The King of Palace: Gabor Kiraly on why he still remembers Palace fondly

Written by Akos Kovach

Gábor Király, the Hungarian keeper, only spent three years in SE25 which is definitely not enough time for a player to become a legend at a club. His reflex saves, his antics on the field and his trademark grey jogging bottoms however made him a real cult hero for many fans ensuring that he remains in the Palace folklore forever.

FYP met the big man in his home town, Szombathely near the Austrian border to find out which memories he still keeps about the club and its fans, how he had to adjust his goalkeeping style to the English game, which were his most memorable moments in a Palace shirt (or rather tracksuit bottoms) and what are his plans after retirement if he will ever retire one day.

After spending seven years in the Bundesliga in Germany with Hertha Berlin and also playing Champions League football, Király was already an experienced goalkeeper before coming to England. In Germany he was ranked among the best keepers around alongside Oliver Kahn and the future Arsenal number one, Jens Lehmann. After some extraordinary matches played in the Champions League particularly against Barcelona and Milan, he was linked with a potential move to North London to replace David Seaman but a move did not materialise for various reasons. He remained very motivated though to play in England one day:

“I wanted to come over and play in England as this was the place to be for a footballer: I wanted to feel this whole atmosphere from inside the game and not only to follow matches, discuss about it or just remotely support a team during a game.”

A couple of seasons later an offer had finally been submitted to retain his services by another London club, this time South of the river, which was accepted. He might not have been especially familiar to Palace fans when his signing was first announced by the club in August 2004 but surprisingly this was not the case the other way round:

“I didn’t follow international football as a kid, but funnily enough, Palace was one of the clubs I do remember from that time, the one that embodied English football to me, maybe along with Aston Villa. I don’t know why Palace was this club, I might have watched a game on telly or something, a tiny little detail was just somehow engraved on my memory.”

“Or it was simply the name of the club? Crystal Palace? Possibly. My name is Király (which means king in Hungarian) and this might be a reason behind my affection for castles and palaces as a kid. Such a mysterious name for a football club sounded very special and exciting to me. What this might refer to? Since then I already know the whole story behind the famous building and the related tradition. These factors might have surely played a part in my decision to choose Palace as my team when playing Football Manager at the end of the 90s even before having any particular discussions to move to England.”

After almost ten years since he left, Gábor still has fond memories of Palace as it was his first club in England where he learnt everything about the English way of life, the language, the culture, which has left a strong mark and when asked, he quickly starts listing all the things that spring to his mind about Palace:

“The fans...their warmth…the family atmosphere...simple things, but strong local and blue...Holmesdale Road...Selhurst Park...every little detail! I have very good feelings about Palace. As my kids were too young during my playing days at the club, we returned years later to show them the ground, the surroundings which still mean a lot to me. Emotions which cannot be expressed in words.”

It seems that Palace really suited Király, being a family club and having close connections with the local community, values that are truly important to him. It is quite evident that even though he played for other clubs in England, it is Palace which he will always be associated with.

“I also played for Burnley, Villa and Fulham in England, but I spent three seasons at Palace. Palace is different. I still hold Palace in my heart and I feel connected to this club in many ways.”

“I also experienced something very important at Palace which is one of the most valuable football related memories during my career. I’ll never forget the end of season meet up with the fans at Selhurst Park after my first season during the summer of 2005. The fans approached the players to tell us how they appreciated our performance, commitment and the way we represented the club. I just replied that this was my duty as a player of this football club. They did not agree with me on this. They told me that the players usually stay with the club for two or three years but the fans remain connected to the club for the whole of their life. They thanked me for my performances and for the responsibilities I held as goalkeeper of this club and I understand even now that the only important thing for a supporter is that a player, whoever he is, represents the club in a way that the supporter can be proud. This has stuck with me ever since.”

