Five Year Plan has been a thing since 2003 so there was only one man we wanted to interview in our 50th issue as we look back over 14 years of FYP; Julian Maria Speroni. And we were in luck as the man himself kindly agreed to sit down with us to look back over his own 13 years at Selhurst Park.
It’s only December but already Julian Speroni has had an eventful season. He has had to work his way back into the Crystal Palace team twice, but waiting patiently for a chance is something that he has experience of. FYP has been invited into the Argentinean Eagles cult hero’s kitchen and, after making us a pot of very strong Argentinean coffee, talk turns to dealing with not playing every week.
“It's tough, really tough, when you’re not playing,” says Speroni, sipping on a maté, the drink of choice for anyone from South American, especially footballers. “But I've seen so many players complain and complain that they are not playing and get upset, but then when they have the chance they can't take it because they are not ready for it,” he says.
“Because they haven't trained properly, they haven't done the right things, they're always in a mood. So when I have been not playing I’ve thought ‘OK, football changes and the chance eventually will come for one reason or another and, when it does, I need to make sure that I will be able to take that chance’.
“At one point I was No.3, when Peter Taylor was manager. He had Gabor [Kiraly], he signed Scott Flinders, and so I became No.3. But he didn't even watch me train when he took over. He told me I could leave but I said 'with due respect you haven't even seen me train yet so if you give me the chance then I want to show you what I can do'.
“And he said ‘I know what kind of professional you are, people have told me how you train, how you are around the place, so if you want to stay and train with us I'm happy with that'. And that's what I did. I would stay behind with Dougie Freedman doing shooting sessions. I knew that an opportunity would come, and I knew I had to be read. Eventually when he gave me the opportunity to play again then I took it and I became his No.1. So that shows you how things can change in football.
“If you have a problem with it you go and talk to the manager and then try to work things out, but once you step on that pitch training you leave all that aside and need to make sure that you do all you can; on the pitch, in the gym, all the recovery stuff, everything. Because you never know. You may have the opportunity this coming weekend and if you're not ready you're going to waste it. And all your complaining and all your moaning about it is going to go through the window because you just had the opportunity and you didn't take it.”
And Speroni has, multiple times. First under Taylor not long and then again this season after being again discarded by Alan Pardew back in 2015. For a keeper of his quality there were inevitably going to be offers coming in, but there were reasons he decided not to move on from Palace.
“It did cross my mind, yes,” he adds. “But I just knew I had to have another run in the team, I knew at some point it was going to happen. Don't ask me why. I said to Steve Parish that I want to finish my career playing for this club. I don't know if it's going to be possible, because we are growing and growing and growing, and I don't know how long I'll be able to stay here, but my dream is to finish my career playing for Palace.
“I don't think I'm going to lose my fitness too much, but there's going to be a time where you can't really recover from game to game and that's when goalkeepers notice they are getting older. There's going to be a point where I won't be able to play three games a week and as a No.1 you need that consistency, you need to be playing regularly. With the craziness of the Premier League it doesn't allow that sometimes. Not just us but other clubs are going through exactly the same thing that we went through before, with managerial changes and you don't know what's coming, you don't know if he's going to like you or not. As a professional, what can you do? When that time comes if I had to take another role within the squad then I'll be happy to, but I don't think the time is now.”
For a man that has suffered his fair share of knockbacks throughout his career, Speroni remains remarkably philosophical and level-headed. Maybe it’s something to do with being older and more experienced than many of his peers. In fact, he is both the oldest and longest current serving player in the Premier League, facts he was not aware of. “Oh really? I didn’t know that,” he says, surprised. “That makes me feel...old!” he laughs.
But not old enough to start giving up. The 38-year-old’s age does get brought up a fair amount when people talk about Roy Hodgson’s goalkeeping options (sometimes, indeed, by the manager himself) and that’s a frustration for the man who still outcompetes many of his team-mates in training. “When you're young they think 'ahh is he ok? Is he experienced enough to do it?' Then you have to prove yourself that you can do it. Then it’s 'oh can he maintain that level of consistency for a few years?’. Then when you've done that you start to get older and they say 'oh can he still do it now he's getting older?' That's the pressure that I feel, like I have to prove that I can still do it year after year.
“But it's the nature of the game. Especially when you don't play as often and you get maybe a cup game or the odd game. It’s that one game where you need to perform, because that's the only chance you have. And it's horrible, really, because if you don't do well in that game then you're not going to play for many months."
