A hero to the fans for his two stints at the club as a player, Dougie Freedman not only outwitted Manchester United, but has turned Crystal Palace into a tactically flexible outfit...
Old Trafford witnesses the emergence of the latest Glaswegian managerial prodigy, peeping from the shadow of the greatest.
'I don't drink red wine. Sir Alex can do the drinking.' announced Dougie Freedman when asked if he'd be sharing a ritualistic post-match Rioja with his opposite number after Wednesday's Carling Cup quarter final at Old Trafford. It was just cheap whimsy in the pre-match build up, as though the small Scotsman had won a 'Meet the Manager' raffle prize in the hospitality suite. But little did anyone foresee that as reality dawned around 10pm last night, Sir Alex was probably reaching for his third whiskey whilst Dougie poked his head round his door asking if he had any bubbly on offer.
'I don't know where to start. I didn't expect that.' revealed an unusually apologetic Sir Alex Ferguson after seeing his B team (including a £30 million striker and nine full international players) overwhelmingly contained by a mid-table Championship side Crystal Palace, who it shouldn't be forgotten had made five first team changes themselves and hadn't scored in their last 5 games, despite making a rousing earlier start to season.
It was clear that the Eagles had been underestimated by Ferguson. Freedman, still in his first year of football management, admitted he was relishing pitting his wits against Ferguson, in his 25th consecutive year at Old Trafford. Ferguson however was more focused on testing out some kids mixed in with some regular, experienced players. He certainly didn't anticipate any problems in winning the game comfortably.
What followed was Manchester United's first defeat to Crystal Palace since 1989. So how did Dougie do it?
In team selection he mixed it up. His strategy was to mix loyalty to players who had taken their chance and got us through the earlier rounds such as O'Keefe and Price, flood the midfield with Wright and Dikgacoi with outlets in Scannell and Zaha on the wings, and to top it off with help from the bench in tried and tested key senior players like Ambrose and Murray.
Freedman's outfit exhibited the sum of its parts and played at times like an inspired Manchester United, who for their part, didn't
Onlookers may label Darren Ambrose's goal a lucky strike but as his later free kick also exhibited, his direct nature and shooting are the key strengths of his game. His temperamental form has seen him go from first on the team sheet to squad player this season, but Freedman was wily enough to know that Darren, like he did, has a knack of scoring in big games, and scoring well. Ask Brad Friedel, Alan Irvine or Gus Poyet. Dougie knew he had a part to play last night.
Tactically he mutated the Palace formation to combat Ferguson's tinkering of his. Suffocating the threat of neat United passing triangles, Freedman nullified the usually dominant midfield engine room of United with two and sometimes three players taking up defensive midfield positions. Ferguson shuffled his pack to three at the back in extra time in a bid to break through the Crystal Palace defence, but they stayed resolute and held out thanks largely to Glenn Murray, the talismanic target man who impressively outmuscled Smalling and relieved the pressure on Palace. It was a match that lesser clubs like Palace will be watching repeats of to see how to beat Manchester United at home. That, or for the dreamers, the recent Manchester derby.
Much has been made of Dougie's long relationship with the club helping him settle quickly in his first role in football management. There can only be truth in this. Here is a man who played for the club twice, kept the team up as a player with alegendary last gasp goal against Stockport in 2001, helped the club avoid relegation as assistant manager to Paul Hart in 2010 and again as manager this year. 'He's saved us three times' is a regular chant at Selhurst Park so the fans were already won over and still are, not least helped along by gestures such as Dougie visiting the local pub to thank them personally for their support.
But not much light has been cast on the unusual management set up that enables the rookie Freedman to be ambitious and experimental whilst seeking experienced counsel from a wise old head in Lennie Lawrence. It's kind of like the relationship dynamic you see in prison-based movies where an innocent, fresh faced inmate is protected and directed by an aging, all-seeing jailbird. It's true that Palace have been tight at the back since the new regime took hold.
So given the opportunity to pitch his team against Sir Alex last night, an icon who Dougie has studied and grew up knowing as the Scotland manager and 'splitter' of the Old Firm with Aberdeen, Freedman's outfit exhibited the sum of its parts and played at times like an inspired Manchester United, who for their part, didn't. The Palace fans knew it could be their night when Da Silva was penalised for a foul throw in the opening minutes. Surely rarer than a penalty at the Theatre of Dreams.
What awaits Crystal Palace in the semi-finals is Cardiff City, which signals a Championship club in the final for the first time in 10 years and virtually guarantees entry into next seasons Europa league. Let's recognise now then that by default with the inclusion of Cardiff manager Malky Mckay, the next candidate of managerial promise and ubiquitous Glasgow roots is now on the conveyor belt. Thank the footballing gods Steve Kean evens it out a bit.
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