He confesses that he does not follow football at all apart from his playing career and prefers to spend time with his family as he considers football as his job. Usually he doesn’t watch football on TV either whether it be the Champions League, the World Cup or the Euros. He makes however an exception in Palace’s case:

“I try to follow Palace, at least the results. If there is a Palace match on telly I watch it! Unfortunately I could not watch the FA Cup Final last year, except the last bit when Palace were already playing against ten men, since we had training or a match that day. It was a terrific atmosphere which I could feel through the screen. It was a fantastic opportunity for the club but I can tell that being in the final was a huge achievement which made the fans proud.”

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“Unfortunately my three years at the club just flew by. Since I left the club in 2007, I have returned to Selhurst Park to watch a couple of matches, but still as an active player I could not schedule regular visits every year. At one occasion the kitman, Brian Rogers, he is not at the club now, offered me an official Palace goalkeeper shirt with my name and number 1 printed on the back. I still keep this shirt very preciously.”

Király didn’t start his debut season as a first choice keeper as Iain Dowie put Julián Speroni, another summer signing, in goal for the first six league games. This was not an unknown situation for Király, as when he signed for Hertha back in 1997, he had also found himself on the bench of a newly promoted club. As in Berlin, he saw his chance arrive quickly, after Speroni had some poor displays he replaced the Argentinian and remained in the team for the whole season. This rivalry for the number 1 (in Király’s case number 28) shirt did not undermine the relation between the two:

“I am still in regular contact with Julián (he pronounces his name in the Spanish way as who-lian), we arrived to Palace at the same time, we both see things in a similar way, he is also a family man. We did get on well, complemented each other and worked hard together to help the other in training. We know each other’s thoughts, problems, and also how to help in solving them.”

“We regularly text each other and try to keep in touch. I remember once when I was playing at Fulham we just met for a quick coffee after training and ended up spending more than three hours discussing about all things and also having a lunch after the coffee!”

“I was extremely proud and happy that Palace won the promotion back to the Premier League with him in goal, as he is the last player from our side from ten years ago. He also invited me for his testimonial game, unfortunately I could not fly over due to my commitments with the national team.”

“There was a strong togetherness in this Palace side, an exceptional unity, we were very close to each other between all the players, whether younger, older, British or foreign, without having cliques or the usual trouble making behind the others’ back. I had a good time, I wanted to integrate and I got on with everybody really from Danny Butterfield to AJ, Darren Powell or Ventola. I liked the coaching staff as well, especially the physio, Alex Manos who came back to the club when Dougie was manager. We keep in touch with all of them and still know what the others are up to which makes me happy.”

Despite having played for many years in Germany, Király had to adjust his goalkeeping style to the English game.

“The technique is quite different in England compared to what I experienced elsewhere and the acclimatisation was of crucial importance. My goalkeeping coaches at Palace, Mike Kelly and Tony Burns represented the old school, the traditional style and passed on me the atmosphere, the mentality and the work ethic of the English game which helped us, goalkeepers to better integrate and perform, and myself and Julián both have very good memories from that period.”

“Efficiency and speed were key, the technique was just secondary. I had to get used to the players’ attitude towards goalkeepers in England as well, for instance it is quite usual that players stand between a long range shot and the keeper, trying to block his vision. In Germany the defenders rather ‘invited’ the adverse players to shoot on one side, letting the keeper to have a better view, to find out where the strike will go and to decide where to dive. I had to adapt to these slight differences.”

“I was also told at the beginning that goalkeepers in England can’t use their legs for shot stopping. It is one of my main skills and strengths I developed as you can’t go down for every ball but I accepted that as I wanted to do everything they asked of me in order to integrate. It was hammered into my head, so in some cases instead of saving with my legs I tried to go down to catch the ball in vain. I ended up making a rather unfortunate and calamitous move, and I heard immediately the crowd saying: ‘Look, he’s made a howler again’.”