But it’s not only the playing that is gruelling for a professional. The training is more gruelling still. “I think you get more knocks and injuries through training than games actually. Because in the game you might have to dive twice and that's it. In training we catch the ball probably 200+ times, we dive up to 50 times sometimes, you really batter your body. And when you're not playing you do more training because they have to look after the one that is playing, so whoever is not has to do more."
However, even when he has been out of the team, the Palace faithful and his relationship with the club has been a huge factor dissuading Jules from leaving.
“The only reason for me to move at some point would have been money, maybe go for better money but I thought well what's the point? I'm happy here, I have a decent contract, my family is happy. I didn't see any reason really why to go. My relationship with everybody at the club; with the fans and everything is good, so why would I change all that? I didn't plan to be here 13 years but it just happened.”
That special relationship with the fans doesn’t come easily to all players but Speroni has had it at two clubs: Palace and Dundee. Indeed, he was inducted into The Dee Hall Of Fame despite playing there just two years. "Crazy!" says Jules. "Especially when you see the other names in the Hall of Fame, like Claudio Caniggia; he is a superstar."
And then there was his testimonial at Palace, where 2,000 fans travelled down from Scotland to show their support, as well as the home crowd. “It was a brilliant night. It was all I wanted really, a big celebration of my time here. I had my family there, ex-team mates, all my colleagues there and close friends. It was just an amazing night. I couldn't ask for any more. I remember looking up at my family in the box and my son Thiago was there, my daughter was just a baby at the time, and my mum was there as well. Seeing all the faces that shared bits of my time at both clubs."
So how does one man manage to have such a strong, mutual connection with the fans at two clubs?
“I don't know!” he replies. “I can make a mistake, I can have a bad game but I always give everything. I won't hold anything back. They can judge me for my performances but nobody can ever say he wasn't trying or he wasn't in the mood today. If I had to break my nose, I'd break my nose for the team. If I had to break my finger, I would…and I have! I’ve had two broken noses, two broken fingers. I do everything I can to make sure that ball doesn't cross the line. I'm employed by the club, the club deserves me to do everything I can, because that's what they pay me for.”
If I had to break my nose, I'd break my nose for the team. If I had to break my finger, I would…and I have!
Those efforts have brought with it legendary status at Selhurst Park amongst the supporters, but is that a boost or a hindrance, to carry the expectations and support of so many people onto the pitch each week? “I wouldn't say pressure, no. I would say the opposite. It's just a great feeling, because I know what I do. I'm not going to let them down. We all make mistakes, it's impossible not to when you play at this level, because the opposition will pressure you to make that mistake, so it's natural that you will.
“I’m not scared of that, because they know what I do when I step on that pitch. I give them everything I have, that's what they want. They don't expect people to be perfect, the fans don't want perfection, they want people committed, people that are going to give everything for the club.”
It’s only a few weeks since the Everton game at Selhurst where Oumar Niasse made himself public enemy number one and Julian was involved in a mix-up with Scott Dann that led to the Toffees’ second goal. Ironically it was 13 years before, against the same team, that the then young Argentinean learned quickly about the differences between football in South America and England.
“I grew up in Argentina; we never kick the ball [long],” Speroni says. “We play. All the time as kids. Yeah, we wanted to win, that’s something you have in you, in your nature, but there is a time where that shouldn't be the most important thing in my opinion, you should let the kids express themselves and make mistakes. Because that's the way you learn, especially at a young age.
“That's the way I grew up - playing football - but then when I came to this country all that disappeared completely because I tried it once and it didn't go right...and then it cost me my place!
“You learn from those things. That situation actually made me stronger. Mistakes are part of the game. If nobody made a mistake every game would be 0-0 probably. So after that, I didn't try it ever again. I love playing but I understand that you can't do it all the time. It's all about decisions, you can make a decision and if the end result is good then it was the right decision but if you end up conceding a goal then it was the wrong decision. It's fine margins.”
There are plenty of young fans at Selhurst who want to be the next Speroni, including nine-year-old Thiago Speroni who has decided he wants his dad to train him into becoming a goalkeeper. “It's a bit weird for me, he's doing ok,” Speroni Snr laughs. “I just want him to enjoy what he does, I support him 100% whatever he wants to do. He is very sporty and he likes to play. He'll watch something on TV - golf or tennis - and he'll want to play. He was doing golf and he was pretty good actually. He has that hand-eye co-ordination but now he wants to play in goal and he asked me to train him.”
