This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Chelsea matchday programme – 17th December 2016.
“I’m always striving for more”
Having scored crucial goals for Palace during a rollercoaster 12 months, Jason Puncheon is now hoping for more of the same. As is tradition at this time, he looks back at the ups and downs of 2016 and targets more reasons for celebration following the turn of the year.
The highs and lows of Jason Puncheon’s 2016 can be summed up in just two goals; moments that sparked spectacular scenes of unbridled joy after he had sent the ball into the back of the net, creating memories that will be recalled for years to come.
One has a happy ending, and the other not so much, but the scorer of both those famous strikes has found goals hard to come by this year – indeed since Big Ben struck 12 last New Year’s Eve the South Norwood native has struck just three times in all competitions, but his appearances on the scoresheet have tended to be significant.
Having been forced to wait nearly 11 months to put his thumb to his nose and wiggle his fingers in trademark fashion again after enduring a career-long goal drought, a tidal wave of passion exploded out of him back in April when he bent home Palace’s Goal of the Season to clinch a first win in 15 league matches against Norwich City, and all-but secure his side’s top-flight status after an arduous opening to 2016.
Fully evident in his emotional celebrations at the time, the magnitude of that effort is still not lost on the 30-year-old, who said: “Getting that goal and making sure we stayed up was the most important thing for me. We were desperate for a win as we were stuck in a rut and we did that, and went on to finish strongly. Last season I wasn’t scoring or assisting as much as I would like, and it’s the same this season so it plays in the back of your mind a bit and you need to get in and around the box and get more shots off.”
On that spring day, that’s exactly what Puncheon did, but perhaps he might not have pulled the trigger had it not been for a premonition from one of football’s most famous voices. Before the game, commentating legend John Motson requested to see Puncheon – an acquaintance from the winger’s days at Motson’s beloved Barnet – before kick-off, and eerily predicted that he would score his first goal of the season that day by cutting inside from the right and curling the ball home.
“It was a bit bizarre that!” Puncheon laughed when reminded of the pep talk. “John is a good guy and I’ve known him for years since I was at Barnet. He predicted that I would score that way and it happened, but it was a moment that was needed for the football club at the time.”
While Palace plummeted down the table during the year’s early months, bouts of cup fever were on the rise as the Eagles clinched only their second-ever FA Cup final appearance when they beat Watford in the semi-finals. History would repeat itself as Manchester United were all that stood between the Eagles lifting their first piece of major silverware, and despite suffering the heartache of not being named in the starting XI, Puncheon managed to make a telling impact.
Six minutes after coming off the bench, a brilliant first-time pass by Joel Ward found the winger onside and unmarked on the left having taken a corner seconds earlier. A great first touch cushioned the ball, and an even better swing of his left boot crashed it past David de Gea to send half of Wembley Stadium into pandemonium. Puncheon admits the feeling was mutual.
“I would say that it was the best moment I’ve ever felt in football,” he reveals, his voice switching to a more melancholic tone as soon as the final is mentioned. It was so overwhelming that I felt lost and genuinely didn’t know where I was at that moment in time, and I wasn’t carried away but you lose sight of what is going on around you. I couldn’t hear myself nor the stadium.”
For two glorious minutes, it felt as though red and blue ribbon would be tied to the handles of English football’s most famous trophy, but Juan Mata’s equaliser 120 watch ticks later ensured extra-time, which allowed Jesse Lingard to snatch the all-important winner. Moments after experiencing the thrill of scoring a goal of a lifetime, Puncheon would have something else to dwell on for the rest of his days.
As Wayne Rooney slalomed towards the penalty area to ultimately cross for Mata’s leveller, Puncheon faced up to the England captain and had the option of hauling him down to stop the attack. He decided against it, but is still debating whether it would have resulted in his memento being gold rather than a silver runners-up medal.
“It’s hard to take, it’s still gut-wrenching now,” he says when asked to describe how he assesses at that day in May. “I look back and question myself if I should have fouled Rooney in the build-up to the first goal. I think I was a bit naïve that I didn’t but there were others who could have done so too so maybe we were all a little naïve. It’s still a sore subject for me.
“I’ll never lose the fact that I’ve scored in an FA Cup final but it means a lot less because we didn’t win. I think that group of players deserved that. It would have meant the world if I had scored the winner for Palace in a cup final but anyone could have scored that day as long as we won; I genuinely could have sat on that bench for 120 minutes and I still would have been happy for the boys and the group. I’ve not watched the highlights back of it – even my goal – because it’s so hard to take.”
Years from now, when perhaps the midfielder has hung up his boots and can finally relive that match again, Palace’s association with the year 2016 will always be tied to that cup final appearance, with the lack of league victories during that time consigned to the history books. While Puncheon is at a loss to explain quite why the Eagles have endured a tough time in the Premier League during the last calendar year, he believes there are enough shoots of recovery to ensure that 2017 will be a different story.
“On a personal note I think 2016 has gone OK, but I’m always striving for more,” he said. “We had a difficult time last season but we put that right towards the end, and I still believe we’re in good stead for this season. Last season we were complaining and saying that we didn’t have enough goalscorers but we’re not having that problem. We’re scoring freely but now it’s about keeping them out. I can’t really put my finger on why things have been tougher for us this year but in this season in particular, the Premier League is wide open apart from the top five or six teams.”
The last year has seen some famous faces leave the club in Mile Jedinak and Yannick Bolasie, but big money has been spent recruiting Christian Benteke, James Tomkins and Andros Townsend among others, and Puncheon believes that the current Eagles squad is much more enhanced than it was a year ago.
“Looking at things, Mile’s character is a big loss as well as what Yala did for the team, but I think collectively as a squad we’re in a better place,” he said. “We’re trying to grow in a different direction by the way we play football so it’s going to take time to evolve, but the new signings are good characters who have mixed in with the boys. The most important thing at this football club is that you have to buy into the group and everyone has done that.”
With the festive football now well underway, Puncheon is hopeful that the gift of Premier League points will be coming to SE25 over the coming weeks, but he is also looking forward to a slightly-less arduous few weeks, with one less fixture crammed into the calendar than is traditionally the case at this time of the year.
It means that Puncheon will be hoping to spend a little more time around his family following the Boxing Day trip to Watford. He will have to resist the temptation of turkey, trimmings and treats as usual while Eagles fans will be getting stuck in to the usual Christmas spread – but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a bit different this year because usually you play on Boxing Day and then you play again on the 28th or 29th,” he added. “This time we don’t play again until New Year’s Day, so the turnaround means it’ll be a bit more relaxing around the Christmas period. It’s an important one because the games are coming thick and fast, and you have to pick up points because you’re at the halfway mark so you can look at yourselves and see where you’re going to be this season.
“We’re professionals so no-one goes and has a massive Christmas dinner – as much as you’d like to – but it may help things with your family because you have a bit more space to see them between Boxing Day and the New Year. We’re used to playing football over Christmas in this county, so as much as people talk about a winter break I think we’d be a bit lost if we had a two-week holiday, so I actually quite like it.”
When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the response is reflex-like: “I just want to get more goals and more assists.” Should that be the case, then there could be plenty of cause for over-the-top celebrations for Puncheon and Palace fans during the next 12 months.