Crystal Palace and Patrick Vieira: The inside story of a reluctant sacking

When it came down to it, sacking Patrick Vieira was not a decision anyone at Crystal Palace truly wanted to make.

Vieira’s fate was sealed on Thursday after conversations throughout the day between the club’s four principal owners, Steve Parish, John Textor, Josh Harris and David Blitzer.

While there was some support for keeping Vieira on, they concluded his position was untenable and the Frenchman was told he had been fired via a phone call from Parish as he travelled to the training ground at 7am on Friday. Sporting director Dougie Freedman spoke to Vieira’s coaches, Osian Roberts, Kristian Wilson and Said Aigoun, to inform they had also been dismissed.

Vieira was not surprised by the decision, even if he would have preferred a face-to-face discussion, but the statement from Parish, confirming his exit after 20 months in charge, was unusually generous. The Palace chairman spoke of “enormous regret” at this “difficult decision”, and of Vieira’s “significant impact” on the club since his arrival.

Nevertheless, this was a decision led by Parish, who had become increasingly nervous as the club’s form had declined.

The club’s ownership structure required that a unanimous or majority agreement had to be reached – even if, in reality, Parish is the one who dictates decision-making – and Harris’ presence at the Amex Stadium to watch Palace’s 1-0 defeat by arch-rivals Brighton and Hove Albion on Wednesday, while part of a pre-planned trip over from the US, did not bode well for the manager’s chances of keeping his job.

The Athletic has contacted a wide range of Palace insiders, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, to build a picture of how Vieira’s tenure unravelled.

We can reveal:

  • Palace first gave serious consideration to sacking Vieira in February last year
  • Some senior players and executives were unconvinced by the quality of his coaching staff
  • A disastrous mid-season break in Turkey and a Christmas training-ground fracas further unsettled the squad
  • Vieira was left frustrated by the club’s recruitment.

Steve Parish’s patience with Patrick Vieira eventually snapped due to Palace’s persistent poor form (Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Vieira leaves Palace 12th in the Premier League, a position they have maintained since early January despite a run of 11 league games without a win, and with a trip to his table-topping former side Arsenal on Sunday – where under-21s coach Paddy McCarthy will be in charge – before a two-week international break.

A quick appointment during that hiatus would give the new manager time to work with his squad, but whoever comes in would be under pressure to have an immediate impact given Palace are just three points above the relegation zone and only five ahead of bottom-of-the-table Southampton in an increasingly congested table.

For 46-year-old Vieira, meanwhile, this abrupt end of his first taste of Premier League management will leave a sense of frustration, as well as uncertainty as to what might come next in his career.

It may be almost inconceivable given that Palace finished last season on a high — winning eight of their final 16 games in all competitions, a sequence that included reaching the FA Cup semi-finals — but Vieira’s departure from Selhurst Park might actually have come far sooner than it has.

The Frenchman always had to contend with the knowledge he was not Palace’s first-choice to replace Roy Hodgson in July 2021, with the club initially targeting two more experienced managers in Lucien Favre and Nuno Espirito Santo. But Vieira was anxious to make his mark, and impressed onlookers with his firm but fair management style. He implemented double sessions through his first pre-season and introduced a strong disciplinary system that saw players were fined for tardiness. Youngsters stepping up from the academy were sent back if they reported even a minute late.

Fans welcomed having a character of stature in the dugout, but there were inevitably misgivings over whether the former title-winning captain and World Cup winner had the managerial experience required to steer a Premier League club.

Those doubts appeared to have been banished by a run of just two defeats in his opening 12 league games, including an impressive 2-0 away win over champions Manchester City; but the next 12 matches, in which Palace won just twice and were beaten six times, triggered serious concerns among the hierarchy.

By the time Vieira took his side to Watford in late February, his position was under genuine threat and defeat that day would have brought his tenure to an end. Instead, a 4-1 win released the pressure and Palace went on to finish the season in style: Arsenal were thrashed 3-0 in the April in one of the most accomplished performances in the club’s Premier League history, and there were similarly impressive results against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester United and Manchester City.