But Thiago isn’t the only Speroni fan, there are scores of young Palace supporters who look up to Julian, just like he did to Boca Juniors No.1 Carlos Navarro Montoya all those years ago in Buenos Aires. “I don't know how to feel about that. I don't see myself on that level really. Sometimes we do coaching sessions for young kids, and I love that - being able to train and maybe give tips - but it's hard for me to see these kids want to be like me when they grow up, but I know it happens.
“There were even young Dundee fans who came to my testimonial who had never even seen me play! Young Palace fans see me playing every week like I did with my hero Montoya in Argentina, they must feel the same way when they watch me play, it's nice.”
FYP asks Julian if he knows how many players he has played with in his 13-and-a-half years at Selhurst. “I have no idea,” he says, scratching his beard. “Someone told me a few years ago and they put it on a picture of my face. It was me with all names of the players I played with, but I've played with even more now. There were some names on the picture that I thought ‘…who is that?!"
That’s understandable given how many players have come and gone since he signed for the club, but how does the current Palace squad compare to some he has played with in the past? There are some fans, FYP included, who think it might be our best ever. “Yeah it could be,” says Speroni. “It’s a nice group of players, it's a very good talented squad.
“It's hard to measure, though, because we've had top players in the past: AJ, Dougie. Nicola Ventola - he was an unbelievable player, and so talented, but injuries meant he never played enough for us. Gonzalo Sorondo - he was an unbelievable defender. Tony Popovic. I mean we had so many good players but, obviously, because of what the Premier League is now it looks like a massively better squad now, but I think in the past we also had good, good teams, with good squads. Maybe not as a 25 but we had good players.”
And it’s not just plenty of players he has worked with, in his time at Selhurst. Speroni has played under 11 full time managers (17 if you include caretakers although that does include Keith Millen three times). Julian’s favourite? “Neil Warnock. I just enjoyed working with him. Every time I played I just felt fired up. You can talk about tactics, you can like the tactics of one manager or maybe dislike the tactics of another but that's football, we all have different opinions about that, but in terms of man management I think he was great.
“He made you feel wanted, he made you feel like you were doing a good job when you were doing a good job. If you were doing a bad job then he let you know that you were doing a bad job, and that's good you know. What you get with him is him and that's what you see on camera. I loved working with him.
“I remember when he was manager in the Championship we had five subs at the time and he never put a goalkeeper on the bench. I remember Clint Hill going in goal once when I got injured at Southampton…and he did better than me I think! I came back out with stitches over my eye and Neil went ‘nah you wait, he's doing great’. Clint was good in goal…well, technically not good, but if he had to put his head in the way of danger he would do it and that's important for a goalkeeper.
“You can't be scared of the ball. Players in the wall that turn away from the ball…it's 10 yards away! That makes me mad! Of course you are scared of getting a boot in the head but you just do it, you can't just not do it.
“I had an exposed fracture in my finger once playing Reading, where I caught the ball and the striker tried to take it off my hands. He kicked me just as I was moving the ball and caught me right in the finger. I thought I had dislocated it and tried to put it back in place and I thought 'ooh that hurt’. I carried on and looked down and my glove was just dripping with blood and I thought something's not right here.The bone was sticking out. It was horrible. But you are exposed to those things. It's part of the game you need to be able to forget about it.”
Do you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper then? “Yeah I think so,”>Speroni laughs. “That's why I'm trying to convince my son not to be a goalkeeper!”
FYP putsSperonion the spot and asks him for his favourite Palace games. “There are three,” he says instantly. “The 2013 play-off semi finals and the final. Those three because that’s where everything changed for us as a football club. Those three games. We went into the Premier League and that made everything happen, so they were three very important matches.
Palace fans don't expect people to be perfect, the fans don't want perfection, they want people committed, people that are going to give everything for the club
“There is also Hillsborough in 2010. It was one of the most important games I played for the club. And you think ‘oh you've been in the Premier League’ yeah yeah, but that was one of the most important games I played for Palace. Paul Hart was really good, he did a brilliant job for us. We were in a situation where you don't want to be. We went into administration and then we got 10 points deducted. After that it looked like somebody switched the light off and we couldn't win a game. And it became a relegation battle.
