Bert Saltoun provides us with a retrospective of Julian Speroni's career. A player whose experience is an example of how you should never give up.
The 1997/98 season was nothing but farcical for Crystal Palace Football Club. Talk of a takeover by a local multimillionaire culminated with the arrival of Italian superstar Atillio Lombardo and the fans dared to dream as the newspapers linked us with the likes of Maradona and Paul Gascoigne. Lombardo turned out to be the only superstar signed that season and was eventually installed as caretaker manager. This in turn led to the signing of Patrizio Billio and Ivano Bonetti. Whilst the names may sound exotic, both players made a total of 5 first team appearances between them. Billio had arrived from AC Milan's reserves and was a lightweight and nondescript midfielder whilst Bonetti was already well known to English football fans having previously lined up for both Tranmere Rovers and Grimsby, where he suffered a fractured cheekbone having had a plate of chicken thrown at him by manager Brian Laws. However, despite making only two first team appearances, Bonetti still indirectly and unwittingly made a positive and lasting contribution to our club and one for which we should be forever grateful.
When 22 year old Julian Speroni made his professional debut for Argentine second tier side Platense, it's unlikely that he had any idea that within a matter of months he would be lining up alongside national hero Claudio Caniggia. And it's even more unlikely that he had any idea that this would happen in a small city in the east of Scotland. Desperate to leave Platense when the fans stormed the dressing room armed with weapons and aggression, Speroni's potential was brought to the attention of Bonetti, who was now manager of Dundee in the Scottish Premier League. Due to Julian's Italian heritage, he was entitled to an EU passport and this was soon arranged and he arrived at the beginning of the 2000-2001 season. Bonetti's connections within the game allowed the unlikely marriage of this small Scottish club with faded superstars such as Caniggia, Beto Carranza and Temuri Ketsbaia. However, the signing of such superstars didn't guarantee success, and Caniggia was soon off to Glasgow Rangers with Bonetti eventually being sacked in July 2002. Jules stayed with the club as first choice keeper and a string of brilliant performances soon brought his potential to the attention of Premier League scouts.
The 2002/03 season had seen Palace go from relegation certainties to scraping the play-offs within a few months, the arrival of Iain Dowie as an impact manager being the catalyst to this. Arguably the area where the club had suffered most for this campaign was between the sticks. Matt Clarke had signed a year previously with a reputation as a potential England keeper but suffered a back injury which would eventually end his career, and his understudy between the sticks, Cedric Berthelin, who'd arrived on a free from Luton was clearly lacking at Championship level and the club achieved promotion by utilising the loan marker. First to arrive was Norwegian Thomas Myrhe from Sunderland and when his loan finished he was replaced with Birmingham City's Belgian stopper Nico Vaesen.
Circumstances dictated that neither keeper would sign for the club on a full time basis and Palace went into their first season in the top flight for seven years without a first choice keeper on the books and a £750k fee was quickly agreed with Dundee for Jules and he was soon followed by Hungarian international Gabor Kiraly who arrived from Hertha Berlin on a free transfer. With both players impressing in pre-season, it was Jules who got the final nod and he lined up in the number 1 jersey away at Norwich for the season opener where he made a solid if unspectacular debut. Sadly, the following game at home to Everton marked the beginning of the end for Jules in this Premier League season when he gave away a penalty having fouled Toffees striker Kevin Campbell after he'd given away possession with his own poor clearance. Consecutive defeats against Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Manchester City followed with Jules failing to assert himself in any of these games and Dowie eventually ran out of patience, choosing Gabor Kiraly for the 1-1 away draw at Villa where we picked up our first point of the season. Three clean sheets in the following four games saw Kiraly keep the jersey for the rest of the season and Jules was banished to the sidelines, his Palace career in tatters.
The following season saw Kiraly keep the jersey as we narrowly missed out on promotion via the play offs and Dowie departed at the end of the season. Dowie's replacement, former Palace winger Peter Taylor arrived with a reputation as a former England Under 21 boss with a track record of bringing through young players and one of his first signings was Barnsley's England Under 20 keeper Scott Flinders. After starting the season with Kiraly between the sticks, Taylor recalled Flinders from a loan spell at Gillingham and installed him as number one for the next two games where he cemented his reputation as one of the worst keepers ever to (dis)grace Selhurst Park by letting in seven weak goals.
