Exclusive: Crystal Palace Star Mile Jedinak on the Secrets Behind Club's Rise

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterNovember 3, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Mile Jedinak of Crystal Palace celebrates with team-mates after scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Leicester City at Selhurst Park on September 27, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images

If good things come to those who wait, then Mile Jedinak’s patience was handsomely rewarded last season.

Already 27 by the time he played his first game in English football, having joined a Crystal Palace side that had just finished 21st and 20th in its previous two campaigns in the Championship in the summer of 2011, last season he captained the Eagles as they finished 11th in the Premier League—before immediately going off to captain his nation in the World Cup in Brazil.

The Australian—now a veteran of more than 50 caps, having made his debut in 2008—has gone through four permanent managers (and four different periods of caretaker control) in his three years at Selhurst Park, yet despite that turmoil, the team has managed to improve year-on-year.

As far as Jedinak is concerned, that is a tribute to the great mental strength and determination of the players at the club, a collection of kindred spirits who approach matters in the same determined, focused manner as the man who wears the armband.

“The group has been built not by one particular manager, but over a number of years,” Jedinak tells Bleacher Report. “There are new faces that come in, but everyone understands their roles and that has been a huge part of our success.

“I hate to say it, but it makes it a little bit easier when a manager goes when you’ve got such strong characters and personalities. Of course it is never actually easy—no-one ever likes to see managers leave—but it is about what you have in the group, and we have very strong men and very strong characters.

“That’s what makes us able to get through it—and the fact there is always still a job to do.”

If such spirit, such strength of will, is forged through adversity, then it is not too hard to see where Jedinak's personal reserves came from. Getting to this point in his career has been a long journey, along a route that Google Maps would hardly recommend.

His first crack at a career in European football, when still a teenager, was an aborted one—a 19-year-old Jedinak earned a contract with Croatian side NK Varteks (now known as Varazdin) following a trial during a trip to Europe with an Australian youth side.

Jedinak’s heritage is Croatian, making the transition slightly more straightforward, but the opportunity did not pan out as hoped, with the youngster hardly given a chance in the first team (one Europa League substitute appearance apart).

The Sydney-born man is all about taking the positives from any situation, though.

“It didn’t happen for me but I learned a lot and grew a lot as a person,” Jedinak, who remains in contact with some of those he met at the club, recalls. “It made me an even stronger character and a better person for it.”

GOSFORD, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 31:  Mile Jedinak of the Mariners farewells fans after playing his final match for the Mariners after the round 18 A-League match between the Central Coast Mariners and the Perth Glory at Bluetongue Stadium on December 31, 20
Corey Davis/Getty Images

This seems to be a theme with Jedinak—learning from every setback and coming back even more determined. After Varteks, he returned to Australia, eventually landing at the Central Coast Mariners and gradually imposing himself as one of the best midfielders in the A-League.

Towards the end of his third year with the club, Turkish side Genclerbirligi watched Jedinak in one game, immediately making him an offer. At 24, he felt better prepared to have another crack at European football—and this was the only offer on the table.

“At that time I thought I was ready to go overseas, and at that time it was the only thing that presented itself,” he says. “I jumped at the opportunity and saw it as a real chance to prove myself in Europe again.”

Jedinak started well in Ankara but was slowly marginalised and ended up on loan to Antalyaspor—who he actually helped finish above his parent club in the Super Lig—in the final year of his deal.

With his future up in the air, Palace, through their assistant manager (and former Australia international) Tony Popovic, tentatively approached the midfielder.

“Obviously the contact was made through Tony Popovic, and there were conversations and I met with [manager at the time] Dougie Freedman,” Jedinak says. “There was a conversation about things and then that progressed to genuine interest, and then it was about me making that decision.

“I made that decision fairly quickly—and I haven’t looked back since.”

Didn’t Palace’s situation, fighting at the wrong end of England’s second tier, concern him?

“No, I didn’t take notice of where Palace had finished previously,” he says. “It was more about wanting to work with a group of men—particularly at that time Dougie and Popa—because I got good vibes off them. I thoroughly enjoyed that period.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Mile Jedinak of Crystal Palace and Billy Clarke of Blackpool in action during the npower Championship match between Crystal Palace and Blackpool at Selhurst Park on August 27, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty
Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Under Freedman, Jedinak would quickly establish himself as a no-nonsense holding midfielder with an underrated range of passing, and along with a number of other new faces like Joel Ward, Glenn Murray and Yannick Bolasie (and the emerging talent of academy graduate Wilfried Zaha), the club’s results quickly improved.

Freedman would eventually leave in controversial circumstances, to be replaced by Ian Holloway, but the club would win promotion through the play-offs in 2013.

Tony Pulis would then oversee most of last season’s remarkable campaign—the first time the south London club had ever avoided relegation from the top flight—with Neil Warnock now tasked with taking the club forward after Pulis left in contentious circumstances on the eve of the current season.

The circle could even be completed before too long—if Warnock, 65, is considered only a short-term solution at the club, Popovic (whose Western Sydney Warriors won the Asian Champions League on Sunday) would seem a strong potential candidate for any eventual vacancy.