He also lifts the lid on his habit of standing at the far post for corners which was quite unusual in England: “I developed this technique in order to be on the move at corners, to have enough pace for getting through the traffic in the penalty box, pushing the strikers away to get the ball. The attacking players and defenders are on the move and therefore they can have an advantage over the keeper who is standing in the middle. This technique also has its downside as well, especially if I decide to remain in the middle of the goal and don’t come out to catch the ball. This mainly depends on specific situations, and the positioning should always be constantly varied as the opponents pay a particular attention to the goalkeepers’ moves and positioning.”

It is quite common knowledge now why Király started to play in tracksuit bottoms. He has already explained it in many interviews before, during and after the Euros last summer. Initially he started to wear them because of the hard surfaces, especially in winter. Originally they were black, but once there was no clean pair available, he had to wear a grey pair instead. They won the match, and did not lose in any of the following nine, so he hasn’t looked back since and it became more than a superstition. He played in joggers in his home team, Haladás, in the Hungarian national team, at Hertha in Germany, but this habit was not easy to import to England.

“When I first arrived in England, I was told that goalkeepers cannot wear tracksuit bottoms here, whether it is black or grey. There are traditions, and they are not needed anyway because the weather allows you to play in shorts throughout the whole year. I tried to explain that this was nothing to do with weather conditions and was mainly for feeling more comfy. They ended up convincing me and I started to wear shorts. After a couple of games I switched back to my joggers, as it was simply not me to be playing in shorts.”

One of his former teammates, Clinton Morrison claimed on Irish TV during the Euros last summer that he once tried to hide Gábor’s tracksuit bottoms in the dressing room. He got so cross that Clint did not dare to do this ever again. He also has some funny stories to share about trousers:

“The black players at Palace were so cool that they used to wear sagging jeans back then all the time revealing a big part of their pants. Once I decided to copy them and wore my joggers in training in the same way with my underpants completely outside. After a first laugh, they told me politely to wear them properly as this had nothing to do with me!

He was already the famous ‘pyjama man’ when suddenly he decided to play in shorts again at Stamford Bridge. During that game Kezman scored a goal, the ball slipping through his hands and legs. Some argue that this change was mainly due to an early hot weather hitting London on that day.

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“This was the last time (laughs). No, it was definitely not down to the sunny weather. This whole discussion about shorts versus tracksuit bottoms restarted before our away game at Chelsea, and I said, no problem, I will dress for the occasion, and let this be. I still remember this goal I conceded from Kezman. I had a slight knee problem before the match and didn’t want to knock my knee to the ground. I thought that his shot would bounce and end up in my arms, but unfortunately I didn’t carefully secure the handling and the ball squirmed through. This was a technical error. Since then I have never worn shorts again during a football match. If I play in tracksuit bottoms it gives me a boost of confidence but obviously it is not enough to put grey bottoms on in goal, you have to move your bottom as well! And I can tell you I also made some blunders in tracksuit bottoms like the one against Norwich at home in the Championship.”

He uses about 15 pairs (always one size too big for the comfort) throughout a season for training and matches but since he has his own branded joggers, the supply is not a problem anymore. He is even considering to try to sell his own trackies in the Palace club shop if there would be any interest in them.

Apart from his legendary trademark grey jogging bottoms, he was also renowned for doing strange or funny things during games. Last summer during the Euros, he reminded the Palace faithful of his no look throws, imitation of long goal kicks and passing the ball instead in the other direction or simply throwing the ball between his legs to the closest defender. All Palace fans have their own memories of Gábor’s antics on the field. However he cools this hype down a bit:

“These are absolutely not premeditated moves and come from specific situations. The first that comes to my mind is the roly-poly I did after a difficult save against Spurs at home. My vision was blocked and I thought that I could not parry the shot, it bounced away and finally I could pick the ball by doing a forward roly-poly. The score line was 0-0 at this point, we beat them 3-0, so it shows that doing such stuff is not linked to the result. I have always preferred creative moves since I was kid, and us, footballers, we have to entertain the crowd, so perhaps this is my way to do it.”

