sports gazette

Julian Speroni – Positivity Personified

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Published: 5 Jun 2017

Tuesday, 2nd May 2017. Crystal Palace have three games to play and, despite not being certain of their Premier League status next season, their goalkeeper Julian Speroni remains resolutely optimistic.

Tuesday, 2nd May 2017. Crystal Palace have three games to play and, despite not being certain of their Premier League status next season, their goalkeeper Julian Speroni remains resolutely optimistic.

He has been a Palace player for nearly 13 years and has seen it all before.

Arriving from Scottish football in 2004, the Argentinian has witnessed relegation, administration, promotion and, at the time of counting, ten different managers during his tenure at the South London club.

Many would not have the heart to stomach such a rollercoaster career, but Speroni’s character is unyielding, seeing only the positive in the situation at hand. His attitude has driven him to become the goalkeeper with the most league appearances for Palace, where he has been named player of the season a record four times.

Speroni speaks from the heart when it comes to Palace and confesses to having to look up their location before his arrival.

“I knew nothing about South London before I arrived, but a former teammate at Dundee, Walter Del Rio, had played for Palace and told me a little about the club,” he said.

“Before I signed, I never imagined I would be here for such a long time.

“My relationship with the fans just grew over the years. When I step on the pitch, I give all I have. It doesn’t matter what stage of the season it is, a big game or a small game, I always give 100%. The fans know that and appreciate it, and I’ve done it for about 13 years now!

“The bond with the fans just grows and grows. It’s a special thing to me. I never thought I could reach this point in a relationship with the fans. The love they show me in the streets or at the game is just incredible. I simply cannot thank them enough.”

Born in Buenos Aires, Speroni’s career took in a brief spell at local side Club Atlético Platense and then only two other clubs, Dundee and Crystal Palace.

The transition from Argentina’s cosmopolitan capital to a comparatively tiny coastal Scottish city would intimidate most 21-year-olds.

Speroni’s disposition is again different, and he laughs when reminiscing his 2001 transfer to The Dees.

“For me, it was all new. I wasn’t sure what I was coming to. I only really knew Rangers or Celtic,” he says.

“The only thing I knew about Dundee was its location after checking it on a map, but I have no regrets at all. I had some the finest times of my career playing at Dundee.”

At the time of his arrival, the then owners, Peter and James Marr, had splashed the cash to close the gap between themselves and perennial champions Rangers and Celtic.

The Marr brothers’ recruitment provoked major headlines as high-profile players, such as World Cup finalist Claudio Caniggia, arrived from all corners of the earth. The diverse Dundee squad assembled by Italian manager Ivano Bonetti proved an ideal setting for a young Speroni.

“Importantly for me, there were seven Argentinian players at Dundee when I came there, and that was a huge help,” he says.

“We had a great team, a solid core of players and, under Jim Duffy, we qualified for Europe.

“He [Caniggia] was a hero of mine, the only one who was not a goalkeeper, in fact. The goal he scored against Italy in the semi-final of Italia 90 is the most enjoyable goal I’ve witnessed in my life! To regularly lunch with my hero in Scotland was very special.”

Unfortunately, the Marrs couldn’t balance the books and eventually their lavish spending led the club into administration, something that became a theme in Speroni’s career.

“I had one year left on my contract at Dundee and wasn’t sure what to do,” he said.

“I met with Jim Duffy and he advised me I was going to be sold. The club needed the money. I had quite a few offers, but Jim advised me to choose Palace as they had just been promoted to the Premier League and it was too good a chance to turn down.”

Speroni’s first season at Palace, while exciting, resulted in a heartbreaking final-day relegation after Bryan Robson masterminded West Bromwich Albion’s Great Escape, becoming the first Premier League club to avoid relegation having been bottom of the table at Christmas.

The ensuing years were not kind to Palace but helped to forge Speroni’s character. After struggling to bounce back to the top flight, they were stung by the news of the club slipping into administration.

“Despite relegation in my first season, the first few years at the club were stable,” said Speroni.

“Playing in the Championship was a lot harder than I imagined. It took us seven years to get back into the Premier League!

“In 2010 we had to play Newcastle away and, when we landed at Newcastle Airport, all of a sudden all of our phones were going crazy, ringing and ringing.
We had news that the club had fallen into administration. It was a shock for us, absolutely crazy.

“That season, we almost got relegated from the Championship because we also lost 10 points.”

