It's the hardest thing to say goodbye.
Yesterday, it was something that we had to do, twice. The finish of the 2018/19 season brought with it the end of the CPFC careers for two players engrained in our hearts for different reasons. One of those was Jason Puncheon. 'One of our own', he was a local lad who eventually found his way to his local team, in his words giving us his best years, and evening captaining the side, his biggest honour. Our six years in the Premier League carry with them some key Puncheon moments. That free kick at home to Man City. The winner against Norwich that ended a 16 game winless run and brought tears to his eyes. Plus, of course, the FA Cup final goal that allowed us to dream, if only for about ten minutes. However, while it was sad to see Jason go, it did not tug at the heart strings anywhere near as much as the other departure. That goodbye, of course, belonged to Julian Speroni.
When the news broke last Wednesday that Julian would be leaving the club after 15 years, it was like a knife to the heart. I always knew that one day he would no longer play for us, I even expected it to come at the end of last season. So in a way, when the news broke, it was not a big surprise, especially given the last two seasons had seen him to drop to second, and then third choice. However, I had always expected him to hang up his gloves and move into a coaching role. So when the news broke stating that he would be leaving the club, it was a brutal blow. The fact is, Julian still wants to play, and we can all understand that. So many retired players tell how they wish they could have one more year, that you should treasure every moment because once that playing career is gone, you never get it back. Therefore, if Julian feels he still has something to offer as a player, and he can't get that here, we owe it to him to let him go so he can have that opportunity. That understanding, does not make it any easier though.
A lot has been written since that news broke. All the best Palace fan outlets(after BOTN of course) such as FYP, TEB and HLTCO have covered Julian's career and his departure with aplomb, and so I am aware that right now I am adding to the masses, instead of breaking ground. The thing is, for years Julian has been my favourite player. More than that, years ago he earned the spot of being my all time favourite Palace player, and so when it was asked by the BOTN powers that be, who would be covering his departure, I instantly had to claim it. Stupid as it sounds, there was no way I was letting anyone else cover this. I would have pulled editor rank if necessary, and if that hadn't worked, I would have hired a hitman to take out which ever writer had picked it up! I needed to write this article, I needed to put out there just how much Jules has meant to me(and our club) all these years. He has no idea who I am, despite the fact I have a shirt signed to me by him, and a picture with him as my Facebook profile, and why would he? It does not matter though, because he has touched my life as a fan, just as he has done so many others. In the 1% chance that he would ever read this article, I need him to know just how much I love him, in the non-romantic sense.
It has certainly been a tough few days. It's been like when you reach the last few days of a holiday, and you are enjoying your time, yet that nagging thought is growing in the back of your mind that it is nearly over. It was not helped by watching the club video of Jules saying his goodbyes at the training ground. By the time it reached its end, and the shot of Jules seemingly rubbing away some tears with his gloved hand, I was sat there with a few of my own rolling down my cheeks. Before Sunday even came, I knew that the chances of me making it out of Selhurst with dry eyes were slim to none.
The crazy thing, is that nearly fifteen years ago, if you had told us that Julian Speroni would end up not only staying this long, but leaving as a record breaker and one of the clubs most beloved ever players, we would have laughed. Signing from Dundee on the 13th July 2004, Julian became the latest of a long line of goalies who were trying to do the impossible, and be the long term replacement for Nigel Martyn. Nigel had left in 1996 after 7 years excellent service, and when he did, we just did not have a ready replacement for him. Several players tried, and failed, to fill those gloves, including the likes of Kevin Miller, Chris Day and Carlo Nash. Matt Clarke looked like he would be the one to achieve it, but injury robbed us of his services. Nico Vaesen had also looked a possible candidate, playing in the team that got promoted in 2004, but he was a loan we could not make permanent. So next it was up to Julian, and Gabor Kiraly who also joined that summer. Julian looked a good prospect. Dundee fans spoke highly of him, we were told he was a good keeper and he was of an age where we could get many years of service from him. His Premier League debut was a decent turn out in a 1-1 draw away to Norwich, but this home debut turned sour quickly. After we went 1-0 up inside nine minutes, Jules made the crazy decision to try and take on Kevin Campbell. It didn't work, and having lost the ball to Campbell, Jules then brought him down for a penalty. They scored, and we ended up losing 3-1. The next four games did nothing to help him, with errors getting highlighted and Jules being labelled a weak link. Come game 7, he was dropped from the side in favour of Kiraly and spent almost three years riding the bench. In his first three seasons, Jules played 8 games in the first season, 8 in the second season and 5 in the third.
