thumping finish—a comeback never looked likely.
For West Ham, it was a welcome result after the disappointment of losing last weekend to Tottenham despite controlling large parts of the game.
"I saw that performance last week, and I'm glad to see it again this week," Allardyce said. "This time around, the quality of our finishing was superb today, and that's why we're also happy about the result."
Already without Jason Puncheon and Scott Dann due to suspension and injury, respectively, Palace were handed a further late blow when midfield lynchpin Joe Ledley broke down during the warm-up. The absences showed up the paucity of options Palace have at their disposal, an issue of concern that surely played a role in Pulis's surprise departure.
To different extents, the two men who replaced Dann and Ledley, Damien Delaney and Stuart O'Keefe, were exposed for all West Ham's goals—with Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble dominating the midfield battle from the off.
Allardyce named Cole, Ricardo Vaz Te and Mauro Zarate in his starting XI perhaps figuring that—against a team dealing with so many issues—there was no better time to pursue the attacking style he has been asked to implement. And it was Zarate, on debut, who duly made the breakthrough, volleying home from the edge of the box as O'Keefe struggled to close him down.
Stewart Downing then cut inside from the right and curled a low effort into the bottom corner three minutes later, as Palace's defence looked a shadow of the unit that kept 12 clean sheets last season.
After half-time, Chamakh found the bottom corner from Mile Jedinak's cutback to raise the prospect of a comeback, but further defensive mistakes would kill the game off for good soon after. Again, a sloppy touch from O'Keefe saw him forced to bring down Noble, and from the resulting free-kick, Delaney failed to clear properly as Cole took full advantage.
Teddy Sheringham, the Hammers' new attack coach, looked delighted at what he was seeing. After the game, Allardyce was asked how responsible the ex-England forward was for the new attacking edge his side seemed to exhibit.
"If you speak to him, I think he'd say all of it!," Allardyce joked. "It's going to be good. There are a lot of things Teddy can talk about and do with little groups of the guys.
"He's fitted in very well, and if we continuing to show the finishing qualities we showed today, I don't mind him taking all the credit for it."
Allardyce was also pleased with the performance of some of his other players, with full-back Aaron Cresswell and the giant midfielder Kouyate receiving his praise. In the latter, a £7 million summer signing from Anderlecht, Allardyce believes he has found a player of real star quality.
"I think he's got the modern-day midfield player written all over him," he said. "The one thing that may be missing is a goal or two—I don't know yet—but he even gets in those areas. He's high-energy, box-to-box, competes, wins his tackles.
"He's living his dream playing in the Premier League, and it's nice to see a guy come in every day with a smile on his face."
Palace would love a player like that, but the priority is to get a new manager appointed as soon as possible. Parish, watching from the directors' box, was giving little away with his facial expressions whenever the television cameras panned across to him, but he will surely be under no illusions about the importance his decisions over the next few days could have.
All the good work that has been done at Palace in recent times—from last season's performances, to the noticeable upgrades made to Selhurst Park during the summer—threatens to be eroded if the next manager is not capable of rediscovering the recipe Pulis brought to the table.
Millen, who expects to still be in charge when Palace face Walsall in the Capital One Cup in midweek and remains keen on the job full-time, hopes a permanent appointment will be made before next weekend, allowing that man (whoever it may be) at least a few days to make some signings before next Monday's transfer deadline.
If that proves unworkable, he and his staff have already handed the board a list of potential targets in key positions, with Parish working on those to ensure the new boss will have additional assets to work with.
On this evidence, however, the longer the uncertainty goes on, the graver the issues will become for Palace.
"It's been a tough week for the club," Millen acknowledged. "I don't think it is going to drag on. Once we appoint a new manager, it will be a fresh start.
"We still have a good group of players, and if we can bring in a few more before Monday, we will have a decent squad to move forward with."
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