The final game of that fateful season remains one of the most poignant in Palace history. Defeat to Sheffield Wednesday would have seen them relegated.

“We took the lead, then they equalised. It was 2-1 to us, then 2-2. The final moments were terrible, so much was at stake for the staff at the club,” he said.

“I remember a key save I made at 1-1 from Luke Varney. Sheffield Wednesday went down and I won't forget their faces. They were destroyed.”

The bond with the fans just grows and grows. It’s a special thing to me. I never thought I could reach this point in a relationship with the fans.

These days, Speroni finds himself playing as a back-up keeper to the likes of Wayne Hennessy or Steve Mandanda. His positive mindset refuses to let him give in, despite not being a regular starter since 2014-15.

“My only disappointment is that I got injured before last season after having an excellent previous season, and I have since struggled to get back in the team,” he said.

“If you are not performing, it’s OK to be dropped, but an injury kept me out for four months and then I never came back to the team.

“I would love to have a chance to prove myself again, but that’s football sometimes, and you have to accept it and fight back.

“That is what I am doing now. At 37, I am not thinking I am happy to be on the bench because now I’m fit and I know I’m still capable of competing at the highest level.

“It’s not like outfield players, who can rotate and play different positions.
When Gabor Kiraly was here, I had to wait and work for my chance and, when it came, I knew I had to be ready.

“You have to be professional. I see so many players complain they are not playing, but they are not doing the right things and, when selected, they are not ready for it. I train every day as if I were to play on Saturday. It’s a funny business and anything can happen in a week.”

At 37, Speroni still feels young, and despite harbouring an interest in a coaching career beyond playing, he is not planning to do it anytime soon.
“My contract runs out in the summer, but speaking to the chairman I said I'd love to retire at Palace. That’s my preference,” he said.

“Eventually, I'd love to go into coaching, but at the moment I'm not thinking about it because I still feel fit and strong. So, why would I think of retiring now?

“People think I am 50 because I have been in the game for so long! But I am only 37 and, having spoken to Mark Schwarzer and Shay Given, I know if I look after myself I can keep playing. I want to play for the next two years and reassess how I feel."

Outside football, Speroni is a family man, preferring to switch off when away from the game and enjoy his time with his wife and two children.

The only football he follows away from Palace is that of the Argentinian national side.

His voice sparks into excitement when discussing the Albicelestes. Argentina are struggling of late and could potentially fail to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.

“When I am home, I try to switch off from football and immerse myself in my family,” he said. “I don’t sit on the sofa and watch a lot of football, but I do follow the national team.

“There are significant concerns back home. The team currently doesn’t even have a manager!

“Jorge Sampaoli is the man rumoured to be taking over the national side, but I would love to see Pocchetino given a chance. I think he is one of the best managers in the world and a great man, too.

“Although they’re fifth at the moment, I do believe Argentina will qualify, even without Messi, who is suspended.

“It’s a shame, we should not have to depend on Messi, and perhaps some other Argentinian players feel intimidated by this dependency.

“With the quality of players Argentina has, it is sad to see the team in this situation when they should be dominant, like Brazil.

“But it shows the quality of football in South America, in the last few years. It has drastically improved, with sides like Chile, Uruguay and Columbia playing at an excellent level with top players.”

Speroni’s love of Britain is genuine. He hopes to sign a new deal and remain in South London but is very aware his future is not completely in his hands and could change at any moment.

His feelings towards his adopted country run deep enough he now calls it home.

“We miss our family and friends in Buenos Aires and try to see them once a year when the season ends,” he said. “But now with kids at school, it is getting much harder, due to school holidays.

“I have to confess that, when I do go to Argentina, it is hard to come back to England because that is where I was born.

“Even though I have been gone so long, everything still feels so familiar. I don’t need a sat nav to drive around Buenos Aires!

“But now my son is eight. He is a proper little Englishman. That is the culture he knows. As a family, we love this country. We are so set on staying.

“Apart from the weather sometimes, life is great. It’s 95% we will end up living here. We enjoy it so much. Obviously, you never know where your career will take you, but eventually we will stay here beyond retirement.”

Many Eagles fans are hopeful Speroni will continue to be involved with Crystal Palace beyond his playing career.

His optimistic outlook on life is refreshing in an age where footballers are becoming increasingly distant from the public.

“Football is simple,” he says. A universal language, and so I have found the assimilation process very easy, sometimes us players and managers over-complicate things.”

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