Roy Hodgson: 'Did I expect Jean-Philippe Mateta to score a winner? No, not really'
When Roy Hodgson was hired to prevent Watford being relegated last season, things did not go to plan. He accrued just one point from eight home matches. Recruited for a similar firefight at Crystal Palace, he has delivered more than that at the first attempt. Mind, it was nerve-wracking. Back in the dug out 18 months after he last frequented it, Hodgson watched as his team - despite losing their principal creative force Wilfried Zaha - engineered a last-gasp victory deep in added time.
“That’s what puts years on you, as you can see,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was sitting at home thinking: ‘Oh my god I wish I could be nervously, anxiously putting years on my life.’ I would probably have preferred to be watching that result on the TV.”
He has a point: drama is not something we associate with a manager whose approach in his 45-year career has generally been defined by caution. Here, instead, he oversaw a performance of panache from a team which had appeared since the resumption after the World Cup to be playing with the handbrake on. And he seemed as surprised as anyone.
“In four years before I don’t think I saw that quality of performance that we saw in the first half. Credit to the previous manager. That performance encompassed all the things we tried to put into their heads: you’re a good team, believe in yourselves a bit more.”
His sense of surprise extended to the identity of the man who had scored the winner. He had sent on Jean-Philippe Mateta, who he had signed from Mainz when he was last at Selhurst, with ten minutes remaining. The Frenchman had responded with a superb touch, turn and finish to send the Palace fans delirious.
“Do you want the truth? No not really,” Hodgson said when asked if he had sent on Mateta in the expectation of him scoring such a vital goal. “When we signed him I remember the first conversation I had with him. He said I’m a goalscorer you can trust in me I will get you some goals. But to be honest he didn’t.”
Under Hodgson’s predecessor, Patrick Vieira, Palace were a side which appeared to have entered a terminal downward spiral. They had not won since New Year’s Eve. What Hodgson appreciated was that this was a false picture. He knew most of the players, knew they should not be in such a position. And he took no credit for the apparent sudden transformation.
“I haven’t changed their mentality,” he said. “There is a very good mentality, particularly with the players who were here in my four years. And I’m pleased to see the mentality of the new ones. They have been very well recruited, they’ve made the team better.”
The fact is if the attitude displayed in victory over a dogged, determined Leicester side - who themselves are now in serious jeopardy - continues, Hodgson might well engineer a significant turnaround. He is certainly blessed with his fixture list. Palace’s next five games are against those in the relegation dogfight: Leeds, Southampton, Everton, Wolves and West Ham. As final encores go, on this evidence his could turn out to be memorable indeed.
Last-gasp goal gives Hodgson winning return to Selhurst Park
By Jim White, at Selhurst Park
In South London they must have wondered why he had been away for so long. Roy Hodgson’s age-defying return to his boyhood club began with the most dramatic of triumphs. After the substitute Jean-Philippe Mateta’s thumper of a goal in the 94th minute had gifted Crystal Palace three points that - for now at least - lifts them well above the relegation fray, the returning manager left the field to rapturous applause. How they love the old boy at Selhurst: even his use of replacements seems to work.
Though for Hodgson the relief would have been tinged with concern. Because just before half-time there had been a moment when he must have wondered why he took Steve Parish’s call to come back.
There was his team full of effort and initiative, leading in every statistic bar the one that matters - goals - when his captain Wilfried Zaha stretched and went straight down, clutching at the top of his thigh. Something had gone. Something serious. Hodgson, rightly, looked perplexed. And he gave his captain a sympathetic embrace as Zaha limped off the pitch, tears streaming down his face in recognition of the seriousness of his injury.
Because Zaha is more than the leader of this team. He is its engine. Leicester, who had done nothing when he was on the pitch, seized the opportunity of his leaving to take control. Palace, suddenly shorn of their talisman, sank deeper and deeper. And the Leicester substitute Ricardo Pereira struck with a rasper of a shot from Timothy Castagne’s cutback to put his side in the lead.
Hodgson, though, can take consolation from the fact his side is by no means bereft of character without their main man. Hope returned when Eberechi Eze thumped in a long range freekick that bounced off the bar and hit the diving Iversen on the back, creeping over the line.
And then, when it looked as if the game was going to end with a point each, Mateta struck with glee. Even Hodgson allowed himself a little jig of delight at that. For Palace fans, his return could not have come too soon.