‘Not having that much money is an asset’ – how Crystal Palace boxed smartly to become vital for England

The club that has supplied the most players for England’s 2024 European Championship team is not Manchester City, Chelsea or the great player of previous generations, Manchester United. Instead, it is Crystal Palace who have supplied four players from Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad: Marc Guehi, Adam Wharton, Eberechi Eze and goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Unlike the England manager himself, a graduate of the Palace youth team, none of the four were homegrown.

Yet Palace have proven that an academy with prodigious talent and a recruitment model that does not try to compete with richer clubs can be honed to perfection. The club has learned from their missteps during a club record eleven years and counts in the top division. Chairman Steve Parish and football director Dougie Freedman have come up with a plan that works.

Trading on another market

With an annual turnover of £160 million, Palace are not at the table for the biggest names in the game, or even the levels below them. Eze and Wharton came from the Championship – also the source of arguably the club’s best player, Michael Olise. Henderson and Guehi had graduated from the academy of the top six clubs and were surplus to requirements. “It’s an advantage that sometimes you don’t have as much money and you don’t expect to be successful right away,” Parish says Telegraph Sports. “It means that we have to look in all kinds of places. There is less temptation to say, ‘Let’s spend £50m and take the shortcut’.”

Wharton’s deal was worth a total of £18 million. Dougie Freedman and the scouting department watched the player live. The club has put together videos of clips and entire games for Parish to watch. They were surprised that there was not more competition, although there were rumors in the market that Bayern Munich were willing to close the deal that summer. “Sometimes it’s just timing,” Parish says. “That January was a quiet period.”

Adam Wharton warms up ahead of England's friendly against Bosnia and HerzegovinaAdam Wharton warms up ahead of England's friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina

Adam Wharton was a potential target for Bayern Munich in the summer before Crystal Palace made the move for the midfielder in January – Marc Atkins/Getty Images

After defeat earlier in the season, Parish had joined his inner circle in lamenting the absence of a passing midfielder similar to those of the past, such as Yohan Cabaye or Luka Milivojevic. “Dougie and his team were unanimous: ‘Steve, sign Adam Wharton,’” Parish recalls. “We are fortunate to have a hardworking scouting team. They stand by their decisions.”

Doing the deals

The preparatory work for deals is done by Iain Moody, an experienced multilingual transfer negotiator. Normally Parish will contact the selling club directly to finalize terms. The Eze deal was completed by Parish from the beach in the south of France in August 2020. The £17million Palace paid for the silky forward hardly deserves a mention now. The club has always believed they were attracting one of the best young talents in the world.

Despite his long absence from injury at the start of the 2021-2022 season, things never got out of hand. Eze has worked hard to recover from his Achilles tendon injury and now Palace have a player who can play for any Premier League club. There is another obvious sale to players joining Palace. “We don’t have the biggest selection,” Parish says, “so it’s not like you have to wait months for your opportunity.”

A manager on board

“Oliver [Glasner] should get a lot of credit,” says Parish. “You don’t get picked for England if you’re not in a winning team.” Under the Austrian, a run of 19 points from their last seven Premier League games lifted Palace to a club record 10th place, as one of the form teams at the end of the season. “Roy [Hodgson] had the same attitude,” says Parish. “The pressure would be on for results and we would discuss this and that and then he said to me about a young boy: ‘He’s going to be a footballer’.”

Parish learned an important lesson from one of his predecessors as Palace chairman, Ron Noades: Freedman and Parish insist that the manager look at every academy graduate option before the club commits to signing that position. Palace have produced many that way. Wilfried Zaha, Jonny Williams, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Tyrick Mitchell – who was capped by Southgate two years ago – all got their chances. Wan-Bissaka only took part in his first senior training session because they were short a right back that day. Ultimately, he earned the club £55 million in a transfer fee that went a long way towards settling their profitability and sustainability compliance.

A club that knows what is needed

“Our fans are so encouraging of young players,” Parish said. “They like to watch good football and good young players.” It helps that Palace have historically launched careers as great as those of the English game’s figurative giants, Ian Wright and Kenny Sansom. Guehi, a south London lad who had spent his development years at Chelsea and cost around £20m, was an instant hit.

Henderson, who could spend a lot on a goalkeeper for Palace at £15million, replaced a favorite in Sam Johnstone. At the time, fans wanted a new right-back, but Parish and Freedman stuck to their guns.

Marc Guehi in action for England against Iceland at WembleyMarc Guehi in action for England against Iceland at Wembley

Center back Marc Guehi came through the Chelsea academy and was immediately targeted by the Crystal Palace faithful – Nigel Keene/Shutterstock

The big picture

In the professional history of Palace, one of the oldest clubs in English football, only 20 players have been capped as representatives of the team playing at Selhurst Park – going back to Horace Colclough playing at left-back against Wales in 1914. four Palace players were in the squad for Graham Taylor’s tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1991, but that was a trip that many established England internationals of the era tried to avoid.

Olise and Jean-Philippe Mateta are both likely to play for France at the Olympics. Jefferson Lerma and Daniel Munoz will represent Colombia at the Copa America, while Chris Richards will play for the US at the same tournament. Joachim Andersen will play for Denmark against England this month in Frankfurt. As Parish notes, for Group C of Euro 2024, Palace have supplied 4.8 percent of all players.

The future

“We’re not trying to post-rationalize it to make ourselves look like geniuses,” Parish says. “Things are also going wrong with us. You can never think that you have cracked it, or that you have a formula. Then you break free”

From the academy, rebuilt and expanded in the biggest investment the club has made in years, Jesse Derry, son of former player and coach Shaun, is one of a number of promising players. Jesurun Rak-Sakyi, 21, should play more for the first team next season. Academy wingers David Obou and Asher Agbinone, both 18; forward Zach Marsh, also 18; and centre-back Mofe Jemide, 17, are all players with potential.

The challenge will be on retaining players like Olise and Eze, especially if they make big steps for their national teams again this summer. Others will certainly be interested in the Palace’s targets. Ultimately, it’s all about the players, Parish says. “Most of the credit goes to them,” he says. “They have the talent. They live their lives the right way. They work hard to recover from injury. They make all the sacrifices. What we have to do is show that the club is making progress.”

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