Crystal Palace's Contract Conundrum is a Storm on the Horizon

Written by Robert Sutherland

Robert Sutherland looks at the club's contract situation, with a significant number of players nearing the end of their deals, and the manager also in limbo about where his future lies. 

Benteke hands on head

The headlines this week have focused on a massive storm hitting the UK, but in South London, there's an entirely different kind of storm brewing on the horizon, and while Crystal Palace have ample warning to prepare for its arrival, there are matters which are complicating the club's response to it. 

Like a government that can't decide whether to invest long-term in building permanent flood barriers or whether to go with the short-term solution of putting down some sandbags in the hope they'll suffice, Palace are now in a situation where, with contracts expiring for key members of staff and the playing squad, they aren't sure about which solution is best at this point. 
The most pressing issue right now is that of the manager. Roy Hodgson's contract expires at the end of June and it seems the club is unlikely to extend it. Despite a 23-point total at the half-way point of the season, there have been issues with some of the team's performances in recent months which, added to the wholly disappointing end to last season, look like they might have encouraged Steve Parish, Josh Harris and David Blitzer to look elsewhere for their coaching inspiration. But as Hodgson's contract ticks down, it brings difficulty in terms of recruitment of players, and determining exactly who of the ten or more players with expiring contracts is worthy of a new deal. 
Roy ray
There has to be a basic level of sensibility about new contracts. The club has to have a minimum number of players available to whoever the new manager is next season, and this means that some players will likely get new deals when you might otherwise not give them. Andros Townsend, James McCarthy, Christian Benteke, Joel Ward, Patrick van Aanholt, Gary Cahill and Mamadou Sakho are the most glaring contractual questions, all of whom are unlikely to take pay cuts. 
At a time where Palace are trying to streamline the squad by reducing the number of big earners in the team and perhaps seeking to distribute their wage outlay more reasonably to improve the average ability of the side, offering new deals to older players -- some of whom have contributed significantly and some of whom haven't -- is going to be counterproductive to such a goal. When you add in Connor Wickham and Scott Dann, it becomes even more stark an issue -- the club will need to spend a huge sum of money to just replenish the side, let alone rebuild and improve it. 
The further dynamic to add into the mix is whether a new manager they appoint is willing to work with the players to whom they've awarded new deals. The players mentioned won't just want monetary reward, they will want assurances that they are going to play football, and they will want the security that two or three-year contracts bring. It's not an unreasonable expectation for these players, some of whom have dedicated a significant portion of their career to the club, that they get contracts that don't just keep them at Palace, but that reward them for that contribution. 
For Palace, a club that hasn't really been one for long-term plans generally, even this is an extreme scenario. It's often the case that Palace have allowed contracts to near expiry before they decide to renegotiate and reward. But it's never been the case that 40% of the entire playing squad could leave at the end of the season for nothing, with low-cost replacements in the current market typically priced at £10m or more, and the kind of players likely to improve the Palace team requiring significantly more investment. That's a potential outlay of around £100m that the club would need to commit to -- at a time where income from off-pitch activities has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It's that, or a matter of inventive transfer deals and scouring the market for free transfers. 
Ward crop
The answer to this situation isn't an easy one. On the management side, there is always a risk that if they persist with Hodgson until the end of the season, any potential managerial target they have is at leisure to sign for another club. The alternative is that they offer Roy Hodgson another contract and ultimately kick the can of uncertainty down the road until his contract nears expiry once again. Palace didn't renew Hodgson's last contract until March of last year, so by that metric there is still time for such a decision to be made. 
On the playing squad side of things, there will have to be a balanced approach to contract renewals, with the tipping point being whether the player has provided value for the outlay of their contract over the length of their existing deal. Players like Joel Ward would likely be worthy of a new deal as his on-field contributions have made his contract a worthwhile investment. In contrast, the same can't be said for Mamadou Sakho, whose Palace career has been blighted by significant spells out of the side due to injuries. Sakho's contract hasn't been value for money, whereas Ward's has. It's also a matter of determining whether the players they offer contracts to can still make a material difference to the side. These are decisions you would typically make with the manager -- but in this case, even the manager doesn't know whether he is needed. 
It looks like the club have started to address the playing squad issue this week with the arrival of Jean-Phillipe Mateta on an 18-month loan with an obligation to sign him permanently should he meet expectations. For Mateta to succeed, he will have to play games and will have to be given the chance to impress. Should he do that, it seems that his arrival will signal the departure of Benteke during the summer. One player down, nine more to go.
The season ends in four months. The club still has time to fine-tune their strategy, but it'll take decisiveness and ruthlessness to be effective. The first piece in the puzzle must surely be whether to replace Hodgson or to give him a new deal. Then you can determine who it is best to give new contracts to. The alternative is that they persist for the next few months without that clarity, and in doing so are left to renew player contracts without knowing whether a new manager will want them. 
Whatever the decision, its not an enviable position for the club to find itself in. But Palace have had an ability to fight their way out of these situations before, so you have to have some faith that they'll do it again this time.