Puncheon reveals Wan-Bissaka breakthrough session and Mourinho's message
‘Hell yeah’ – the anticipation in Jason Puncheon’s voice when he looked ahead to Palace’s FA Cup clash with Millwall was palpable.
The Palace favourite – who grins guiltily when his Lions hat-trick is mentioned – couldn’t hide his jealously of those taking to the field.
“There will be fantastic fan support,” he says, talking on the Palace Podcast. “It’s going to be… well, I wish I was playing!”
Puncheon will have had a personal interest when he tuned in on Saturday afternoon. He still keeps in contact with plenty of his former teammates that remain at the club as the Patrick Vieira era evolves.
“I came back in October to play golf with Macca [James McArthur], Dannsy [Scott Dann] and Kells [Martin Kelly],” he says. “They were just telling me the intensity they train at, and the way the gaffer is with the ball.
“For me, it shows what they are doing in training in the game. The gaffer is a calm character. He can obviously have a go, but that’s brilliant.
“I love the way they are playing so aggressively, it’s brilliant. I’d love it – if I was 28 again I would really be enjoying it.”
It's going to be incredible... I wish I was playing!Jason Puncheon
Puncheon played under his fair share of managers while at Palace. The first was Ian Holloway, who brought him to the club.
“I was at Southampton at the time, and the manager [Mauricio Pochettino] said: ‘Palace have come in for you’,” he remembers. “All the players at that time said: ‘Don’t go, don’t go. Stay.’ But I always look at it as if the manager is saying that, it’s like saying: ‘Go.’
“Crystal Palace was always my home. It was my home regardless of playing for the club. I nearly went there three or four times, and that time was the right time.
“It was a new place, a normal situation. I did feel sorry for the boys that got promoted – there’s a team identity that you can lose when new players come in. You’re asking them to adapt.
“Anyone at the football club would say we weren’t prepared for the Premier League, Palace. It wasn’t a Premier League club, it didn’t have a Premier League infrastructure. But we stayed there and allowed the club to keep on building.”
Holloway struggled early on, and Puncheon sympathises – but the team thrived upon Tony Pulis’ arrival. “With Ollie at the time, he had too many players to select from,” he explains.
“[He was] trying to keep everyone happy, getting players in. It was a good bunch of lads, with nobody moaning or people sulking. But I felt for him a bit. You get to the Premier League and it is ruthless, whatever people say.
“I think maybe he tried to take on too much. I love Ollie to pieces, but I don’t think you saw the best of Marouane Chamakh before Tony Pulis came in.
“When Chamakh didn’t play, he was a massive character for us. He’s a beautiful guy. He was always smiling. When he’s not smiling, you know someone has upset him in a way they shouldn’t have. He was always brilliant for us.”
Pulis made an immediate difference, and Palace’s form soon improved – garnering high praise from none other than José Mourinho.
“I remember we went to Chelsea and we lost,” Puncheon says. “José came in after and said: ‘You lot will survive this season.’ That was a massive testament to us, and I think that was after three or four games into Pulis’ tenure. You could see the difference straight away.
“It was very regimented. He wanted the shape the way he wants. Me being experienced, you know that in the way he wants to play he has to do that.
“The key were leaders like Damo [Damien Delaney], [Mile] Jedinak, later on Scott Dann – even Chamakh in his own way at times. The way that Pulis set us up suited us as a team, and everyone bought into that.
“That’s what got us through it in the end: everyone sticking together.”
For all of Palace’s success in 13/14, it was perhaps Sam Allardyce’s approach that suited Puncheon the most. “Sam was brilliant,” the former Palace midfielder recalls. “He’s not one of those managers that tries to talk to you all the time, saying: ‘Do this, do that’.
“He gives instructions, he goes on the pitch. He might speak to youngsters, but I never saw Sam saying: ‘Come to my office for five minutes, I need to speak to you.’
He said: 'I'm making you captain today, son.' And then just walked off...Jason Puncheon
“It was just: ‘I’ve given my instructions, and if you don’t do them you won’t play.’”
One of the most senior players, Puncheon was handed the armband for the first time under Allardyce’s reign. The manager was characteristically matter-of-fact.
“It was brilliant,” Puncheon laughs. “I was sat there eating my food, and he came and slapped me on the back. ‘Are you alright, son? Morning!’ he said.
“And then he said: ‘I’m making you captain today, son,’ and just walked off. Some managers make a big deal of it. He was just like: ‘Crack on’.”
It was under Alan Pardew, however, that Puncheon achieved a career highlight, scoring in the FA Cup final during Palace’s remarkable run in 2016. It’s a difficult memory to reflect on: filled with pride at the achievement, and anguish at the missed opportunities.
“You look back at it, and the bottom line is that no one can take away from the fact that I’ve scored in an FA Cup final,” Puncheon says. “But I look back and think we should have won that game with how we were as a team at the time.
“It was a difficult moment. Obviously I didn’t start the game, but it was about how we all were as a team together.
“A really good part for me is that I remember when I scored, nearly all the bench – you can see on the video – have run down to the corner. That’s brilliant for me. That shows our togetherness and how close we were.”
Despite the result, the experience was a special one for Puncheon. “It’s weird,” he says thoughtfully. “The semi-final to me just felt like a normal game. I didn’t feel that pressure.
“In the final, I didn’t feel the pressure but it was the atmosphere. When you’re in there, you can’t hear anything. I can only imagine those players playing in World Cups and stuff.
Wilf [Zaha] did not get past Aaron [Wan-Bissaka] once. Not once.Jason Puncheon
“It almost felt as if it was in a dream. You can’t hear the person 15-20 yards away. It’s crazy.”
Now studying for his coaching A License, Puncheon hopes that one day he can be on the sidelines bringing through the next generation. It’s an experience he has tasted already, mentoring Aaron Wan-Bissaka during his breakthrough to the first-team.
Timing is everything in football, and Puncheon reveals that Wan-Bissaka – then a winger in the Academy – seized his chance, even if it came via an unorthodox route.
“Wilf [Zaha] won’t like me saying this, but this is how it came about,” he says mischievously. “Every international break we used to play 11 v 11 between us, and we didn’t have a right-back.
“Sam [Allardyce] said to the guys down the road at the Academy: ‘Can you send someone over?’ [then-Academy coach] Richard Shaw sent over Aaron to play right-back.
“In that 11 against 11, Wilf did not get past Aaron once. Not once. Then from time to time he was training with us, and Sam began to see how quick his feet were. He kept him around, and that summer he came on pre-season tour.
“A pivotal point was in January. He said to Roy [Hodgson]: ‘Can I go out on loan?’ Roy said: ‘No, stay here and you’ll get a chance. I don’t know when, but you will get a chance.’
“Then [Joel] Ward got suspended and he started against Tottenham, marking [Heung-min] Son. We didn’t see nothing of Son.”
Puncheon tells this story with pride. Yes, he is a former player, but he is also a south London boy who gets a thrill out of local youngsters coming through the ranks.
“I used to look after Aaron quite a lot while he was integrating into the first-team,” he says. “He’s a brilliant lad, and fair play to him… He’s worked his socks off.”
As the FA Cup third round rolled around again, Jason Puncheon joined the ranks of Crystal Palace fans tuning in from around the world with dreams of a trip to Wembley flitting dangerously in the back of their minds.
Puncheon left Croydon as a teenager, and worked his way up. He returned to his boyhood club and scored at Wembley; despite the heartbreak, he left a hero. He inspired Premier League survival and nurtured future top-flight stars.
His story - not just at Palace, but elsewhere too - reminds us that in football, anything is possible. And therein lies the beauty of the cup.