This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Everton matchday programme – 21st January 2017.
“I still think I have a lot to give”
Despite finally breaking the Eagles’ all-time appearance record for a goalkeeper by making his 389th outing for the club earlier this month, Julian Speroni is still hungry for more. The Palace legend is aiming to reclaim the goalkeeper jersey he has barely let out of his safe hands for the past decade to further enhance his legacy at Selhurst Park.
Julian Speroni’s race to become Crystal Palace’s all-time goalkeeper appearance maker took rather longer than expected. Just three games shy going into the final stretch of the 2014/15 season, it looked nailed on that he would overtake John Jackson’s long-standing haul of 388 on the opening day of the following season to further immortalise himself in Eagles folklore.
However, it wasn’t to be that easy. Rested for the final couple of matches in May 2015, an injury to the Argentinean would see Wayne Hennessey sneak in as the club’s number one number one, and it would be 11 months until Speroni was selected again, playing twice in the lead-up to last season’s FA Cup final to finally draw level with Jackson.
Left needing one agonising selection to claim the record, Steve Mandanda’s arrival would further limit Speroni’s opportunities, but at Bolton Wanderers earlier this month the moment finally arrived. 610 days after appearance number 386, he had finally become the outright leader.
Thankfully, patience is a virtue that the 37-year-old has in abundance. His appearance at the Macron Stadium took him over 35,000 minutes in a Palace jersey which equates to over 24 full days stood between the sticks, but he admits that those 90 in Lancashire will live long in the memory.
On breaking the record, Speroni said: “It feels great. You never really think of those kind of things but as you get closer to it, especially with one game to go, you think you’re going to break the record so to finally do it feels really good. The reaction from the fans has been amazing, not only during the game but also afterwards and I can’t thank them enough, so it was an emotional day for me with everything I’ve been through with the club. Despite not getting the win which would have been the perfect scenario, I’ll take the clean sheet!
“It never crossed my mind that the record wasn’t going to happen; of course unless my contract ran out in the summer and I had to leave but it’s not something I was too worried about. I hadn’t been playing much before but I kept myself fit and available and tried to take an opportunity.”
The man that Speroni finally managed to wrestle the accolade from has become a good acquaintance, and the current Palace keeper was quick to heap praise on the former record holder who performed so admirably for the club during the 1960s and 1970s, saying: “John is a great guy and it’s an honour for me to be counted alongside players like him because he’s a real legend at the club, so to take the record from him makes me really proud to be top of that list.”
Speroni’s 13-season love affair with Palace has been well documented, having endured relegation and administration before promotion and Premier League stability. It’s a story that could have ended many times, especially after a disastrous debut against Everton back in 2004/05 when another legendary Eagles shot-stopper in Nigel Martyn consoled a disappointed Speroni post-match after his howler gifted the Toffees a penalty in a 3-1 defeat.
Despite this and playing only 21 times in his first three seasons, Speroni would gradually pass the likes of John Burridge, Vic Rouse, Martyn and later Jackson to amass more appearances than every other custodian the club has ever had and now sits fourth in the club’s all-time standings. When he looks back at his early days, he reveals the extent of his longevity.
“It’s been a rollercoaster for me,” he said. “It’s been nearly 13 years now and we’ve been through everything – good times, bad times, happy memories, tough moments and great moments. The journey is the highlight for me.
“There is only Christine, the club secretary, who is still at the training ground from when I started, as she arrived around the same time and I was the first player that she was involved in signing! There’s also [chief executive] Phil Alexander and a few others who work for the club in the offices, but Christine is the only one who has been at the training ground every day and we get on really well – she is a good friend.”
The turning point in Speroni’s career came when he was given a vote of confidence by Peter Taylor ahead of the 2007/08 season – a campaign that would see him claim the first of a record four Player of the Year awards. As the club entered a turbulent period, there was only one constant and that was Speroni who would remain as first-choice for the next eight years, endearing himself as a firm fan favourite in the process.
Looking back at the moment it all changed for him in SE25, he said: “I remember when Peter Taylor took over and at the end of the season he said: ‘Jules, you’re going to be my number one’ and that was the turning point. I started playing more regularly and having good performances and the rest is history.”
Promotion made Crystal Palace FC a vastly different entity to the one he represented in Taylor’s time, but despite another sterling season in goal for the Eagles as he helped them survive in the division for the first time ever in 2013/14, everyone including the man himself thought his lengthy association was over.
The famous three-goal comeback against Liverpool will be remembered for moments of sheer elation, but there was a poignancy to proceedings. As Speroni struggled to hold back his emotions, the crowd sensed that he was actually not celebrating the season’s achievements but instead waving farewell. An outpouring of adulation and appreciation followed, especially at the Player of the Year awards the following night where he picked up his fourth trophy amid chants urging Tony Pulis to hand him another contract. Thankfully, he relented and Speroni stayed, but he admits it was a close-run thing.
“That game was special,” mused the shot-stopper. “That was one of the most memorable moments, especially as I thought that would be my last at home for the club. On the lap of honour I was walking around saying goodbye because I thought that if I hadn’t signed a contract by then, then it wasn’t going to happen but thankfully it did.”
The form he showed that season led many to believe that he could finally right the one wrong in his career and make a full international appearance for Argentina, with the 2014 World Cup looming. While he admits that he can’t have any regrets from his days in the game, he still clings onto a slither of hope that he can still play just once for his national side.
“I don’t have any regrets really,” Speroni assessed. “It would have been a dream for me to play for my country, especially in the World Cup and I thought I had a good chance but it didn’t happen. At my age, most players are retiring from international football but I still want to play for Argentina! You never know what will happen in the future but I’ve been blessed with my time here at the club so I can’t really complain.”
However there is one bee in Speroni’s bonnet, and that is that he has not had the opportunity to get the “Hands of God” back on the goalkeeper’s jersey permanently. Having broken the record, he now wants to extend it before ending his career, but not his association, with the Eagles.
“I still think I have a lot to give,” he revealed. “People have been asking me about the record and asking if I want to play one more game, and I say I’m aiming to play more than that. I’m only 37 and people think I’m about 50 because I’ve been around so long!
“I would like the opportunity to come back into the team. I got injured at the start of last season and never got a chance to come back in, so that’s something that I don’t feel right about. You can understand when you lose your place because of performances – that’s fine – but injury is hard to take so I’m going to do my best to come back into contention.
“In the future I would love to get involved in coaching, but I’m not thinking about that now as I feel as though I have some good years in front of me. Hopefully I can stay with the club when I’m not a footballer anymore, and if I’m not working then I’ll be in the stands watching the games – hopefully I’ll get some free tickets!”
If he gets his way, then there are more milestones on the horizon before Speroni is being inundated with complimentary seats from worshipping supporters. He is closing in on 400 Palace games and an opportunity to claim a clean sheet record, but having waited so long to break one, he is keen not to focus on another anytime soon.
“Don’t get me started on that!” he laughed when these two stats were mentioned. “Someone said to me that I’m three clean sheets away from equalling the club record and I said ‘don’t put that in my head’ as I’m tired of hearing about records now!” However in this day and age, with 390 appearances to his name and counting, it seems that Speroni could well be talking about this particular record for decades to come.