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Steve Parish: The full story since 2010

1 June 2020

On the 10-year anniversary of CPFC 2010 agreeing a deal in principle to buy Crystal Palace, Chairman Steve Parish has spoken with the Daily Mail about the takeover, his decade since and the club's future.

His interview with Ian Herbert has been published in full below with kind permission from its publisher.

The story of how Steve Parish's 500-word post on a Crystal Palace fans' forum wound up making him owner of the club reflects the powerful, sometimes wildly uncontrollable forces at work in football. At times, the experience has been akin to driving one of the Porsche 911s he used to race.

It was precisely 10 years ago on Monday, a searingly hot Bank Holiday Monday as he remembers it. The club had been bust for some time, so utterly devoid of cash that the players who turned up for the drive down to Plymouth for one game found there was no bus. 

"The company hadn't been paid from the previous trip," one of those players recalls. "Someone had to make a phone call."

The company which owned Palace's ground, Rock Investments, was bust. That company's bank, HBoS, was bust and Parish was left to convince Lloyds, who had taken control, that he wanted to save the club, yet had to own the ground too if he were to make a go of it. 

It was perhaps a sign of [the] times that they assumed he must be a shark, buying the club as a blind, to get his hands on lucrative south London land to sell for development.

"So I issued a statement," he relates. "Saying I really wanted to do this but there was no way unless I could buy the ground. There's just no future for the club without a stadium, no way of making a go of it financially. I'd just have been buying the right to play in the league. A brand. A badge.

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"Within about five minutes of it reaching the fans' forum it was on Sky Sports News, on the ticker at the top. I thought: 'Wow. That's the power of football and the media.'"

He awoke the next morning to hear there were 3,000 Crystal Palace fans protesting outside Lloyds' offices on London's Gresham Street. 

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"There's this apocryphal thing where I was supposed to be in the building negotiating," the 54-year-old Chairman says in an absorbing Zoom call of an hour and more, in which he traces the course of his decade at the helm. 

"I don't know where they made that connection. I was at home. But I imagine these hundreds of people bouncing up and down outside Lloyds' headquarters and someone opened the curtains and asked what's going [on]. Then I got a phone call to say: 'Let's have a conversation.'"

Palace's fans weren't the only ones influencing the course of their club's history at that time. Liverpool's supporters' protests earned themselves a place on the front page of the Wall Street Journal before New England Sports Ventures, owned by John W Henry, replaced Tom Hicks and George Gillett at Liverpool.

But though Parish is wealthy - the advertising company he'd built, TAG, was by then a multi-national employing 2,800 people in 13 countries - he did not have Henry's fortune. He'd persuaded three other individuals, Stephen Browett, Martin Long and Jeremy Hosking, to join him in a rescue of the club which was only ever meant to be a temporary measure. The four of them didn't have a shareholders' agreement. He'd never even met Browett before walking into his offices and proposing the idea.

"We didn't have a piece of paper between us," Parish says. "I said: 'Look, we'll all have a quarter of it each and we'll all put the same amount of money in and don't worry about it - I'll work out how we move it on to someone else.'"

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It was the advertising business he ended up selling. Football got him that way. Not long after the four had negotiated the £3.5m deal with Lloyds for the ground - with heavy 'embarrassment' clauses if houses were built on it - Parish crashed his Porsche at Oulton Park, Cheshire, and broke his collar bone. 

That seems to encapsulate how [the] experience of piloting a football club has felt at times, though those familiar with those 2010 days describe his confidence to accept and even invite challenge to any of his preconceived notions.

"There's a lot of defending your own turf in football," says one. "He wasn't interested in that. He was self-sustained enough to accept he didn't know much. He embraced contrary views. There was a creative energy about that." 

If things had gone to plan - and they very nearly did - Eddie Howe would have been his second manager. Parish went to bed one night in January 2011 expecting to announce the then 33-year-old's arrival from Bournemouth the next day. Again, he awoke to unanticipated news. 

"Suddenly it had all changed and he was going to Burnley." Dougie Freedman, the 36-year-old caretaker who'd never managed a club, was the incandescent one. "I'd never actually seen him angry," says Parish. 

"'Why did you think I can't do what Eddie Howe does? Why is Eddie Howe better than me? Yes he has done the job, Steve, but I know south London. It's different, right? It's different. What I don't know I make up for in knowing this club.' He was itching to be a manager." Parish hired him.

What Parish finds most sublime about The Last Dance, the Netflix series which chronicles an ageing Chicago Bulls team's pursuit of a sixth NBA title, is the way that the franchise thrives on the conflicts between the players and the front office - the management - who have decided it's time to rebuild and get some value for some of the current team. 

"It's just accepted that they want different things," he says. "Michael Jordan understands [general manager] Jerry Krause wants to move on Scottie Pippen and get some value from him. He gets it. He's a smart guy. But he wants to win another title.

"We had that tension, Dougie and I. I was personally limited in the money I had to throw at it. I had seen so many people incur severe financial hardship by owning Crystal Palace. I had a lot of lessons in how not to do it. I would have considered myself very, very stupid to make the same mistake. That made me very, very reticent about spending money. I mean everyone is losing money at that time.

