This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Newcastle United matchday programme – 28th November 2015.
A lot has happened in SE25 over the past four-and-a-half years and Mile Jedinak has been involved in the majority of the highs and the lows. Having reached 150 Eagles games, now is a good time to reminisce about some glorious moments and compare the club he walked into in 2011 with the one he captains today.
Perhaps spoilt by 11 away wins from a possible 16 so far in 2015, some Eagles fans would have been disappointed to see their side succumb to defeat despite facing in-form league leaders Manchester City in the Capital One Cup last month.
Football fans are renowned for possessing short memories, but Mile Jedinak certainly doesn’t forget how victories on the road were once rare, joyous occasions for Palace. That damp night in the northwest wasn’t to be the happiest of the Aussie’s 150 appearances in red and blue, and he had taken to the field in Manchester blissfully oblivious to the significance of that particular game.
Now fully aware that he’s reached another landmark, when the captain sits down to discuss his favourite memories from his four-and-a -half years in SE25, his first taste of life on the road as a Palace player quickly springs to mind – and it’s a far cry from playing in front of over 40,000 spectators at the Etihad Stadium in more ways than one.
Back in August 2011 away games were treated with dread by all of a Palace persuasion. The Eagles had gone 18 straight matches without tasting victory outside of Selhurst Park, a run stretching back 10 months. But Jedinak’s second game at Hull City would coincide with the end of that run, leaving him taken aback by the post-match celebrations.
“My first start against Hull sticks out for me,” he said on his early recollections. “I played 70 minutes and came off, but we won 1-0. The players celebrated like crazy after the game and I thought to myself ‘what’s going on here?’ but the boys explained to me that we hadn’t won away for so long! From that moment I began to think that this was going to be all right!”
Things have been much more than all right since then. Championship basement battles have evolved into the land’s biggest teams being beaten in the Premier League, with the 31-year-old leading the way, captain’s armband bound around his bicep.
His legacy will forever remain in SE25, and not just for being Palace’s all-time top international goalscorer, or the club’s first representative to score a World Cup goal, or even that he is a single cap away from being our most capped player. It’s his consistent, energetic performances during those 150- plus appearances which virtually guarantees his place in a future Palace Hall of Fame, and he admits that the Eagles fans have witnessed his best football across a century-and-a-half of the club’s most memorable matches of recent times.
On his recent milestones, he said: “I’m very proud as it’s a club I’m very happy at, one I’ve had some very good memories with and that has given me a lot, so to achieve those means a lot to me.
“Without a doubt the last four or five years have been incredible – it’s changed my life massively. I’ve got to understand a culture, a work ethic and a way of discipline and it’s just reaffirmed to me that this is the place where I want to play football. If you work hard enough and have that inner drive you can help people achieve dreams and I’ve definitely done that. I’ve achieved all this with everyone’s help and it’s a very special feeling.”
Despite his lofty status amongst the Selhurst faithful who passionately sing his name at every game, Jedinak was a virtual unknown when he first appeared on these shores in 2011. Having broken into the Australian national team while at Central Coast Mariners three years earlier, a midfielder with a burning ambition to play on these shores took a step closer, geographically speaking, by moving to Turkish side Gençlerbirligi, and three seasons later his Aussie connections would eventually help him into English football.
“The move originally came about when I got a phonecall from the then-assistant manager Tony Popovic whilst I was in Turkey asking if I would consider coming over and just having a chat,” Jedinak explained. “We took it from there; it was a couple of phone conversations and face-to-face meetings and then I met up with Dougie [Freedman] and luckily we got the deal done.
“My initial plan was to play in the Premier League; that was my dream and what my focus and aspirations had been towards. I knew who Crystal Palace were and that the Championship was a difficult division but experiencing that first hand made me realise that things were going to be tough but not impossible, and with a bit of luck we might be able to get to the Premier League. From that day I tried to fulfil that, not realising that it was going to happen sooner rather than later.”
Jedinak arrived at a club that a little over a year earlier had been saved from extinction by CPFC2010 but was struggling with a lack of investment. This interview took place inside a revamped training ground filled with international stars – a far cry from what greeted the skipper four years ago when he first walked through the doors at Beckenham.
“When I first came here I used to have conversations with Paddy McCarthy, David Wright and a few of the other senior lads about things that we could do to try and improve the place, and they used to say to me that things had come a long way from when I’d come in!” chuckled Jedinak.
“You make good of the situation, we knew it could be better but we just dealt with it. Everyone was trying to make the club a better place and have a new start, and as a player you had to fulfil your obligations and try to make yourself a better player and a better person and it all started on the training ground.
“At that time the regime was Dougie, Poppa and Lennie Lawrence, and the way they wanted to do things was fine. The resources might have been restricted but they made good progress with what they did have and it was about making sure that everyone else understood what we were trying to do. It wasn’t always going to benefit us in the short term, but it would further down the line.”
It would take two years for those benefits to kick in, and the 2012/13 season would see the by-now captain experiencing the fruits of all that labour. Shrewd signings such as Yannick Bolasie, Damien Delaney and Joel Ward would become not only teammates but friends within a squad determined to make names for themselves. Talent and mentality combined to result in promotion.
“Even before the start of the season I could sense that there could be something very special here,” Jedinak admitted. “The whole vibe around the place was great, the players got on well and respected each other but we still had to go out there and get the results. When we started to go on a run we knew we had to keep it up because we were knocking on the door of something big.
“We had our little ups and downs along the way – there were a few times where I had to pull a meeting together to keep everyone focused – but we ended up doing it as a group. We got there through hard work, a little bit of luck but mostly a togetherness. We wanted it for each other and that’s something that I’ll never forget.
“It’s great to see the boys reaping the rewards from promotion, as well as seeing everyone kick on and I had no doubts that they could do it. That probably started the year we got promoted where everyone was on the same page and a lot of our success has been built on that, and still is.”
Promotion to the Premier League was signified when Jedinak climbed the 107 Wembley steps to hoist the Championship play-off trophy aloft after Watford were defeated on that fine May day in 2013, but would he say that is his abiding memory from his first 150 games for the club?
“I think it would have to be,” he admitted. “Playing at Wembley in such a big game with a lot on the line with the bunch of mates that I played with that day made it extra special. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite game because I got injured but carried on playing – there must be something with me in finals and ankles!” he laughed, referring to this year’s Asian Cup final that also ended in him lifting silverware for Australia.
“Some moments from the last couple of seasons also stick in my mind like the first Premier League game against Tottenham at Selhurst, and staying up in the last two seasons with games to spare are also up there. I’d also have to mention my goal against Millwall [in October 2012], I hit that one well and when it went in the whole crowd erupted and it felt pretty good. That would have to be my favourite goal.
“Football can be such a rollercoaster from week to week and it teaches you how to grow as a person and call upon your mental fortitude to get you through tough times, and not get carried away when there are good ones. Thankfully there has been many of those at this place.”