“Sometimes this may be seen from outside as crazy or funny, but when I saved Ryan Giggs’ shot with my elbow at Old Trafford, this was not a clowny thing at all, it was due to a twist of the ball at the very last moment resulting in such an unusual save as I didn’t have time to adjust my move and dive for it.”

“When I pulled down van Nistelrooy’s shorts at a corner? I remember this one of course, it was in front of the Holmesdale. I just wanted to check whether his shorts were properly tied, nothing more (laughs). I usually use this as a tool to distract the striker’s attention, this is part of the game. Again, now this can be seen as a funny act but it is simply just a psychological weapon against strikers.”

Making his debut for Palace was not only special for him but was also a historic game: he was the first ever Hungarian keeper to play in the Premier League. He had many memorable games in a Palace shirt, his Man of the Match performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford despite conceding five goals but saving a penalty from Rooney or the Arsenal game at home when he simply shut the door.

“I could say something special or memorable from every game I played for Palace. The one against Liverpool when we won and I managed to save a tricky shot from Gerrard in the closing stages, or one against Millwall (laughs) or our last match of the Premier League season against Charlton (doesn’t laugh).”

The last day of that Premier League season was a real thriller with all three relegation places being decided on the same day. Palace could not finally survive despite a good late run.

“It was a big disappointment to all of us really. We had a good late run indeed, we had two clean sheets against teams that were better than us on paper, we beat Liverpool and drew against Newcastle, then we could not clinch a win against Southampton, despite the fact that I touched Crouch’s penalty and the equaliser in stoppage time was really avoidable. The same happened a week after at Charlton. We came back into the game thanks to Dougie’s beautiful lobbed goal and the penalty converted by AJ but we gave away a late free kick on the left wing, Leigertwood jumped on the back of his man who was with his back to the goal. It was not even a foul really, at least not one deserving a free kick. It was sharply crossed, a very difficult ball, I was thinking, should I come out for the cross or stay in the goal, if I come out and someone flicks it on the near post, it’s a goal. From such a close range, it’s quite difficult to deal with a header. It was a perfectly taken free kick, very sharp and driven, the ball had no arc, Tony Popovic tried to close out the attacking player, but Fortune had pace, an advantage over defenders coming in with a powerful header and it went in.”

“I was utterly disappointed when the match was over. But what happened after the final whistle was just amazing, all the Palace fans were standing and clapping for long minutes. It was astonishing. I’m that kind of guy, win or lose, don’t look back, keep it going, the next match is coming. But this was more than just a match, this was the end of the season, the end of our Premier League adventure and the end of a dream. Something seemed to be broken, but the Palace fans didn’t let it happen, the club employees didn’t let it happen. Yes, we lost. Yes, we got relegated. But we had to keep it going. We will come back. We will bounce back. I still have this rubber wristband in my drawer at home. This spirit, this feeling and motivation push you forward providing you with energy and positive vibes. They didn’t boo you, they didn’t bury you, you just keep it going, because it’s their club, it’s our club, we should carry on, this is the only thing which matters. This is Palace. This is magic.”

“Experiencing this togetherness made it worth being part of the Palace family and playing there. And just as Julián said when he broke the club’s appearance record for a keeper, if you don’t belong to this family, you don’t know this feeling, you can’t understand it. But if you are or were part of this club once, you’ll know what Palace is all about. And I’m really proud to be Palace.”

“The relegation was really hard to take. Especially if you take into account that Andy Johnson was the second best top scorer in the league with 21 goals behind Thierry Henry, and I was the second best keeper based on the ratio of saves per shots on target. Petr Cech was the top of that ranking, but while he had 400 shots on target, I had over 700. I was convinced that we were solid enough to stay up and did not deserve to get relegated.”

The core of the team was kept together under Dowie to ‘bounce back’ and to try to get out of the Championship at the first attempt. The promotion couldn’t be achieved due to a heavy defeat to Watford at home in the playoff semi-final. The manager who signed Király left the club, as well as the club’s talismanic striker, Andy Johnson.