When he did play, the memories of his previous
appearances made us fans nervous. We worried he would make errors, and I think
those nerves transferred to the pitch, as he never looked comfortable. He was seen as a liability, and so when Kiraly
left and the starting berth fell back to Jules in his fourth season, not many
were thrilled. This, however, was when we first saw the character of the man.
He could have folded, he could have wilted under the pressure and become just
another failed attempt to replace Nigel Martyn. Instead he worked his socks
off, he remained truly professional and he waited for his chance. When it came,
Jules grabbed it with both gloved hands. In that season he was an ever present
in the league, with two cup appearances taking his total to 48 appearances.
What a turn around for a man who had mustered a total of 21 appearances in his
previous 3 seasons. This season we finally saw the quality of Jules that Dundee
fans had enjoyed so much. It was the turning point for all of us. Jules went
from being a bench warmer to the first
name on the team sheet, and for us we went from worrying about him playing, to
rejoicing at the fact that he wore our shirt. That year Jules earned himself a
new three year deal, and his first Player of the Year award. Funny how things
can change in football huh?
after year, the bond between player and club, player and fans, continued to
grow. Those early years were rightfully forgotten about, and game after game we
sung Jules' name as he performed miracles on the pitch. Jules won the Player of
the Year award for the next two seasons, becoming the first player to win it in
three consecutive years. The last of
those years saw the departure of Simon Jordan as we fell into another
administration. Warnock soon followed out the door, along with some player
departures and a ten point deduction. That was the year we survived on the last
day at Hillsborough, a day I will never forget. It was the day, following
several difficult months, when a group of unpaid players etched their names
into Palace folklore forever. They cared as much as we cared. They fought until
the bitter end with everything they had, and they kept us alive. Losing in
Sheffield wouldn't have just meant relegation, it may well have been the very
end of the club. They saved us that day, before Parish and Co then finished the
rescue job. Jules was one of those players. That summer though saw the likes of
Clint Hill and Shaun Derry leave, while Jules was entering the last year of his
contract. Not for the first time, Jules was attracting interest from elsewhere,
deservedly so, and we all feared he would leave. I remember that as Christmas
approached, most of us fans were in agreement that Jules was the best player at
the club, and that we were just waiting for his departure to be announced. So
when the news broke on December 10th 2010 that Jules had signed a new deal, for
the first time in a long time, we felt like winners. Here was a player who was
the best of us, who could have gone anywhere, and yet he chose to stay. Having
lost so many assets over the years, for Jules to make the choice to stay, it
just endeared him to us even more.
The crazy thing with Jules, is that just when you think he can't do anymore, he finds a way to immortalise himself in a new way. I have lost count of how many times Jules has saved us over the years, but I do know the number would be high. Two of the most spectacular, important and amazing ones however came in the 2013 play-offs. The first came at the Amex. With the game tied at 0-0, following a 0-0 draw at Selhurst, Ashley Barnes broke free into our box and looked nailed on to score. He struck the ball and we could only watch as it passed Speroni, but then hit the bar. At first it looked like sheer luck until replays showed it was a magnificent save from Jules. Had they scored, that would have been it, but that save kept us in the game, before two Zaha goals put us in the final. The second save came at Wembley against Watford. Again, the game was 0-0 and in its dying embers when the ball fell to Troy Deeney completely open in the box. It was bouncing towards goal, and Deeney need only get a toe on it to put Watford ahead. Then out of nowhere a diving Jules got a hand to it and palmed the ball away from Deeney's feet. I was in the front row, watching this in awe firsthand. Wilf would then win the penalty that Kevin Phillips expertly converted, and our Premier League journey began. Jules played such a massive part in that promotion, and not conceding a goal throughout the Play-Offs emphasised this.
