December 20 2004
It may have taken a while, but there is a new King at Selhurst Park, writes Simon Pophale.
No, we haven't signed Marlon King, nor has Simon Jordan decided to sell up and live his life on the Spanish Costas. This is a new King. His realm is between the posts on match days. Trademark Grey tracksuit bottoms the attire, he is of course Gabor Kiraly.
It has been a long road from the days of Big Nige, but since 2000 it seems that we cant stop signing foreign goalkeepers! When I started supporting Palace in 1988, it seemed strange to find players of international quality playing for us. (Yes - we had Jeff Hopkins at the time).
Over the years, we have seen many come and go, some of them such as Lombardo have given us great moments, others such as Amsalem and Del Rio came and went without a mumur. However it seems of late that the position of the goalkeeper, Palace managers past and present, have chosen a foreign custodian.
If we wind our minds back to 1996 - that fateful game at Wembley when Steve Claridge scored against Nigel Martyn, that it would be the last time we saw Big Nige in a Palace shirt. He had stayed and performed heroics for us that season, without complaining, but he wanted to be in the running for the England team and after 6 years - moved north to Leeds.
Since then, we have had a plethora of foreign keepers who had tried to fill the void left by Nige. Certainly, there has been those of the English variety too, such as Kevin Miller, Chris Day and Matt Clarke, but it has been our foreign acquistions which have brought us much joy over the last few years, particularly in the reign of Simon Jordan.
First there was Alex Kolinko, the Latvian who did so well in Euro 2004, a reminder of his ability as a top class international keeper, joined us from Skonto Riga in 2000 and his amazing saves were a joy to watch. But with every amazing save, came a mistake and once Trevor Francis had slapped him for laughing when Bradford scored in 2002, his days were over. A shame really, as he was top entertainment week in, week out.
Following him was Cedric Berthelin, the enigmatic Frenchman who kept goal for us during the time post- Kolinko. His performances were workmanlike and not spectacular but he did play his part in THAT win at Anfield in 2003, saving brilliantly one on one against Emile Heskey.
But his days were also numbered when Iain Dowie took over. First he brought in Thomas Mhyre, on loan from Sunderland for 3 months. Mhyres' performances endeared him to us, but the move was not going to be made permenant, due to the excessive wage demands from the Big Norweigan.
When he returned back to Sunderland, Dowie turned to Nico Vaesen. The Belgian who was out of favour and recovering form a long term injury, arrived during the upswing of fortune in 2004 and played all of the remaining games from March to May, including that game at Cardiff when we won promotion back to the Premiership after a 6 year wait.
But Nico decided that the move was not for him and remains to this day a reserve for Birmingham City. We will always be grateful to Nico for his part in the remarkable story of last season.
So there we were, a Premiership club with no keeper. The only ones we had were Lance Cronin, the youth team keeper and Cedric was still there. But he knew deep down, as did we, that his Palace career was over. Summertime brought many moves in the transfer market with Dowie netting 2 keepers in the process.
Julian Speroni, an Argentinian from Dundee, hailed as one of the best keepers in the SPL that previous season and right before the opening game against Norwich, Gabor Kiraly, the Hungarian number one from Hertha Berlin on a free transfer.
We didn't know it at the time, but we had signed, finally, someone who could fill Nigel Martyns boots.
But it wasn't Julian Speroni. His matches this season showed that he was not ready for the Premiership. Despite a good start against Norwich, a calamitous error against Everton when he gifted Everton a penalty and ultimately the win, knocked his confidence and his following games at Portsmouth and Middlesborough showed that he was out of his depth. It is a big jump between the SPL and the Premiership.
The return we got was 6 league games, 2 draws, 4 defeats and 0 clean sheets. We were in freefall. Gabor had to sit watching from the bench. It was painful. Speroni was clearly not ready for the Premiership and watching the first 6 games of the season, with errors, no organisation and a lack of communication and goals flying in from all angles, something had to be done.
On a midweek night in the Carling Cup we got to see our first glimpse of Kiraly. Iain Dowie always asserted that he wanted 2 number ones and Kiraly finally got his chance against Hartlepool. A reserve team which was nervy and error prone finally came through after extra time by 2-1. Kiraly having no chance with the goal either. Little did we know what was to come.
Aston Villa, Kiraly and Palace play out of their skin and only concede to an unstoppable Lee Hendrie strike. Never mind, the organisation and communication that Gabor showed, in 90 minutes what we had been missing for years. A class act in goal.
It should have been no surprise. He has over 50 Caps for Hungary and was revered at Hertha Berlin for those Grey jogging bottoms that he wears. He played over 200 league games leading a contributor to the Gabor Kiraly fansite to exclaim "It is the end of an era".
Gabor, born in 1976, started his career for his hometown club of Haladas Szombathely, then joined Hertha in 1997. On a recent trip to Berlins Olympic stadium, two of my friends noticed that there was a pair of signed Gabor Kiraly gloves in the cabinet on the tour there. He is held with high regard both by Hertha and its fans.
It is testament to Iain Dowie that we fought off Liverpool (where Gabor had a trial), Manchester City and Tottenham to win his signature. Which made it all the more bemusing why Gabor was on the bench for so long. Now he has broken into the team, I cannot see him being removed.
His confidence on crosses, his organisation of the back four and his outstanding saves have endeared him to us all, but also has gained his valuable points. He was outstanding in the recent match with Blackburn, where it was virtually a one man show as he defied Rovers time after time.
We finally have a sucessor to Nigel Martyn. It is hard to believe that Gabor has played only 13 games for Crystal Palace. It seems, and feels like a lot longer. Speroni's last appearance in the League seems a very long time ago now.
Dowie has signed more than just a goalkeeper, he has signed an icon. Loved by all he has played for, loathed by all those who he has played against. Gabor Kiraly (pronounced Kir-eye, which means King in Hungarian) is here to stay. He is only 28, which means he is coming into his prime as a keeper. Providing we can stay up this season, the future of the number one shirt (and jogging pants) is safe
Long may the new King of the Palace reign. Don your Kiraly pants in honour, it could be a long and bleak winter.
Gabor Kiraly Fan Site - www.gabor-kiraly-fanclub.de
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