WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES
The fans at Selhurst Park call him ‘Manos de Dios’, but it took a while before the safe hands of Julián Speroni were truly appreciated by the many Crystal Palace managers who have come and gone since the Argentinean arrived in south London over 10 years ago. Now he is a bona fide club legend…
Players come and go. Legends live forever.
12 July 2004: Greece had just won the European Championship, Porto the Champions League and Arsenal the Premier League, having navigated an entire season unbeaten. Suspicion was growing around Lance Armstrong, en route to a sixth consecutive yellow jersey, but he remained a deity in Nike lycra. Facebook was a few months old; YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist. An unfamiliar figure arrived in south London from darkest Argentina, via darkest Dundee, an outsider looking for a home.
He was different from the rest of us; he was a goalkeeper. The world has evolved exponentially since July 2004, for better and worse, yet Julián Speroni remains at Crystal Palace: the club’s chief custodian, enjoying his testimonial year. If a week is a long time in politics, what about football? If a week is a long time in the sport, how about 10 years? Speroni has experienced relegation, Championship tedium, administration, Play-Off glory and 11 managerial changes. It is rare indeed for a player to spend so long at one club as a professional; rarer still when that club isn’t the one where they were nurtured from boy to man.
Legend is a term too liberally applied in sport, but Speroni undoubtedly holds that status in SE25. He arrived following Palace’s promotion to the big league, unprepossessing but with a lusciously extravagant mane. He was first choice but quickly became second after some glaring errors, not least a misguided attempt to dribble around Everton’s Kevin Campbell. He was replaced by Gábor Király, who looked more bin man than professional footballer, and was left with the scraps of the League Cup until the Hungarian departed.
Despite the inauspicious start, Speroni clearly had vast talent and that extra, intangible quality. Nevertheless, Iain Dowie blacklisted him, and his dour successor Peter Taylor did similar, preferring even Iain Turner and Scott Flinders.
Speroni has had to persuade many doubting managers of his qualities. Tony Pulis, proudly unromantic, never truly embraced him. Keen for autonomy, dropping a terrace idol would have been an ideal power play, but Speroni’s form rendered the notion untenable, even after the arrival of Wayne Hennessey.
It is easy to reckon without Speroni’s quiet determination, and you wouldn’t want to be on the end of one of his hard stares. In his early years in the green and grey and yellow and pink of the red and blue he remained a study of dignity and professionalism. Always a popular dressing room figure, he didn’t agitate in spite of provocation: to be de facto third choice for much of Taylor’s reign was a gross insult; sitting on the bench in the FA Cup while Flinders flapped on the field would have been the final straw for many. Since regaining his place in 2007, Speroni has point blank refused to yield his position.
The scepticism is understandable, to a point. At times Speroni has struggled to truly command his area, and he has never found communication easy. It is not a language issue, his English is immaculate, more a personality point. He is an understated man and barking out orders like a Schmeichel is not a natural process for him. His distribution is also lacking, particularly off the tee. It is not a huge problem, though is magnified by his technically excellent contemporaries.
The weaknesses don’t detract from the overall package. It may be trite to describe a goalkeeper as a good shot-stopper, but Speroni is a magnificent one. He has won his club an incalculable number of points, making some of the finest saves Palace folk have seen; impossible saves which take the breath away. He is a goalkeeper for the ages, who ranks alongside Nigel Martyn and John Jackson: Hands of God; The Man with the Frying Pan Hands; Stonewall.
Considering Argentina’s inglorious recent goalkeeping history, so out of sync with the outfield talent the country produces, it seems ridiculous that full international honours have eluded Speroni. Tim Vickery has made the point that Speroni has been hindered by a lack of exposure: having left his homeland at a tender age, after only playing for lowly Club Atlético Platense, he has simply not been known. The situation has changed slightly, given the Premier League’s global reach, but it appears the ship sailed long ago.
Nonetheless, he remains fiercely proud of Argentina, though England is now very much a home-from-home where foundations have been laid. There is blood, religion, business and Palace, all of which forms a wider, insulating family. There is no statue, yet, but the name Speroni will forever resonate in south London, and in our hearts.
He has progressed from lightly raced cult hero to bona fide legend, the winner of four Player of the Year awards. There is a palpable connection between Speroni and the supporters. He would scarcely have heard of Palace when he left home all those years ago, but he is now a fan; one of us.
Just as we do, Speroni wears his heart on his sleeve. There have been times – his reaction to a Holmesdale Fanatics tifo springs to mind – where he is visibly moved. Following the tumultuous 3-3 draw with Liverpool, when it looked like Speroni would be released in the summer, he tiptoed around the end-of-season lap of honour with tears moistening his eyes. I wanted to run on the field and give him a reassuring cwtch.
You would have to travel a very long way to find anyone with a bad word to say about Speroni. He is a class act; not monotone, robotic perfection, but a romantic figurehead for the team. His success at Palace is a triumph of passion and sentiment; patience, graft and inclusion. Big business football may be, but attachment and tenderness is still important. As a goalkeeper he may be from a different species, but he’s still family. When differences are set aside and cultures clash to create a patchwork, magical things happen. Julián Speroni is a very rare sort of man. He deserves to be celebrated lavishly.