‘Oh Dougie Freedman, what have you done?,’ cried Crystal Palace fans after a 2-1 victory at then Championship league leaders Leicester back in 2012, days after Freedman had departed his adoring fans at Selhurst Park for the high expectations awaiting him at Bolton Wanderers.
Having promised he would not leave a job half-done in his Croydon Advertiser column on the Friday, he turned up at Bolton on the Wednesday, and subsequently discussed needing to look after his family as the reason for accepting Bolton’s offer. Needless to say, it did not go down well with many supporters in south London.
However, Freedman is a fiercely loyal man, and the rapport he had, but has subsequently lost, with Palace fans will be difficult to match; but at Forest it is conceivable he can win over the supporters.
Undoubtedly it will prove difficult to follow on from a club legend, but the Scot is no stranger to the pressures of being a club legend himself, as he was held in high regard by the Palace faithful prior to his somewhat acrimonious departure. It is clear there will be pressure to achieve results at the City Ground, and understandably so given Forest’s status as one of English football’s greatest clubs.
On that note, what can supporters expect to see from Freedman? Evidently short-termism is the order of the day, and the remit will be to propel the side into the play-offs; or more unlikely, the automatic promotion spots.
It will not be an unfamiliar role for Freedman. Indeed, when he was appointed Crystal Palace boss in January 2011, he was faced with one task – keep the club in the Championship. That he did, to what you would expect to be the eternal gratitude of Eagles’ supporters, but his departure clouded minds.
Freedman went back to basics. Under George Burley, Palace were shipping goals left, right, and centre. A 3-0 defeat to fierce rivals Millwall on New Year’s Day didn’t help matters. So, Freedman got the gong as caretaker and consequently full-time, after joining as assistant in the summer. Lennie Lawrence was brought in as Freedman’s assistant, with Forest favourite John Pemberton pulling the strings on the coaching staff too.
Back to basics it was. A rigid structure was introduced; there was little freedom for players outside of their defined positions. His preferred option of two holding midfielders with another slightly more advanced became the default, and has continued to this day at Palace. Why? Well, simply because it was effective. At times it was far from pretty, with goalless draws and 1-0 victories ground out, with long balls up to the target man – usually Stefan Iversen or James Vaughan. Other times, more frequently against teams above them in the table — therefore most sides — Palace would sit back and attempt to soak up pressure, stifle the attacking threat of better teams and hit them on the counter.
With 43 appearances in the 2010/2011 season, a youngster by the name of Wilfried Zaha was instrumental in this policy of counter-attacking, and that theme continued throughout Freedman’s tenure. The man who oversaw Zaha’s development from a raw young man with little co-ordination into an England international beamed proudly one evening on the south coast.
It is somewhat appropriate that Freedman’s first match should be against Brighton, given Freedman’s history of late or significant goals against the Seagulls – including his 100th for the club. Indeed, one of the most memorable moments of his Palace managerial career came in the 2011/12 season when he planted a kiss on the cheek of Zaha after the winger skipped past three players and fired a low shot into the net to equalise in what would be a 3-1 victory for Palace. That tender moment was what Freedman was all about – passion and intelligence, a wily footballer, and a manager with guile.
Zaha’s development was undoubtedly down to Freedman, who taught him how to finish and how to utilise that talent he clearly possessed.
But it wasn’t just Zaha who benefitted. Palace played a pre-season friendly at Dulwich in 2012, and Freedman brought himself on for the final 15 minutes. It was not an ego trip to be adored once again, but to assess the ability of 17-year-old Reise Allassani. The teenager was awarded the largest contract ever for a youth player following the game. Freedman’s dedication to transforming the club from bottom to top was admirable, and in time the football improved. Youngsters Kyle de Silva and Sean Scannell also blossomed under him, whilst Jonathan Williams became a Welsh international in that time.
Glenn Murray, Mile Jedinak, Damien Delaney, Joel Ward, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Yannick Bolasie, James Vaughan… Freedman’s ability to spot a player is superb, and with Bolasie alongside Zaha on either wing, Palace stormed up the league in 2012/2013. After suffering defeats in the opening four matches of the season, they went on an eight-match unbeaten run, with exciting but direct football. It was not a world away from Tony Pulis – a man who would also be adored were it not for the way he left the club.
In the short term, Freedman will seek to play a 4-3-2-1 formation, with rigidity and a focus on containment, but given time he will play more expansive football within that structure. It is about results, and Forest supporters will need to accept that when defeats arrive, they will be hard to accept, but draws and victories will be hard-earned.
In the medium- to long-term, should he continue with the club, there is no doubt he will look to give debuts to academy players, with the number of first team debuts for youth players under his tenure in double figures at Palace.
Freedman’s press conferences were honest, but sometimes a little defeatist, although ultimately any manager who criticises his players and promises the earth to supporters will come unstuck, so perhaps that is the best route to take.
It remains to be seen if Freedman’s affinity and knowledge of Palace was the reason for his relative success, but perhaps having spent time at Forest as a player, he will have some understanding of the club and its history and that will assist him. With Lennie Lawrence by his side, the focus will be on tightening up the defence and containing teams. But he is no one-trick pony.