The captain is quick to pay tribute to all four managers for the work they have done in helping deliver Palace to this point, even as their own managerial careers have yet to make similar leaps forward (Freedman and Pulis are both currently unemployed, while Holloway is toiling at Millwall).

“Every manager deserves a part of whatever success you have,” Jedinak says. “They build squads, and particularly at this football club they build the style of play.

“Managers are driving the ship, so to speak, without actually being on the pitch, so every manager I’ve worked under here definitely deserves credit.”

It is the players who are the constant, however. In many ways, last season was the culmination of that long journey for Jedinak, the reward for those early years waiting for his big break. The captain led by example on the pitch, as Palace defied pre-season expectations to finish 11th in the table.

Only an injury in the final game against Fulham prevented him from being the rare outfield player to play every minute of every league game—surely it must have been frustrating to have to limp off at Craven Cottage?

“Not too frustrating, until it gets mentioned in questions like this!” he observes wryly. “Would I have liked to have finished out the season? Absolutely. But these things happen. It is what it is—I’m happy I played as much as I did.”

As a constant presence over the 38 games, he is as well placed as anyone to pick out the highlights. Two in particular stick out.

Chelsea at home was a massive turning point for us, a huge factor in our push for the end,” Jedinak says, highlighting the 1-0 win at Selhurst Park that derailed Jose Mourinho’s title push.

“[But] Everton away was a performance—that was a performance [a 3-2 win in April, a result and scoreline they repeated earlier this season] we should all be proud of.

“The way we all went up there and did what did up there. It was a real stellar performance, an all-round team effort and it was the game that got us to 40 points, that magical 40 number.

“The camaraderie, and how everyone was into it afterwards, was amazing.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Mile Jedinak (R) of Crystal Palace and his teammates applaud the travelling fans following their team's 3-2 victory during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Crystal Palace at Goodison Park on Septemb
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

This season has yet to see similar emotional high points, with the side picking up nine points from their opening nine games.

Jedinak—who leads the league in tackles made—characterises the start as no more than “okay,” but Monday night sees the Eagles host Sunderland, one of the few sides below them, in a game that could kick-start an improved run.

“I would like to think in the coming weeks and months we will start to pick up some more points,” he notes, making it clear that is an expectation rather than a hope.

On overall ambitions for the season, the skipper is acutely aware of the score: “First and foremost it is about staying up, and then trying to push on from there.”

The atmosphere at Selhurst Park last season earned Palace a lot of new admirers, with the chanting, particularly from the always vocal Holmesdale Stand, making it one of the most passionate arenas in the league.

How important was that support in inspiring Palace to their impressive final position, especially after they picked up just four points from their opening 11 games?

“Massively. Massively [important],” says Jedinak. “Even when things weren’t going too well at the start, everyone remained strong and focused and very, very loud. It got us through some sticky moments. We always knew that everyone was behind us and I think in the end our success had a lot to do with that.”

Beyond Jedinak and goalkeeper Julian Speroni (whose testimonial, after 10 years’ service at the club, will be next year), the performances of Joel Ward gained a huge number of plaudits.

The 25-year-old played right-back, left-back and in midfield over the course of the season, but it is another quality about the former Portsmouth player that makes Jedinak believe Ward—who is yet to agree a new contract with the club—could make the step up to the national team that many have been clamouring for.

“I think he’s got that ability,” Jedinak says. “I know what he does here on a daily basis, and what he has been doing on the pitch, you know he is a kid that works very hard.

“I think he definitely has that ability to step up to the next level. Whenever you play it is about consistency and he has definitely got that. If he gets called up—or, as I would like to think, when he gets called up—then I think he will do well, because I think he is one that blends in and adapts to what is needed from him.”

PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL - JUNE 18:  Mile Jedinak of Australia acknowledges the fans after his teams 3-2 defeat to the Netherlands in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Australia and Netherlands at Estadio Beira-Rio on June 18, 2014 in Porto
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

The arrival of James McArthur in the summer, to go with Joe Ledley’s signing in January, has lessened the need for Ward to deputise in midfield, but Palace will still feel the pinch in January and February, when Jedinak joins up with the Australia squad for the forthcoming Asian Cup.

It continues a fairytale run for Jedinak. First he captains his country at a World Cup, and barely six months later he will get the honour in another major international tournament, this one also on home soil.

“It’s definitely the biggest honour to captain your country at a World Cup,” Jedinak says. “Only three others have done it before me so it’s obviously massive. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

On the Asian Cup, he adds: “It’s going to be exciting because it is in Australia, but the downside is you will miss games for Palace.

“It’s going to be a great plus, being at home, but by no means is it going to be a walk in the park. It’s a challenge that we need to embrace. Where we get to after that is down to us.”

The further Australia go in the competition, of course, the longer Palace will have to make do without him.

“It is what it is,” he acknowledges. “But until that point I will be giving my absolute everything for Palace.”

Palace fans have never known anything less.

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