Four years have passed but it still feels like yesterday.
The date was 22 October 2012 and I, a second-year student, was supposed to be getting ready for one of the biggest nights out of the year, an annual university-wide event involving fancy dress and raising money for charity. I wasn’t in the mood, though: my mind was elsewhere and partying felt like the worst possible way to spend the evening.
My housemates and I nevertheless made our way into Nottingham city centre at about 9pm, walking the mile and a bit up Derby Road towards the Blue Bell, the dingy but cheap bar that was always our first port of call. My friends were in high spirits, laughing and joking as we trudged up the hill in drag, but my focus was firmly on my phone as I checked for updates every couple of minutes. My heart hurt.
The handball could hardly have been clearer. With time ebbing away as Crystal Palace searched for the goal that would preserve their First Division status, midfielder David Hopkin leapt above his marker on the edge of his own box and blatantly pushed the ball forward with his arm. The vehement appeals of Stockport County’s players were waved away by referee Anthony Leake, and Palace were allowed to advance.
Hopkin hoofed the ball clear in an attempt to get his side up the pitch quickly, with Clinton Morrison bringing it down with a fine first touch. From there, his strike partner was on hand to take over. Dougie Freedman collected possession about 10 yards inside Stockport’s half and set off on a mazy run, beating two defenders and forcing two more to desperately back-peddle before smashing the ball into the back of the net as the clock ticked over into the 87th minute. Palace had done it. We were safe.
“Dougie turned on a little bit of magic for us, which he said he would do at half-time,” caretaker boss Steve Kember said afterwards. “Most of it was extremely tense but I always knew if we just got one late chance, a guy like Dougie would grab it.”
Not only was it one of the most important goals in the club’s recent history, it was an effort that summed up Dougie as a footballer: the jinking dribble, the spatial awareness, the tight close control, the terrific technique. My dad once dubbed him ‘The Championship Bergkamp’, which is a pretty good way of putting it.
Dougie was my favourite player when I was growing up. Born in Glasgow in May 1974, Freedman was an avid Rangers fan who began his career at the other Rangers 400 miles away: Queens Park Rangers, who brought the promising young striker into their youth ranks in 1992. He spent two years in west London but struggled to break into the first team, which paved for the way for a free transfer to Barnet in the summer of 1994. At the age of 20, Dougie’s career took off. A return of 27 goals in 49 appearances earned him an £800,000 move to Crystal Palace 14 months later.
The forward went on to represent Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Southend United in a professional playing career that spanned 18 years, but it is Palace with whom he is most closely associated. Dougie made 368 appearances in his decade at Selhurst Park – which was split into two separate spells – and found the back of the net on 108 occasions, a tally which makes him the Eagles’ fifth-highest goalscorer of all time behind ex-team-mate Morrison, Mark Bright, Ian Wright, Edwin Smith and Peter Simpson.
Dougie came to embody Palace, a club he seemed to have a genuine affection for. That in itself was interesting given that he had no prior affiliation with the local area or its football team, but sport is about identity and Dougie was a fundamental part of ours. It is probably one of the reasons why, despite his talents, he only won two Scotland caps: having never played a professional match in his homeland, Dougie did not have an opportunity to build a following among Scottish fans.
His last outing for Palace came in a goalless draw with Cardiff City in March 2008, by which time he was almost 34 and rarely used by manager Neil Warnock. A loan switch to League One promotion hopefuls Leeds followed until the end of the campaign, at which stage Dougie was granted a permanent exit and joined Southend. He was back in south London by March 2010, however, cutting short his playing career in order to join the Palace coaching staff in the club’s hour of need. In administration and seemingly hurtling towards a lethal combination of relegation and liquidation, a managerial ticket of Paul Hart and Dougie just about kept the Championship club’s head above water on the pitch before an eleventh-hour takeover was completed off it.
George Burley was chosen as the new owners’ first manager, with Dougie continuing as assistant; by January 2011, though, the latter had replaced the former in the dugout after a 3-0 defeat by local rivals Millwall on New Year’s Day left Palace in 23rd place. It was a risky appointment. Eddie Howe had been first choice but opted to remain at Bournemouth, and Dougie had no managerial experience to speak of, but at the same time it felt right. The man who had been a stylish, skilful striker made Palace organised, disciplined and difficult to beat, and demotion was avoided by a margin of six points.