It was around this time that Taylor told Jules that there was no future for him at the club and that he'd be best served with a move elsewhere and this was illustrated by Taylor bringing in Everton's Iain Turner on loan when Kiraly was unavailable, rather than giving Jules another chance. But Jules never once complained. Never once asked to be transfer listed. Never once went moaning to the media, which is what most modern players do. He simply worked on his game in the reserves and aimed to be a better player. Kiraly left at the end of the season and the following campaign saw Jules back between the sticks where his performances showed a slow but steady improvement.
However, it wasn't until the woefully incompetent Taylor was replaced by Neil Warnock in October that Jules started to show just what a fine keeper he had become. The signings of Clint Hill and Shaun Derry, along with the regular inclusion in the side of Portuguese centre half Jose Fonte saw a complete transformation in the Palace defence brought a new found confidence across the backline and this clearly had a positive effect on Jules as he looked a completely different keeper to the one who had been caught out on the edge of his area some three years previously. A string of wonder saves coupled with the tightest defence we'd had for many a year saw Palace once again go from relegation contenders to the play offs and the club could be considered unlucky not to make the top flight again after a narrow defeat to Bristol City.
The following season turned out to be an anticlimax. One of Bristol City's stars of that play-off semi, Nick Carle, had arrived at Selhurst as our only big money signing. This confused much of the Selhurst faithful as he was by no means a Warnock player. Other signings were either lower division hopefuls or free transfers looking to re-establish themselves and we never really looked like making a promotion push, finishing the season in a disappointing 15th position in the table. In hindsight, perhaps the signs of what was about to happen to our club were there as we often relied on inadequate loans and free transfers just to make up the numbers. But the Chairman told us everything was ok and we went into the following campaign with a misplaced confidence.
The events of the 2009/2010 campaign and our administration are well documented and I am not going to go into them here in any great detail. But it was this season, this moment, this sequence of events, that saw Julian Speroni go from "good player" to "club legend". After the treatment he'd received from Dowie and Taylor earlier in his career, Jules would have been quite within his rights to leave. Players were receiving their salaries late and there was no shortage of admirers where Jules was concerned.
After his cup run had ended, the money obsessed and narcissistic Neil Warnock was soon off to QPR and it was feared that Jules would eventually join him. At this time QPR were spending money like water and it was the compensation we received for Warnock that allowed the club to stay afloat until the end of the season and that fateful day at Hillsborough. After that there was a further battle to keep the club alive in the close season and the administrator, Brendan Guilfoyle, whose narcissism and sense of self importance dwarfed even that of Warnock, started making noises about selling Jules to keep the club alive, with Fulham and QPR waiting to pounce. Julian reacted by jetting off to Argentina and switching his phone off for his entire break so if there were any offers for him, he wasn't going to hear about them.
Such loyalty from footballers in this day and age is rare, but then Jules is a rare character. A kind and thoughtful man who involves himself in the local community and often visits Palace fans in hospital without the need for a camera crew in tow. Nobody has played a bigger part in the success we've had as a club since that fateful day in May 2010, and nobody has deserved it more.
His return to the Premier League in 2013 saw him show just how good he was amongst the best in the world and the only thing that could have bettered this would've been a cap for his international side. Sadly this wasn't to be, but it was definitely deserved. Even at the age of 39 he has shown he's still as good as any other keeper at the club. There are rumours flying round that this could be his last season. I truly hope this isn't the case. If the 39 year old Alex Manninger, who wasn't even much of a goalkeeper in his prime, was deemed good enough to be Liverpool's third choice keeper a couple of years ago then surely we can accomodate Jules for another year or two? Whatever happens, Julian will be immortalised in the history of our football club as one of the best players we've ever had, and one of the most beautiful human beings ever to be associated with the club.
Thanks Jules. What we owe you can never be repaid.