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"I realised I needed a manager who didn't understand what was not possible. I needed a young manager in those circumstances. And what he taught me! We were two young people, really, at the time, who were novices. He was a novice manager. I was a novice owner. And we didn't have any money. It was the best fun. He taught me everything. What you don't understand, really, is the power of the group. 

"Individual talent, which is all I was interested in when I arrived, will only get you so far."

It was around the same time that Parish, looking for a sense of how to develop a then wretched, careworn Selhurst Park, visited Mainz 05 in the west of Germany to seek the counsel of venerable president Harald Strutz and left the place with a defining piece [of] wisdom about what to look for when hiring a manager.

"He told me: 'You know what you want?'", Parish recalls. "'You want them to care ever such a little bit about your club. In the end they will care about their career. But you need one that cares about your club and you.'" 

Freedman did care about his career. He left for Bolton having put Palace on course for promotion to the Premier League. But Palace coursed through his veins, too, as it did Ian Holloway, who succeeded him.

The course of football games is harder to manage than people. The two occasions when Palace tried to move on from the functional style Freedman first embedded have brought the crisis points of the past 10 years.

When Holloway, who couldn't live with the lack of beauty, introduced an aesthetic midway through the 2012-13 season, Championship-topping Palace became even better, then it moved too far and they started to lose. "Ian hated the way we played," Parish says, grimacing at the memory of a 3-0 defeat at Brighton and other losses that spring. 

"I saw him at the training ground and told him: 'Unless we put it back more or less the way it was after you first arrived, we're not going to get in the play-offs. That's going to be difficult for me." But he was canny, he adjusted and took Palace up.

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Frank de Boer, hired in the summer of 2017 after Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, reflected Parish's own desire for something more sublime in Palace's football. 

"Maybe I was just a bit bored of watching us not have the ball," he reflects. "But when you have to get more points out of fewer games in the Premier League, it's better if you can keep the ball, look after the ball." The problem resided in De Boer's conviction that the entire style could be transformed overnight. 

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"I now know that takes two years," Parish says. 

De Boer was also a continental coach, finessing every aspect of the training ground work, when Parish's other managers did all the hard yards attached to buying players, too. Fielding two untried 19-year-old centre halves, Palace lost the opening game of the season 3-0 at home to promoted Huddersfield. They had no points and no goals after four matches and were the worst performing team in Europe.

"I would take as much of the blame as anybody," Parish says. "I'd just brought in investment from new American business partners, everyone had a bit of input into it, whereas usually I would just pick the manager. Everybody wanted to be a bit adventurous and I understood that. We ended up seeing too many people and got in a muddle.

"I felt for Frank. He's a really good man. But it was difficult. I remember him talking to me about signing a player in the Championship. I said: 'Frank, I don't know what to say to you. You played 130 times for Holland, the greatest football team that ever walked the planet. You are in the all-time top XI of that team. You won every major title there is. But honestly I don't know how you think that player is going help us.' 

"The problem was what he valued in a player was borderline useless for us as a team at that point in the Premier League. And what he didn't value were qualities that he needed. So it was very difficult." 

With Roy Hodgson, the pendulum has swung back towards pragmatism, though in a way which has delivered Palace to genuine Premier League security for the first time: consecutive finishes of 11th, 12th and a position of 11th before the pandemic.

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With investment from American co-owners Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, the club - the 10th longest serving club in the Premier League - are preparing to undertake a £75-100million main stand extension which, with an extra 8,000 capacity and 2,000 more executive seats, Parish believes could increase annual matchday revenues by up to £25m, when crowds return.

"It's the financial bracket with clubs like Everton, Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Ham and Leeds we want to hit," Parish says. 

"There are relatively few clubs among the 92 in the pyramid who, if they were to get to the Premier League, can get around £50m to £55m annually in non-media income. We are at around £32m and we can get in that main group with that main stand extension. You just can't get any more out of that stadium as it is."

The potential is indisputable. South London has 2.8 million people and one Premier League club. 

The idea is also to develop the south London identity of Palace and to tap into the rich vein of young talent growing up within that area which - as the success elsewhere of Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek demonstrate - the club have lost out on. 

Last season, 14 per cent of all the English Premier League players playing in the squads came within a 10 mile radius of Selhurst Park. 'Concrete Catalonia' they call it in those parts. 

"There's a reason why we're only one of 10 clubs in the pyramid that haven't been out of the two top divisions for 50 years," Parish says.

Of course, the jewel they can call their own is Wilfried Zaha, a scorer against a big-spending Leicester side on Parish's first game at the helm, who was integral to promotion to the Premier League before yielding a vital £10m transfer fee from Manchester United, who loaned him back. 

"He's our No.1 piece of fortune," Parish says.

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Zaha's presence contributes to a supreme circularity about Palace, as they move into a second decade under Parish's custodianship. 

"We've got a star player raised locally," he says. "We've got a manager born locally who supported the club when he was a kid and, so he tells me, was on the terraces when we were fighting to stay in the Third Division North or something. 

"And I got to be there, too. I got to be Chairman these past 10 years of the club I supported as a boy. What an incredible privilege that feels for me. I've never felt more connected to this place."

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