Crystal Palace signed off an impressive 2021-22 season with a win over Manchester United (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Palace ended Vieira’s debut season with a first-ever positive Premier League goal difference and, in Premier League terms, their fewest defeats, their fewest-ever goals conceded, their second-highest totals of goals and victories, and their second-highest points total. Add in a first trip to Wembley since 2016, and some thrilling attacking football played by a young, dynamic team, and it was a thoroughly satisfying first year in charge.

But year two has been one of regression, even if not all the failings have been down to Vieira.

Questions can also be asked of the club’s recruitment policy, in which the manager had only a limited say. Instead, transfer decisions were led by Freedman and shaped by the funds made available by the club’s co-owners Parish, Harris,  Blitzer and Textor.

Those moves were complicated by disagreements in the boardroom over strategy: Textor has been ambitious and eager to spend, whereas Parish remains more cautious — stung by past mistakes and the club’s history.

The failure to strengthen adequately in last summer’s transfer window, specifically not replacing the club’s 2021-22 player of the year Conor Gallagher, who returned to Chelsea following a season-long loan, has proved costly. The energy and attacking endeavour Gallagher provided were key to Vieira’s system of play, and got him into the England squad. His departure created a hole in the heart of the Palace squad that has never been filled.

Conor Gallagher has not replaced at Crystal Palace (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Midfielder Cheick Doucoure did join the club last summer from French club Lens, but he was seen as a direct replacement for the also-departing Cheikhou Kouyate, and while Palace were hopeful of securing Gallagher on another loan deal, that failed to materialise.

Given that none of Palace’s other summer signings have become regulars in the first team – youngsters such as Malcolm Ebiowei and Luke Plange were subsequently loaned out down the divisions; Chris Richards, a USMNT defender who swapped Bayern Munich for Selhurst Park, has struggled with injuries and made only three league starts – Vieira was effectively working with a weaker squad than he had last season.

That midfield was a key area of concern, particularly given Will Hughes’ failure to make a case to start regularly. It was only partly remedied by the January signings of Albert Sambi Lokonga and Naouirou Ahamada, but neither player had much Premier League experience – something Vieira had repeatedly called for.

But there was also unease over the lack of a reliable third-choice centre-back, given Richards’ injury history and James Tomkins’ age (he turns 34 this month), and someone to compete with Tyrick Mitchell for the left-back spot.

Most damagingly, Palace’s hierarchy opted against adding another attacking option, despite selling Christian Benteke in August. That meant Vieira was working with Wilfried Zaha, a Palace icon but a player entering the final year of his contract, plus Odsonne Edouard, Jordan Ayew and Jean-Philippe Mateta, none of whom had staked a claim to be a regular starter up front.

Throw in Nathaniel Clyne and Jeffrey Schlupp and a pattern emerges of players once deemed as rotation options finding themselves promoted to first-choice status.

It was not simply recruitment, either.

There was the farce of last summer, when Vieira was forced to split up his first-team squad to complete the arranged pre-season fixtures.

Ten of his senior players were in the party that travelled to Singapore and Australia for high-profile friendlies against Liverpool, Manchester United and Leeds, while the remainder – who either did not meet visa entry requirements for those countries, or who were unfit – stayed home to play a series of warm-up matches in the London area against lower-league sides.

That disruption did not make Vieira’s job of knitting a team together any easier.

Half of Crystal Palace’s squad travelled to Singapore and Australia, including for this friendly against Manchester United in Melbourne (Photo: Martin Keep/AFP via Getty Images)

Palace actually started the season fairly well with a point away to Liverpool and win over Aston Villa in the first three matches, but in that context, it was no surprise that results have been so inconsistent over the past eight months. They have won back-to-back league games just once all season and Vieira was widely condemned for his failure to become more pragmatic when it became clear his possession-based, progressive style was not a match for the players he now had at his disposal.

His response when asked, in the wake of an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at a struggling Everton in October, whether he had considered playing two defensive midfielders given the absence of the suspended Doucoure, summed up his inflexible approach. “No,” he said, simply.

That loss at Goodison Park was to prove fateful for another reason.

It was the manner in which first-team coach Shaun Derry lambasted the players in the dressing room afterwards – demanding higher standards, and more pride in the shirt they were wearing – which set in motion the events that led to his departure at the end of January.

Vieira felt Derry had overstepped his duties and their relationship never recovered, with the manager ultimately taking sole responsibility for the decision to dismiss him, a move that surprised other senior officials at the club.

