There is an image from Upton Park last Saturday that sums up a season. In it 12 Crystal Palace players, all but the goalkeeper clad in yellow with hands interlocked and arms held aloft, are saluting an away contingent joyously spilling from the lower tier of the Sir Trevor Brooking stand. A 13th, Jason Puncheon, is absent and still handing over his shirt to a fan by the billboards but the sea of smiles beyond the line tells its own story. Mid-table obscurity, out of the glare of European pursuit or relegation concern, has rarely felt this triumphant.
The photograph illustrates unity, a group whose collective industry and commitment has helped eke flair and invention from its most skilful members and bridge the chasm in quality between Championship and the top flight. All but four of the players celebrating a fifth consecutive victory were part of the Palace side who had limped into the play-offs a year ago before reviving at the expense of Brighton and Watford last May. Puncheon and Adrian Mariappa act as reminders of the 16-man transfer splurge undertaken last August, while only two of those pictured – Scott Dann and Joe Ledley – were mid-season additions. They are a team aware of their limitations but set up and focused on showcasing their strengths. The main man is missing from the photograph.
It is becoming almost cliche to heap praise on Tony Pulis. The consensus is he will come a close second to Brendan Rodgers when consideration is given to manager of the season – Steve Bruce, Sean Dyche and Nigel Pearson have also overseen remarkable campaigns, and some will champion others – should Liverpool go on to reclaim the Premier League title for the first time in 24 years, though success is always relative. On the morning Pulis was confirmed as manager, after almost a month of stuttering negotiations and deliberations with Sir Alex Ferguson and Peter Coates, Palace were bottom of the Premier League with four points from 11 matches ahead of another awkward game at Hull City. Only six clubs have accumulated more than their haul of 39 points from the 24 games since.
The five-match winning sequence that has carried them to safety is their best at this level in 22 years (and they were ultimately relegated that season), while only four clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton and Manchester United – have stingier defensive records than Palace's 41 from 35 matches. Pulis's team have shipped only 20 goals in 24 games, with 11 clean sheets en route. If those numbers were not impressive enough, this club has only twice finished higher than the current 11th position in its history, with Steve Coppell's selection – the team of Ian Wright and Mark Bright, Geoff Thomas and Andy Gray – third in 1991 and 10th a year later. That second season was considered disappointing at the time. Even the Team of the Eighties managed only 13th in their one full season in the elite under Terry Venables before the squad disintegrated and the team were relegated a year later. A repeat of that chaos had seemed the likeliest scenario last October.