Still, Jules and his star performances had not finished here. Our first season up started as a bit of a mess. Struggling performances put us in the bottom three and saw Ian Holloway depart. The arrival of Tony Pulis brought with it a more rigid defensive unit, which would only help Jules. The arrival of Wayne Hennessey in January looked ominous at first, but it too served to only help Jules. From the stands, the threat of competition seemed to push Jules to an even higher level, and he was outstanding for the rest of the season. So much so, that he would end up winning his fourth Player of the Year award that summer. Sadly though, as the club established itself in the top flight, it has also brought about the slow end of Jules as our first choice keeper. However, the footballing Gods were not done with him yet, and continued to shine down upon him to help complete his legendary career.
In February 2015, Jules would equal John Jackson's league
appearances record of 347 against Arsenal. However the next two seasons saw him
become a mere spectator, as in 2015/16 he made just two appearances, while in
2016/17 he made none in the league and 2 in the cup. That latter season did see
Jules overtake Jackson for all time appearances by a Goalie, but saw him fall
agonisingly short of 400. It looked as though he would never reach it, but
injury to Wayne, and excellent performances when called upon, saw Jules make 13
appearances last season, enabling him to join the 400 club and pull level with
Nigel Martyn for the clean sheet record of 111. With the arrival of Vicente
Guaita last summer, Jules stopped making the bench, he stopped being part of
the match day warm up for keepers and it looked like we would never see him
play again. Then in January, injury struck both Guaita and Wayne within a
matter of days, and Julian's services were required once more. With a trip to
Anfield to face the goal machine that was Liverpool up next, most teams would
shreek with horror that their third choice keeper was having to play. Not us.
Palace fans everywhere rejoiced that our true legend would be between the
sticks once more, and it actually created a buzz of excitement. I was there,
and it was an honour to get to see him play one more time. At half time, he was
keeping a clean sheet too. The shame of it, was that we was blamed for
Liverpool's third, and I hated the thought of that being the final memory of
his playing career. Thankfully, it did not end that way. One week later, Jules
played the FA Cup game against Spurs at Selhurst. How fitting that his final
game was at Selhurst Park. He also made a spectacular double save in the first
half. The most fitting of all though, was that Jules kept a clean sheet, and in
doing so, reached 112 clean sheets, taking the record all for himself. That was
the end befitting of a legend, that was the way that Jules deserved to finish
his playing days with us.
When it comes to Jules, the stats don't lie. Record appearance maker as a goalie with 405 appearances, the 4th highest for any player over all. Record for clean sheets with 112. Record for Player of the Year awards with 4. 15 years at the club. The stats are there, but when it comes to Jules, it isn't just the stats that tell the story of the man. I have never heard anyone say a bad word about him. When you hear from the players, staff and managers that have worked with him, they all speak of him in the highest regard. Any fan who has had the honour of meeting him, says exactly the same. They don't just tell you about a quality player, they tell you about a quality man. They tell you about a man who is a true gentleman, a man who is kind, caring and considerate. He is always accommodating, sharing his precious time with our fans, and representing the club with dignity and respect whenever called upon. Julian Speroni isn't just a Crystal Palace player, he IS Crystal Palace.
This football club, everyone who works for it and everyone who supports it, loves Julian Speroni. What makes that love stronger, is that it is 100% reciprocated. Jules has more than once spoken of his adoration for the club, and the place it has within his heart. He took it upon himself to make sure new signings knew what the club meant to so many people. He understands us, and we understand him. If you need any reassurance as to his feelings, just watch his goodbye speech again. He struggled to speak, the sound of raw sadness and emotion evident in his voice. With every word, you could tell he was fighting back the tears and as I recorded it, I was doing the same. In the end he had to just stop, the tears now evident even from up in the Holmesdale, and once again, I was doing the same.
I will admit, the thought of him playing for someone else, it kills me a little. He is OUR Speroni, no one elses. It will happen though, and all I can do is hope that he returns to us in a coaching capacity. For now though, life goes on without him, and the plans to erect a statue in his honour better be underway!
The fact is, in losing Jules, we didn't just lose our keeper, we lost a part of our football club, a part of us. He will never be forgotten, he will never be surpassed, and he will forever be one of us.
So Julian, we wish you the very best of luck in your next step, and we hope to see you back soon. You will always have a place at our football club, as you will always a place in our hearts.
Manos de Dios.