“I was never one manager’s player, I was loyal to the club I had signed for. As the supporters told me, it doesn’t matter who the manager, the keeper or the centre forward are, if they do their best to help the club, the fans will be proud of them. After the relegation West Ham United wanted to sign me, they had just got promoted, but Simon Jordan didn’t let anyone leave the club. In our Premier League season the club did not sign anybody during the January transfer window despite a general opinion of the club’s management, as Jordan considered our side was strong enough to stay up which was realistic indeed based on the quality of the squad. We had a strong defence led by Tony Popovic, with Fitz Hall, Darren Powell, Danny Butterfield, Danny Granville in the ranks, as well as the kids from the academy, like Ben Watson and Tom Soares, who all became important players later but maybe it was just too early for them. I never forget Simon Jordan saying that this time he would do everything for us to go up. The season in the Championship with 46 games was, however, quite demanding both physically and mentally. We finally finished sixth, entered the play off but did not manage to get through and ‘bounce back’. It really marked the end of an era, Dowie stepped down, AJ left, Tony Popovic left, and a couple of new players arrived to replace them.”

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At the beginning of his third and final season in SE25 Peter Taylor kept Király in the team (despite handing the number 1 shirt to Scott Flinders, a new signing from Barnsley) but generally things did not go quite well for him under the new manager, and he was loaned out to several Premier League teams during the season. It was also quite surprising to see four keepers rotating in goal in one season.

“There were some changes in the air. Two new keepers joined the club in the summer, Scott Flinders and Iain Turner. I didn’t get why we would need four goalkeepers? Plus we also had the young David Wilkinson from the academy. Some changes were definitely needed in the squad, it is quite normal to have some fresh blood, but this surely created uncertainty which was further strengthened by the summer departures, and the unity and stability, so characteristic previously, were over. I remember that after our game against Leicester away, I got the hairdryer treatment in the dressing room for conceding a penalty. It was weird. The match ended as a 1-1 draw...”

“My contract was over by the end of season and I was offered a new one on less interesting terms, but wanted to wait a bit and start the pre-season training with Palace. Then Burnley tabled an offer just after the season had ended, and I saw more opportunities there, especially as things were a tad uncertain as I did not clearly see my future at Palace.”

He became the oldest player ever to appear at the Euros and also holds the record of appearances for Hungary, having played 108 times for the national team. He still plays for his hometown club Haladás in the Hungarian first division, where he returned after 18 years spent abroad. Some of Király’s former Palace team mates, Dougie Freedman and Tony Popovic moved into management, while Aki Riihilahti became chairman of his boyhood club, HJK Helsinki. Gábor has other projects after retirement.

“I still played in Germany when I decided to build this sports complex I own back in 2003 with several pitches on the same land where my father started to play football in my home town Szombathely. I tried to use and capitalise on all the experience and know-how I gathered through my footballing career abroad. Just to give an example, I was close to the groundsmen at Palace, because I was interested in how to care, maintain the pitch, to know how to better regenerate the pitch properly. I really wanted to make use of all the knowledge I experienced in realising this project which I managed parallelly to my playing career.

“Since then we also established a football club, we are the Tigers (my favourite animal, nothing to do with Hull City - laughs), playing in the fourth division and would like to go up to the third one day. We have more than 200 players from the age of 5 to senior players at our club. We also run a goalkeeper school, having kids not only from Hungary but from various countries, England, Sweden or Romania. I would like to organise trips for our coaches to visit football clubs, Palace definitely would be one of the first to visit, to show them the background, to study the process what I experienced there, what I learned there.”

“We will now develop a new building which will be quite similar to the main building at the Palace training ground, with dressing rooms downstairs and restaurants, and offices upstairs. This is again a detail I experienced before, and I found it useful to follow. All the kits framed hanging on the wall here, kits I exchanged during my playing days, I have a couple of Palace shirts as well, also the centenary kit, are the symbol of my project: trying to integrate all the experience and know-how gained throughout my playing career, representing quality and knowledge. And if I manage to achieve that, I will be a happy man.”