When Crystal Palace winger Lee Chung-yong inexplicably passed the ball into Chris Wood’s path in the third minute of the match at Turf Moor on Sunday, the writing seemed to be splattered on the wall for Frank de Boer. Banksy could not have made a clearer statement than the Burnley striker, who curled the ball past a bemused Wayne Hennessey for what turned out to be the only goal of the game.
De Boer’s exasperation grew ever more intense as Palace passed up chance after chance. Scott Dann could have scored a hat-trick as the visitors racked up 23 shots, but none of them went in. There was an increasing sense of desperation as each opportunity went begging, culminating in Dann missing a header from a few yards out in the last minute. The former club captain threw himself to the ground, knowing the game was up. He probably didn’t know just how bad a start Palace were making; last time a top-flight club failed to gain a point or score a goal in their first four league games was 93 years ago at nearby Preston North End.
And so, after just four matches, the Dutch evolution promised 77 days before it came to a juddering halt as Palace chairman Steve Parish dismissed De Boer. Les Reed’s 40-day tenure at Charlton in 2006 remains the shortest in the Premier League but at least he took charge of his players for seven matches – and even won one of them.
As only the second non-British manager in Palace’s history, De Boer could possibly have learned some lessons from Attilio Lombardo’s similarly brief stint in the Selhurst Park dugout. The Italian joined newly promoted Palace as a player at the start of the 1997-98 season, having just won the Serie A title with Juventus. He scored on his debut at Goodison Park as Palace won their first game back in the Premier League and immediately became a fans’ favourite. That was about as good as it got for the club that season. They lost five of their next six games and struggled to build any momentum at Selhurst Park; by the time they won their first home match in mid-April they were rooted to the bottom of the table.
A few decent away performances kept Palace in midtable before Christmas but they went 15 games without a win between December and March. With the side drifting towards the relegation zone, Palace director and millionaire businessman Mark Goldberg bought the club from Ron Noades. After witnessing the side suffer a 6-2 hammering at Chelsea – who were managed by Lombardo’s friend and former team-mate Gianluca Vialli’s – Goldberg offered Lombardo the job of player-manager, having moved Steve Coppell to the role of director of football development.
The move smacked of sheer desperation. Palace were bottom of the league, Lombardo had no managerial experience whatsoever and he had just 10 games left to turn things around. With a keen sense of the bizarre, Palace appointed Tomas Brolin as the new manager’s assistant. Even Lombardo admitted he was “shocked” by the club’s gamble. In his first press conference as manager, he said: “I came home last night and received a phone call and was summoned by the chairman-to-be and I was proposed the job there and then. I had half an hour to make a decision and it felt like being run over by a lorry.” A car crash was imminent and the Italian would be powerless to avoid it.
Coppell, who had four stints as Palace manager in all, didn’t sound overly optimistic about their position: “It’s been like a slow strangulation where we have been drifting down the league. It was time for a change in view of the fact that my position would be changing and we had in our midst a man who has as much respect and achievement as anyone in the game.”
Unlike De Boer, who apparently irritated players by showing off his skills in training, at least Lombardo could affect things on the pitch. He scored in his second match in charge as Palace won at Newcastle to raise slender hopes of a revival. Their dreams were quickly extinguished by three successive defeats and, by the time that elusive home victory finally arrived against Derby on 18 April, relegation was pretty much inevitable. It became a reality nine days later when Manchester United came to Selhurst Park and thumped them 3-0.
Lombardo celebrates with Marcus Bent after scoring against Newcastle at St. James Park in 1998. Photograph: Allsport
With the club relegated, Lombardo was relieved of his managerial duties after just 47 days – 30 fewer than De Boer – and Ray Lewington was given the job of picking the team for the last three games of the season. Palace signed off their season with a victory victory against Sheffield Wednesday – only their second home win of the entire campaign – but they still finished bottom of the league, seven points from safety. They ended up going down with Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers, the two sides they had been promoted with the previous year.
On the day Lombardo had been given the job, he had said: “Hopefully we will have a new manager taking over and I will go back to being a player even if Crystal Palace get relegated.” He kept that promise, staying on as a player when the club moved into the second tier under new manager Terry Venables. But Goldberg’s dream of turning Palace into a football powerhouse never materialised. With administration looming in January 1999, they desperately needed to trim their recently inflated wage bill and Lombardo returned to Italy, ending his 18-month spell in south London. The Bald Eagle had flown the nest, somewhat tattered and bruised by the whole encounter.
Despite only making 43 appearances for Palace, he was still voted into the club’s all-time Centenary XI in 2005, which shows how much the fans valued him as a player. Things went well for Lombardo in Italy. He joined Sven-Göran Eriksson at Lazio, where he won a league and cup double in his first full season as Palace battled their way to a midtable finish in second tier of English football.
As players, De Boer and Lombardo won almost every honour available in European football, but their success on the field did not transfer to the Selhurst Park dugout. Neither will look back on their spells in charge of Palace with much fondness or pride. The appointment of Croydon-born Roy Hodgson suggests Palace will avoid continental managers for the foreseeable future. Hodgson has brought in Lewington as his No2, a poignant reminder of Lombardo’s unlikely bid to save the club from relegation two decades ago.