Marco Silva fell short of the miracle; Sam Allardyce achieved the inevitable. If Hull arrived in the south London sunshine requiring an unlikely Sunday salvation after a catastrophic eight days, they were complicit in their own failure. A Crystal Palace season that has become increasingly less miserable over time has a satisfactory conclusion. Never again, many will hope.
There are certain cliched guidelines for any team that needs to win a crucial away match, mantras established over seasons past. The most prevalent is to keep things tight in the early stages, when a task cannot be achieved but can easily be made several times more difficult.
Hull’s novel approach was to take the gun from the hands of their anxious hosts and take aim at their left and right feet in turn. Michael Dawson’s back header gave Andrea Ranocchia a problem, but the Italian’s scuffed, weak backpass allowed Wilfried Zaha to score through the legs of Eldin Jakupovic.
Half an hour later, Hull repeated the incompetence. There are a number of Premier League players who you might want to leave virtually unmarked six yards from your own goal when a corner is being delivered, but Christian Benteke is not one of them. “We are staying up,” chanted the home fans. Nerves? What nerves?
These are the incidents that have haunted Hull’s away travels. Groups of supporters travelling down to the game had skipped out stages of optimism, hope and denial and went straight to gallows humour. They joked about the prospect of facing Millwall and Cardiff next season after battling Manchester United and Chelsea this. Those same fans have now watched a team who has completed its away programme for the season and earned a measly six points and conceded 43 goals. Watching football can be a difficult hobby to explain.
For all the excellence of Hull’s home form under Silva – until Sunderland last week at least – that away record deserves to end in the Championship. It is on the road that Tigers earn their stripes. Peter Goldstein wrote this week about the oddity of Middlesbrough’s defensive record ending in relegation, but one thing will surely remain the same: Barring a final-day collapse from Swansea, the outright worst defence will be relegated from the Premier League. It has always been thus.
Allardyce’s achievement in keeping Palace up should not be overstated. He arrived at Selhurst Park to find a club in 17th position in the Premier League, and before kick-off Palace were 16th. On Christmas Eve, when that appointment was announced, Palace had taken 15 points from their 17 league games under the abject Alan Pardew. Allardyce’s 20 matches have produced 26 points.
Given the underperformance under Pardew from a club that had spent £50m on Christian Benteke, James Tomkins and Andros Townsend, Allardyce’s improvement has not been seismic. He spent more than any other Premier League manager in January to recruit Luka Milivojevic, Patrick van Aanholt and Jeffrey Schlupp. Mamadou Sakho’s six-month loan spell from Liverpool has cost £100,000 per week.
Allardyce has, to some extent at least, been the beneficiary of Pardew’s ineptitude. His predecessor left behind a mood that was toxic and a group of players that desperately wanted to love and be loved by a new coach. There are few better in the Premier League at combining pragmatism and personality.
Allardyce’s other trick was to produce several key positive results that could shape the overriding mood. Palace supporters were used to shambolic defeats to lower-ranking teams, but Allardyce blended those with headline-grabbing victories. Wins over Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, but losses at home to Burnley, Sunderland and Swansea; maybe Allardyce could manage Liverpool after all.
It would be remiss not to appreciate Allardyce’s achievement and ongoing reputation as the Premier League’s perfect firefighter. If the only way was up from Pardew, Palace needed a steady hand on the tiller to take them on that journey. With another summer of surgery on this squad – local rather than general anaesthetic – Allardyce will see mid-table as an expectation, not lofty ambition. Those in the Holmesdale Road stands should be confident that the storm clouds have passed without causing lasting flood damage.
But back to Hull, and an altogether more uncertain future. Hull fans proudly chanted that “they’ve got Marco Silva” throughout the second half, but for how much longer? The manager has done enough to earn employment at Porto or Southampton, while Harry Maguire, Sam Clucas, Kamil Grosicki, Andrew Robertson and others will attract summer interest. Supporters are still resentful of owners who have wilfully made their club difficult to admire. If the arrival of a forward-thinking Portuguese coach promised that their own storm may subside, there was to be no Silva lining to Hull’s cloud.