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Dougie Freedman Testimonial Appreciation Club
It felt like a Tunisian carpet bazaar. At least I didn’t know what I was buying in 2001 when I first arrived to SE25. I was put into a dodgy hotel in Croydon with a Jamaican and an American player, the team was sharing a club house with local cricketers, we had a Chinese central defender playing like a striker, wine gums were part of the team tactics and I couldn’t understand a word of English from what one of our strikers was talking (which was probably the reason I got the best along with him). I had just scored against England in Anfield and I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision to join a struggling first division team.
“Aki, when you get the ball, remember to bend it straight”, was the last advice I got from Steve Kember before the crucial final day game against Stockport. I only understood the paradox when everyone started laughing. If something, we managed to get our joy back before the last games. Stockport isn’t actually the football Mecca of the world, but we made it ours to pilgrim as the future could have been easily so different. The finish that beat the relegation was a text book Palace. Eagles love the drama so there was no better way than that striker, who kept wearing only pullovers from Colin Montgommery collection, to make a remarkable last minute solo run with a breath taking shot to keep us in the division. Later I learned that is just what Dougie does. He is never far away from something unbelievable, things just start to happen around him. The crucial result and his goal was greeted and celebrated like becoming champions. And later in legendary Star pub in Croydon too.
The contrast from muddy Stockport to the play-off final in Cardiff couldn’t have been bigger. I had no doubt in my mind that we were destined to Premiership. That day in Cardiff was the best in my life because it summed up everything I had believed in. Crystal Palace had become a Premiership worthy club, with outstanding standards, values and characters. On a bus towards the stadium I was sitting next to Dougie and Tony Popovic, and I would not have wanted anyone else beside me that day. I felt that not just we won the big game against West Ham to get promoted to the best league in the world, but I had also won friends for life.
Everything changes. I saw in my time at Palace around 200 hundred games and team mates, one promotion and relegation, 7 managers, 10 physios, 2 sets of furniture and an endless amount of memories, details and good people. But there was only one Dougie Freedman. And is. I have moved away from UK awhile ago but I still get people coming to tell me how they are fascinated to watch Dougie play.
It is always respectable to be a good servant to a club. It is noble to earn a testimonial in modern football. I think Dougie deserves even more credit. He is special. Sure there will be many players of his standard. There will be even players with the same loyalty, bold style and football intelligence. And there definitely will be millions of better dressed and more linguistic players. However, I can hardly imagine again a player with his caliber, standards and years of high performance who would also be such a good person, character and friend. Everyone who appreciates football and good people knows that Dougie is one of a kind. That is why he is what Palace is all about. Thank you Dougie for that too.