This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Southampton matchday programme – 16th September 2017
Today could see James McArthur compete in the heat of battle for the 100th time as a Palace player. Here, the Eagles’ Mr Dependable speaks about his three years in south London, and what the future holds as he begins his second century in SE25.
It’s hard to believe that it was only three years ago that James McArthur pulled on a red and blue shirt for the first time. Just like the industrious nature of his style of play, it seems like he has forever been in the right place at the right time for the Eagles.
Today could see him complete a century of Palace appearances, during which time he has been one of the most consistent performers during an inconsistent period. Whether the Eagles have been scaling the heady heights of the top six, playing in FA Cup finals or fighting against relegation right up until the penultimate game of the season, McArthur has been in thick of the action, diligently covering every blade of grass for the good of the team.
When pressed for his views on reaching the milestone, his answer stresses a need to be fully focused on the collective rather than the individual. “It’s nice but I won’t be thinking what number it is, I’ll just be concentrating on trying to get the victory for the team. It’s all about trying to get wins at this point of the season when you haven’t won, so any personal accolades go out of the window.”
Just like that response, the Scotsman continues to be understated outside of SE25, but the stats back up how crucial his presence is for Palace. Of the 23 league games that he has missed for the club through injury over the past three years, the Eagles have won just four – not that the ever-modest McArthur would ever tell you that himself.
In this world of Instagram feeds filled with footballing freestylers donning the latest garish psychedelic boots, the man who came through Hamilton Academical’s academy system may not be the flashiest, but the Palace fans who know him best wouldn’t have him any other way. They applaud and appreciate his lungbusting runs to retrieve possession, strong challenges or timely interceptions just as much as they would a piece of artistry from Zaha or Townsend.
Back in the summer of 2014, that was exactly the type of player that Neil Warnock had pinpointed to inject some energy into his midfield. Having already shown what he was capable of in the top-flight at Wigan Athletic where he had also claimed an unexpected FA Cup triumph 12 months previously, McArthur possessed pedigree and potential, and at the last possible moment he jumped at the chance of returning to the Premier League with the Eagles.
“It was a tough decision to leave Wigan,” he reflected, having spent four years at the Latics. “When we got relegated I wanted to try and get the club back into the Premier League as I felt I owed them because getting relegated was myself and the other players’ fault. I wanted to stay for a year, fight for the jersey and try and get promoted, and we got to the play-offs and lost.
“You never know when you’ll get the opportunity to play in the Premier League again so when it came about I was very excited and looking forward to getting back there. Moving on deadline day wasn’t nice though; it’s one of those things you wouldn’t wish on anyone because it’s a lot of stress. Your future isn’t in your own hands but thankfully everything went nice and smoothly.”
The same can’t be said for his first season in south London. Alongside the recent return of Wilfried Zaha, McArthur helped Palace pick up seven points from his first three games and Warnock’s appointment looked to be a masterstroke. However, the duo would taste a league victory just once more before Alan Pardew was handed the reins, under whom McArthur showcased his best football in SE25.
“The first three games I played we won two and drew once and after that I thought ‘wow, we’re going to have an amazing season!’ he laughed. “Obviously results didn’t continue to go as well for us and Alan Pardew came in, and from then he transformed our season and we became one of the top teams in league during the second half of the season, playing really good football and scoring goals. It was a really good time; he was a manager I really enjoyed working with.”
During that campaign and the seasons that have followed, McArthur has shown his versatility by forging solid midfield partnerships with everyone that has lined up alongside him in the middle of the park, working alongside a who’s who of Palace stars and cult heroes to selflessly undertake the graft that allows the flair players to show off their craft.
“I’ve had really good relationships with everyone I’ve played alongside,” he said. “My partnership with Joe [Ledley] and Mile [Jedinak] was excellent and I really enjoyed playing with them. Mile was an anchor who sat there as did Joe, so they let me go forward and play with Punch and Yohan who are two top quality players, both very comfortable on the ball. Luka [Milivojevic] came in and had a great impact on the team and has been excellent, so I couldn’t pick just one out.”
As well as the heart of midfield, McArthur has shown his adaptability and willingness to put the team ahead of his personal ambitions by playing wherever he is needed. This was no more evident than this time last season when Pardew began using him as a second striker, or even pushing him out wide. Despite netting just four times in his first two seasons at the club, an unlikely strike partnership with Christian Benteke bore fruit as he bagged five goals before Christmas, but he admits that he isn’t too keen on reprising the role again, despite his two-goal showing against Ipswich Town last month and scoring for Scotland against Lithuania in the recent international break.
“I enjoyed playing up front for a spell but it’s hard,” the Glaswegian admitted. “I’ve never really been an attacking central midfielder so I tried to adapt, and last year I was even playing on the wing at times which was even harder, but whenever you’re in the starting XI you do a job for the team.
“It’s been an OK start for me in terms of goalscoring and I need to take it into the league as well now. It’s something I want to keep doing: getting better in front of goal and help the team because we’ve not scored many. It’s not just down to Christian; everyone has to chip in and score goals.”
As well as the majority of his Palace teammates, much has been packed into his first century of games for the club since making his debut in a goalless encounter against Burnley in September 2014. A career’s worth of ups and downs has occurred during that time, but McArthur has plenty of memorable moments in SE25, even if there is one huge regret that still aches.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and we’ve had some good victories against some big teams, especially Liverpool,” he said, looking back on his best experiences in red and blue. “When we played them in Steven Gerrard’s last game at Anfield it was pretty special because we went up there and absolutely dominated the game from start to finish. I’d say my best personal performance was when I scored two against Newcastle when we beat them 5-1, but when you score things tend to get highlighted more.
“Obviously I would like to say the FA Cup run, but it was a sour moment in the end losing in the final. The memories aren’t particularly nice; winning the FA Cup once was special but not many players can say they’re a two-time winner, so from a personal point of view it would have been amazing. However, I was devastated for every one of the boys, the manager, the staff and the fans as we got so close and lost it when we had a good chance of winning it.”
For someone who is only turning 30 next month, there could still be plenty more chances to add more medals to his collection. As he becomes one of the elder statesmen in the Eagles dressing room, he is also looking forward to a new status within the club as he aims to pass on his wisdom from a playing career that has already seen him clock up nearly 450 club games north and south of the border, as well as 30 international caps.
“I’m looking forward to the future, and playing in the Premier League for a number of years – I don’t think I’ve reached my peak just yet!” McArthur smiled. “I don’t want to put the club through what I’ve been through when I was relegated with Wigan so I want to keep pushing everyone in the team on a matchday to keep winning matches.
“Now I’m an experienced player I need to use that in the changing room, and with the young boys as well. I played a reserve game at the start of the season and I really enjoyed being around the young lads trying to help them progress.
“A lot has changed for the better during my time here such as the training ground, pitches, the stadium re-development and the players, but I think it’s important that we keep what got Crystal Palace here as well – a hard-working ethic with a willingness to run for each other.” And that sentence epitomises why McArthur and Palace have been the perfect fit.