‘I wasn’t playing anywhere near the standards expected of me and expected of a player who signed for £13 million,” Andros Townsend admits before recalling an uncompromising conversation he had with Sammy Lee, after the latter arrived at Crystal Palace as Sam Allardyce’s assistant in January.
Lee had worked with Townsend, albeit briefly, with England earlier this season. “He saw how well I was performing in training [with England] and when I came on I was making a good impact and then fast-forward three or four months and he’s come here and I’m on the bench and not making an impact,” Townsend explains. “And he’s pulled me to one side and had strong words with me. I’ve had a massive realisation that things needed to change.”
What did Lee say? “That when I go away with England every single day I train like it’s a cup final and I’m the hardest-working player because I know that there are other players ahead of me and if I want to get any minutes on the pitch then I have to perform better than them,” Townsend says.
“And I think at club level, in the first week he was here, I wasn’t doing that. He said he wants to see the Andros that he saw with England on a daily basis and I think that is what I did and then I had to wait patiently to get my chance back in the team and when I did that I took it.”
Was it hard to take? “No, I think it’s something that you know yourself but I said to him, ‘I needed you to tell me that’,” Townsend says. “He said, ‘you shouldn’t need that’ and he’s right. But I definitely needed that conversation and now I am in a good place again and I thank Sammy for that.”
As Townsend conducts this interview, across the table from him at Palace’s training ground is Nicky Johns, the former Millwall and Charlton Athletic goalkeeper, who launched the ‘Know the Score’ awareness campaign with his wife, Alison, after the death of their son, Stephen, aged just 26, in Nov 2008, from bowel cancer. It is a cause Townsend, a campaign ambassador, feels passionately about.
“Nicky contacted my dad [Troy] about helping raise awareness,” he explains and the main aim of the campaign is to end the perception that it is an old person’s illness. “We’re in the public eye. People follow us on social media. If we tweet out something about the symptoms and people read it, it could save one life. It’s down to us to get involved with good charities like this.”
And Townsend is more than willing to help. “People have this perception of footballers as robots, and not human but when you see stuff like Jermain Defoe and Bradley [Lowery, the five-year-old boy who is battling a rare form of cancer] you can see we are humans. We have hearts as well. What Jermain’s done for that little boy’s life is incredible,” Townsend says.
The 25-year-old is unflinchingly honest. He speaks plainly about why he had to leave Tottenham Hotspur in January last year, why he also had to move away from Newcastle United – and how he can partly “blame” himself for Palace’s plight, which saw them drop into the bottom three, although they have pulled clear with three successive wins. They face a fixture away to Chelsea as the Premier League resumes on Saturday.
“Lot of ups and downs,” Townsend says. “If you go back to last January I was playing for Spurs under-21s against Liverpool at Chester and then fast forward four months I was in England’s provisional squad for the Euros.” He recalls that night at Chester. “I knew I wasn’t getting in the Spurs squad and I had to move on,” Townsend says. “And I knew to make a positive impact at my next club I’d have to be playing football. So I asked the manager [Mauricio Pochettino] if I could play in the under-21s for a month or so. He was happy.
“But there were games when I wasn’t even standing out for the under-21s and I’m thinking: ‘Where’s my career going here?’ Thankfully, I was given the chance at Newcastle and got back to playing the football I knew I was capable of.”
It was said that Pochettino admired Townsend’s attitude in asking to play for the Under-21s. “I don’t know. I left a month later. He can’t have been too happy!” Townsend says, before adding: “There were some good players coming through. I was getting chances in the first-team but I wasn’t playing anywhere near well enough to stay in the team. So, he may have liked my attitude but my performances on the pitch probably didn’t warrant a place in the starting 11 or on the bench.”
There was the clash, also, with fitness coach Nathan Gardiner in the warm-down after a win over Aston Villa in Nov 2015 when Townsend was an unused substitute.
“Myself and Nathan had that sort of love-hate relationship where we were always joking with each other. It went a bit too far,” Townsend says. “It was a little bit of frustration and I took my frustration out in the wrong way.”
That frustration came after Pochettino had turned to Josh Onomah – then 18 – instead of Townsend. “I think it was the first realisation that I may have to move away and obviously the emotion, coming so soon after the game, got the better of me and I made a huge mistake,” the forward says.
A £12 million move to Newcastle followed and although Townsend got his football back on track he could not save them from relegation and took the hard-headed decision that he needed to remain in the Premier League and joined Palace.
“Everything was so positive. It’s just the one negative that we [Newcastle] didn’t stay in the Premier League,” he says. “I was signed to help them stay up and it didn’t happen.”
At Palace, he states, he was brought in “to try and take the club to the next level” but instead got sucked into another relegation battle. His experience at Newcastle stands him in good stead. “The main thing I took from that is that a team is never too good to go down,” Townsend adds.
“Maybe last season we were looking around thinking ‘we’ve got good players, we’ll be all right’ and in the end we weren’t so now this time around we have a dressing room full of international players, good players, but you can’t just say ‘we’ll be all right’. We have to make it happen.”
Townsend knows he can be maddeningly inconsistent – as can many wingers. “I was brought in to replace [Yannick] Bolasie and I don’t know why I couldn’t perform to the levels I am now and I know I am capable of,” he admits.
Clearly the conversation with Lee was key and, after struggling initially under Allardyce, Palace are gaining confidence, momentum and points. “You see when new managers come in you either get that initial reaction, results just start picking up, or you get the longer-term,” Townsend explains. “Initially results weren’t good under Sam but with the work he was doing on the training fields on a daily basis it was eventually going to show.”
For Townsend another significant turning point was his outstanding solo goal, running from the edge of his own penalty area, in the away win at West Bromwich Albion which took Palace out of the bottom three. “I think in my career I’ve been criticised that I’m a scorer of great goals and not a great goalscorer,” Townsend says. “I’ve scored a lot of big goals but I actually want to score more ‘bad’ goals, the scruffy goals, that will get you five extra goals a season rather than just one amazing goal every two, three, four months.”
If consistency is crucial then so is staying at Palace. “I was at Tottenham and I’ve had all the loan spells [nine in total] and then I went to Newcastle and said ‘I want to stay here for a few years’ but unfortunately that didn’t work out and I had to move to stay in the Premier League,” Townsend says.
“But now I am playing well, the club is on the up, I’ve got the support of the backroom staff, Sammy Lee, Rylands Morgan, the fitness coach, has got me in the best shape of my life. So everything is set up for me here and hopefully I can make it a long and successful time at Crystal Palace.”
Townsend hopes to feature again for England. “I am playing well at the moment but, on the other hand, Nathan Redmond has been playing well all season so, of course, he got picked,” Townsend says.
“Demarai Gray is going to be the next one. The competition is high. Everyone knows how much I love playing for my country but, first and foremost, I need to play well for Crystal Palace on a consistent basis and I’m sure that if I am playing well then I will be back in there.”