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Hey guys,

Sad news from Planet Snelson as my team, Leeds Hyde Park, lost our penultimate game of the season, tragically and dramatically putting promotion to the West Riding Premier out of our hands. It was devastating to see a season's work undone by the opposition's smart gameplan and our own inexperience in the face of defeat — for which I was laughing at Barça only last week.

Barcelona are laughing now, as Emma Hayes faces the real prospect of winning zero out of the four trophies she was chasing this season. Meanwhile, Leeds United look to have bottled automatic promotion to the Premier League (again). Maybe all the losers have rubbed off on me.

I've been thinking about 'players losing their heads' in periods of adversity. I don't really understand why this happens but I saw it first-hand on Sunday, in myself and in my teammates' out-of-character behaviour. It's fascinating. Coaches say you learn more when you lose, but what if winning all the time leaves you vulnerable to utter devastation at the first sign of difficulty?

In today's newsletter, I'm looking at a team who won their division by one point, losing four games and tying a further four along the way. This was no walk in the park, yet they managed to hold their own when things were tight and uncertain. The story of Crystal Palace's 2023/24 season is a testament to the importance of strengthening the relationships that make your team tick.

I hope you enjoy reading it and I look forward to catching you soon.

Flora ⚽️

Powered by Vibes

Crystal Palace are riding a wave of good vibes all the way to the Women's Super League, just one year after their future was complicated by the departure of long-term manager Dean Davenport.

Eleven years into his tenure as Palace boss, Davenport was placed under internal investigation in March 2023 after questions were raised about his conduct. The details of the alleged misconduct remain unknown, but Davenport left the club shortly after, leaving Palace to answer the question: how do you establish a new, effective regime, when you've only known the same one coach for over a decade?

The club didn't waste any time in the rebuild, nabbing Grace Williams off Bristol City and appointing her as Head of Women's Football. Down in Brizzle, Williams had done a similar job, picking up the relegated Robins in 2021 and guiding them back to the top flight in her role as General Manager.

Not to be confused with the head coach, GMs are responsible for the operations surrounding the team. Anyone who has tried to warm up for a Sunday League game without the balls, forgotten in the boot of an absent player's car, will have a small sense of how the finer details are as important as the tactics. Remember Arsenal's title dreams collapsing while they wore socks bearing their rivals badge?
Williams' first job was to find a new head coach and, once again, Palace didn't look far, nabbing Laura Kaminski from Championship opponents Charlton Athletic. Kaminski came with experience of the league and experience of getting out of it, having been assistant manager when Tottenham Hotspur won promotion in 2019.

From their successful stints at City and Spurs, perhaps what Williams and Kaminski took away was that good vibes are a crucial ingredient to achieving your goals as a team.

Speaking after Palace's goalless draw with Sunderland confirmed their promotion on Sunday, Williams said: "There hasn't been a question that we aren't going to win the league. I would love to tell you there has been pressure, tears, highs and lows – but we just come in on Monday looking to the next game."

Damn, huge if true. With the rapid growth of the women's game and the growing gap in quality between the first and second tiers (see Bristol City 😢), there has never been a better time competitively or commercially to get into the WSL and to stay there.

But if Palace striker Elise Hughes is to be believed, promotion wasn't their focus.

"Sometimes you have a 'why' in-house, something such as winning the league, and you realise how big your 'why' is outside of just the football pitch," she told On Her Side after lifting the trophy this weekend.

"We know that we can inspire the next generation. Me growing up, did I think I was going to do that? No.

"Then I see fans everyday with Hughes - 9 on the back, or I see girls chanting and I think, 'Wow, ok we are making a difference'. As small or as big as it is, we are, and if girls get opportunities that we never got growing up then we're all winners."
You can't feel pressure about winning a trophy if winning the trophy is a side quest to the greater mission of making wee ones feel that they can be successful too. I think most athletes would say that the suggestion of a trophy being only a secondary goal needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but if you can make yourself feel that it is and win it anyway, then pop off, I suppose.

Pressure or not, intentional or otherwise, there is a real feeling that Palace's glory was built on a foundation of good people being nice to each other — and that, to me, makes sense.

To make the step across from south London rivals Charlton, Kaminski was clearly wooed by the set up at Palace. “My first impressions of the club have been fantastic," she said upon her appointment in July. "The club’s facilities are amazing but, most importantly, they’re filled with people who are proud and passionate to work for this Football Club.”

At the other end of an historic season, Kaminski now feels certain that Palace's people-focussed approach is exceptional within football. “The club and its culture is outstanding," she told The Athletic. "I believe the environment in place is world-leading."

"I always think you can hear identity and culture when you walk in the building, if you can hear laughter, if there’s mixed tables at lunch, those things are key. For this club, it happens naturally."
One player who has less cause to laugh than most at the moment is Hughes. With 16 goals in 21 games for Palace, Hughes won this season's golden boot and is regarded as a hero in Croydon and beyond. But at what cost? Last week, Palace confirmed that, for the second time in her career, Hughes has done her ACL.

But Hughes claims that the uncertainty, career blow and months of recovery ahead mean nothing next to the joy of achieving something with a special group of people.

"The togetherness at Palace is beyond anything I've ever known," Hughes said. "I'm from a small village in North Wales and I've come to South London and felt at home. Never did I think I would ever get that.

"Every staff member that walks into the building, no one goes past anyone without saying 'hi' and there's always a smile.

"I said in the changing room before the game that if you'd have written my story and told me that this is how the season's going to end, as upsetting as it [the injury] was for me personally, I would've taken it because every person in there means more to me than my right knee at the minute. "

Congratulations to Crystal Palace, I look forward to finding out how far smiles and laughter can take you in the Women's Super League next season.

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