Derry – a legend at Palace from his playing days, and a popular figure among fans – was not replaced, a point which also raised concerns over the experience and quality of Vieira’s coaching staff.

Patrick Vieira, assistant manager Osian Roberts and coach Shaun Derry (Photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

The assistant manager, Osian Roberts, is highly regarded on the international stage for his work as a coach educator with Wales. Vieira’s relationship with his right-hand man was formed while he studied his coaching badges under Roberts’ tutelage.

However, while Roberts was impressive at working with fellow coaches, that was seen as a very different skill set to actively coaching players himself and his lack of experience in domestic football was a concern. On occasion, his debriefs with the squad at the training ground were questioned by senior players.

The other first-team coach, Kristian Wilson, worked under Vieira at Manchester City Under-23s, New York City in MLS and French top-flight club Nice but was widely considered to offer little help to the manager. Said Aigoun, brought in as a development coach to bridge the gap between academy and first team, was effectively demoted to an analyst’s role, such was his limited impact. He also failed to build good relationships with other staff at the club.

There was some concern over the approach to match preparation.

Training sessions early in the week took the form of improving fitness and familiarising themselves with structure. Only at the back-end of a week did work begin on tailoring their preparations to how the upcoming opponents were likely to play.

Vieira’s relationships with the majority of his players, however, were good, certainly until the most recent slump. Most of the squad appreciated his sensitive approach to man-management — while there were occasional outbursts, and dismay expressed at poor performances, he preferred to create a welcoming, respectful environment.

He often barely spoke to his players immediately after particularly disappointing showings, preferring to conduct such inquests back at the training ground when emotions had cooled.

Patrick Vieira’s relationship with Wilfried Zaha has generally been strong (Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

The players found him approachable, humble, open and honest, and he enjoyed a generally good relationship with talisman Zaha: training sessions often saw the pair tease each other about their respective abilities as players. It was striking that when Zaha questioned Palace’s tactics after a frustrating home draw with Brentford in August, Vieira did not rebuke his star player.

Frustrations did begin to bubble up among certain members of the squad in recent weeks, but the most aggrieved parties have tended to be those who have not been given regular first-team football, and who therefore might be expected to be unhappy.

In general, respect for Vieira was not an issue, and this extended to every level of the club, from staff in the canteen to senior executives: Vieira spoke to Freedman most days, and frequently to Parish, who as recently as October had publicly heaped praise on his manager. “The fit is unbelievable,” he said. “He’s such an inspirational person. He gives time to absolutely everybody at the football club.”

Vieira’s stature also helped Palace to attract talent.

Gallagher spoke of wanting to learn from the former Arsenal, Juventus and France midfielder, Vieira’s presence was a major factor in Ebiowei choosing Palace over Manchester United and Lokonga, the Arsenal loanee who arrived in January, credited him as a major factor in his move. Michael Olise, who joined from Reading of the Championship as his first signing, felt inspired by Vieira, whose experience of and eagerness to work with youth was one of the main reasons Palace gave him the job in the first place.

Vieira’s refusal to play on the achievements of his glittering career for club and country impressed those he worked with at Selhurst Park. Any attempts to discuss his playing days – in public at least – were quickly shut down. This was Patrick Vieira the Palace manager, not Patrick Vieira the Arsenal Invincible or France European and world champion. Those triumphs were only ever referenced when he deemed them relevant to what his players were experiencing.

Vieira’s frustrations over recruitment led him to wonder about his own long-term future. He was intrigued by the possibility of succeeding Jesse Marsch at Leeds United when the American was sacked in February, although that never progressed into anything formal.

Palace would not have stood in Vieira’s way – the fact that no formal talks had taken place over a new contract despite his deal running out at the end of next season was an indication of that – but ultimately his inability to engineer a post-World Cup revival led to his undoing.

The danger signs had been flashing since December, when a week-long break to Turkey – designed as an opportunity to regroup and work on tactical issues in the Mediterranean sunshine during the World Cup – backfired. The weather was miserable and the mood of several players who had missed out on selection for Qatar 2022 was equally gloomy, all of which cast a shadow over the squad.