“We could have just disappeared as a club and it was horrible, not only just for ourselves but also for everybody working at the club, the staff, and the fans. It was just a horrible moment. Those games you don't enjoy but you just get on with it. Thinking back it's not really something you want to celebrate it's just ‘ok we did it but let's have a better season next time’.”
Speaking of which, Palace fans are already looking to next season and hoping it will be better than the current one after a disastrous start to this campaign. That is, if Palace stay up, something Julian is more than confident of. “I think at the moment it's not hard to keep confidence up, because we know how well we are playing,” he says, confidently. “I know that sounds stupid because we are not getting the results and if you ask people probably 90% would say they’d rather play bad and win but I think in the long run playing the way we are playing at the moment we will get the results.
“That's the feeling of the whole squad. We know what we are doing and we are quite confident we can get out of this. If we were playing bad then I'd be worried, but I'm not.”
Fans are seeing the team starting to respond to Roy Hodgson’s methods, which when he was appointed were put down to him being a proper old school manager that liked to run his players into the ground in training. “Well what's old school and what's new school?,” quizzes Speroni when asked about this. “Yes we run a lot, but go and ask Guardiola or Pochettino how hard they work. I know for a fact how hard they work. That's not old fashioned, that's how you should be. Working really hard every single day. There’s no other way. Because if you are not working hard, the opposition will, and you will fall behind.”
And that's the last thing Speroni wants to see for the club that he has come to call home. “This club means everything to me. It’s my life. It's a family," he says. "I go to the club every other weekend when we play at home, I see those faces I've been seeing for the last 13 years or so and it's a small family. We know each other, we all care for this club.
"Some players can stay for six months, leave and not really grasp what the club is really about. But after 13 years I think I have a good idea of what this club is about and I just love it. People probably don't believe me, but I'm a Palace fan, which I’ve said before.
"When we lose a game, I come home and my wife can tell you how I am when we lose! It's been my life. I've played almost all of my career here and I have such good memories, good times, bad times, but it's been amazing and I enjoy every minute. I wouldn't be here if I didn't. The day I don't enjoy playing anymore I will go home.
"I keep myself fit, I go for training every day and I'm quite tough on myself, I always compare myself with the other lads; I need to make sure that I'll be able to compete at the best level. If one day I come for training and I feel that the other players are quicker or stronger and that I'm falling behind then I'll say 'that's it’, and I'll call it a day because that's not the way I am.
"People say ’how long are you going to play?’ I say ‘I don’t know’ because at the moment I feel great. So if I feel great next season I will carry on, if I get to the point where I don't feel good anymore and after all I've done for this club, all this time I've been here, I'd be a fool really if I knew I couldn't do it anymore and I step on that pitch and make a fool of myself. I would never ever do that.
After all I've done for this club, I'd be a fool really if I knew I couldn't do it anymore and I step on that pitch and make a fool of myself. I would never ever do that
"If I know I can do a good job for the club then I'll do it but the day I feel I'm not capable anymore I'll be the first one to say I'm going. Even if they offer me a new contract, I will say 'sorry it's time for me to go!'”
And then what?
“I’d love to be involved with the club, anything really. Eventually I'd love to do some coaching, I was going to take my badges last summer, but for some reasons I couldn't do it. They have something called the Fast Track and I was going to sign up for that. Then I was going to do it this coming summer but now I have a baby on the way so I'm not sure if I'll be able to do it. Eventually I will, but I still feel very much a player really so there's no rush.”
But for now the Premier League’s oldest player has no plans to hang up his gloves just yet. “It doesn't matter what you’ve done before. There's a saying 'you're only as good as your last game'. Sadly that's the way it is. When I play I feel people are looking at me thinking 'hmm OK let's see what he can do now'. Yeah OK I've done it in the past but can I still do it? That's the question.”
It’s a question that Speroni continues to answer with aplomb. Despite having been dropped for the home win over Stoke, an injury to Wayne Hennessey in the build up for the West Brom away game meant that the Argentinean was called upon yet again in former boss Pardew’s first game in charge at the Hawthorns. A 0-0 draw took Speroni within one clean sheet of Nigel Martyn’s all time record for the club. Not bad for a man who continues to be unfairly written off by some and who continues not to let it keep him down or prevent him from making comeback after comeback.
“Can I still perform at the highest level? I'm 100% convinced that I can,” Speroni says. “I wouldn't be here if I didn't. I'd be the first one to walk away when I feel that I'm not capable of performing as Crystal Palace football club deserves. I'll be the first one to go.”