The 2011/12 campaign saw the Eagles consolidate their status in the Championship with a mid-table finish, with more of the same expected when the following season kicked-off in August. Palace got off to a dismal start, however, losing to Watford, Bristol City and Middlesbrough in their first three fixtures, but things began to turn after the signings of Yannick Bolasie, Damien Delaney and Andre Moritz late in the transfer window, and Palace duly climbed the table with six wins and two draws from their next eight encounters.
It was still early days, but promotion looked like a real possibility. Wilfried Zaha and Bolasie were terrorising full-backs on the flanks; Glenn Murray was scoring goals for fun at centre-forward; Mile Jedinak was monstrous in the middle of the park; and Julian Speroni regularly intervened with some brilliant saves when a sturdy backline was breached. Dougie had assembled a squad which cost little but promised lots. Everything in the garden was rosy.
I cheered up a little after a few beers on that night out in Nottingham, perhaps because by then I had resigned myself to what was happening.
A few days after promising that he would not be leaving Crystal Palace because he is “not the sort of guy to leave jobs half done”, Dougie Freedman was set to walk out on the club which loved him to become manager of Bolton Wanderers.
It hurt. When rumours of his departure first emerged, most supporters dismissed them without a second thought. Dougie, would not give up the relationship he had with Palace for a sideways step, particularly as he was still relatively young and inexperienced as a head coach. He had everything going for him in SE25; why would he destroy all that by moving to a team who were millions of pounds in debt and 16th in the Championship?
“I’ve got a long-game strategy where I feel this club will give me the tools that will get us to the Premier League,” he said at his Bolton unveiling. Even after such a statement, some Palace fans desperately clawed to a conspiracy which had it that our chairman Steve Parish had essentially forced Dougie out by refusing to offer him an improved contract. As the days and weeks passed it became clear that such a theory was nonsense, something Freedman himself confirmed during an interview with Holmesdale Radio this year.
“It was the wrong decision [to move to Bolton] and I do regret it,” Dougie said. “It was made by myself and only me. I wasn’t forced or pushed. Looking back I sometimes question myself. I was very ambitious, strong-willed and could not take a ‘no’.
“I thought I was King Kong and could fight the world – it’s my way or no way. The disappointing thing for me is the decision was only made over 24 hours. I didn’t have enough time to think and that’s what happens in football sometimes. Bolton had made an inquiry, paid a fee and were given a licence to talk. I spoke to [chairman] Phil Gartside and he played me like a kipper, told me everything that I wanted to hear and my decision was made.
“I went in the following day, told Steve Parish and said goodbye to the lads at the training ground. There were a lot of tears – I drove out of the training ground and cried all the way up to Bolton. I thought I should turn around but my stubborn side said no. I knew I’d made a mistake on my first day at Bolton.”
To this day I am still not sure whether I believe him. Would he really be saying the same if he had won promotion with Bolton and Palace had stayed in the second tier?
Dougie was the man who taught me that loyalty could exist in football, but that belief was shattered when he walked away. Perhaps for him the whole 12-year association had simply been a marriage of convenience rather than a relationship built on mutual affection. That’s what I remember thinking at the time.
Of course, Dougie absolutely had a right to do what was best for him and his family, but it was the manner in which he left and the circumstances that surrounded it which grated most. There was very little acknowledgement of the role Palace had played in his own managerial development, and the decision – at least from the outside – came across as cold, calculated and completely lacking in the sort of emotion that we fans felt was inherent in Dougie’s Palace connection.
In the end, things worked out pretty well. We went on to secure promotion via the play-offs under the guidance of Ian Holloway and remain in the Premier League four seasons later. Dougie, meanwhile, has struggled since leaving the club, with Bolton and Nottingham Forest both sacking him after he struggled to make meaningful progress with either side.
Many Palace supporters see that as karma, but despite everything I still find it impossible to dislike the man who gave me so much joy as a young, impressionable football fan. The jinking dribbles, the spatial awareness, the tight close control, the terrific technique: Dougie was my childhood hero and he will always have a place in my heart.