Things took another turn for the worse over Christmas, when two senior players got into an altercation after one took exception to the way the other was making challenges on academy players during a training session. Both were originally dropped from the squad to face Fulham in the first match of the resumed club campaign on December 26 before being hastily reinstated on Christmas Day.

That was one of several decisions made by Vieira which raised eyebrows at the club. The insistence on playing Zaha, Olise, Eberechi Eze and at times Edouard outside of what were widely considered to be their best positions was a point of contention; Schlupp’s continued inclusion over Hughes in midfield was another.

Those decisions were considered a consequence of placing too much faith in Roberts. Vieira may have been the figurehead, but many of his decisions were heavily influenced by his assistant.

From there, things snowballed disastrously.

That Fulham game was a shambles, Palace reduced to nine men as they slumped to a 3-0 home defeat, and while Bournemouth were beaten on New Year’s Eve, a 4-0 thrashing by Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst on January 4 – with all the goals coming in 25 chaotic second-half minutes – pushed Vieira into a rethink.

The 4-0 defeat by Tottenham forced Patrick Vieira into a tactical rethink (Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)

He reverted to a defence-first mindset which blocked up the holes in his porous defence but did so at the expense of almost any attacking ambition: Palace became the first Premier League team since Opta began recording data in the 2003-04 season to go three successive games without recording a shot on target.

Vieira’s luck was also out.

A quirk of the fixture list handed Palace a horrendous run of games almost exclusively against top-half teams in the first three months of 2023, but while sides below them proved capable of delivering the odd shock victory against better-equipped opponents, Vieira simply could not get his men to deliver a sucker-punch of their own.

When they did finally engineer a winning position, going a goal up in the second half at Brentford on February 18, appalling game management by his players gifted an equaliser with the last act of the match.

Nobody at Palace wanted Vieira’s tenure to end this way, particularly given how he had bought into the club’s new ethos and quickly identified with the community.

He was the club’s first black manager, and after Hope Powell’s departure from Brighton in October, the only black manager in the Premier League or WSL, its equivalent in the domestic women’s game. For a club who pride themselves on being rooted in south London, one of the most diverse areas of the UK, that really mattered.

His community spirit was not simply for show, either. During a Palace For Life Foundation event in November 2021, he embraced the Down Syndrome Eagles. One of them asked if Palace would finish in the top four with Vieira responding: “If we finish top four, I’ll take you out for dinner”. That did not happen; instead, Vieira provided them with a coaching session at the training ground.

Fans warmed to Vieira’s nature, and the soundtrack to the second half of last season – especially in the FA Cup – was a song adopted from Chelsea’s chant in acclaim of their then-manager Thomas Tuchel: “We’ve got Super Pat Vieira’. As it was bellowed from 40,000 Palace fans who filled one end of Wembley before the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, anything seemed possible.

Palace fans warmed to Patrick Vieira during their run to the FA Cup semi-finals last season (Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

But the fairytale has soured. Chelsea beat Palace 2-0 that day, the atmosphere at Selhurst Park has been poor this season, and its away games have been marred by increasingly heated rows among fans over whether Vieira deserved to keep his job. Even the cups, Vieira’s trump-card last season, delivered disappointment with a single victory across the two competitions.

In some ways, Vieira has been a victim of his own success. The expectation heading into this season was significantly greater after the achievements of last term, as Parish outlined in October. “It’s about trying to get to a point where we really believe we’re a permanent fixture in the Premier League, not threatened by relegation,” he said, “where we’re looking upward to European qualification and winning trophies, rather than looking downwards.”

Vieira himself had bought into that, telling fans in his on-field address at the end of 2021-22 that he would “see you all next season with higher ambition”.

As it transpired, he and the squad were unable to live up to that, and Parish and his co-owners acted before they felt it would be too late to change the course of Palace’s season. The chairman has always felt that even the threat of relegation back to the EFL for a club who have now been part of the domestic elite for a decade would be too much to countenance, and so it proved with Vieira.

His departure is tinged with sorrow more than anger, and there will always be appreciation for some of the thrilling performances which lit up last season. But given the resources at his disposal – and many consider this to be the most talented squad Palace have ever had – he could not survive a campaign which has failed to yield any meaningful progress.

(Top photo design: Eamonn Dalton)

2023-03-17 11:19:34