When Wilson Palacios transformed Tottenham

by Josh Bolton

His impact was instantaneous to say the least. Despite tasting defeat in his debut away to Bolton, Palacios would steer Spurs to only three loses from their remaining 14 games.

Three months into his Tottenham reign and Harry Redknapp was already well-versed with the notorious soft centre plaguing the club. His new manager bounce had lasted four games, and following a last-minute defeat away to Wigan his team had now only won two out of nine in the league. The date was 11 January 2009, and with 21 played the threat of relegation loomed. Spurs were third from bottom. 

Fear is undoubtedly one of life’s greatest motivators, and it was the greatest fear of all that motivated the Tottenham board to break character by permitting Harry Redknapp to do exactly what Harry Redknapp does best in January.

In came Defoe, Keane, Chimbonda and Cudicini to reinforce. As did Wilson Palacios, the midfield dynamo who played a starring role in Wigan’s victory 10 days previous and the player who would ultimately prove the catalyst for an identity and cultural shift in Redknapp’s meek Tottenham team.

Signing the 24-year-old Honduran for £12m, Spurs picked up the division’s most coveted midfielder at the most opportune moment. Only three days after his industrious showing against Spurs, Palacios went to Old Trafford with Wigan and produced another domineering display (check out the highlights on YouTube). Having seen his side stumble to a 1-0 win with Carrick and Scholes smothered, Alex Ferguson was impressed — so too were Liverpool, Bayern, Real Madrid and a now-flush Manchester City.

Wigan boss Steve Bruce, who has since labelled Palacios his greatest transfer in his managerial career (sorry Joelinton) after bringing the player to England on Arsène Wenger’s recommendation, was to be stripped of the engine powering his plucky side to an unlikely European spot. Redknapp on the other hand knew he had acquired a gamechanger fresh for the fight.

“He will come in here and get after it and play aggressively,” said Redknapp of his new signing. “He will work and close and run. I feel that we need a bit of that around the place. He is an all-round modern midfielder — he gets after it, he is box-to-box. I speak to people who have played against him, like Frank Lampard, and no-one has had an easy game against him. He is after you all the time.”

Palacios was certainly an all-round modern midfielder. To see the player in his short-lived pomp was a revelation. He was a press-resistant midfielder before press-resistance was a thing. He had the strength and balance of Dembele and the acceleration and tenacity of Kante. And while there’s a tendency to remember him as a basic ball-winner, he could pass and dictate tempo too — see him do it for Wigan against Manchester City (another on YouTube).

Palacios arrived at his new club facing little competition. Like the majority of Spurs central midfielders during the formative Premier League years, the class of 2008-09 could be split into two broad categories: the technically capable (Huddlestone, Jenas, O’Hara, Taraabt) or the tireless runner (Zokora). Luka Modric, who arrived the previous summer, hadn’t acclimatised to the league’s rigours yet and was deployed on the left to escape the congested middle. But in Palacios, Redknapp now had a man who could do both.

His impact was instantaneous to say the least. Despite tasting defeat in his debut away to Bolton, Palacios would steer Spurs to only three loses from their remaining 14 games. The uplift in form saw the club recover from their worst start in a 126-year history to make a three-place improvement on the previous season, finishing eighth. During that run Palacios also collected the man of the match award for a lung-bursting performance in the North London Derby.

The following season (2009-10) saw Spurs carry on where they had left off, ensuring their best start to a league campaign since 1960 — and Redknapp was keen to highlight the reason. “Palacios has made a massive difference to this club,” he enthused as Spurs sat top of the pile after three games. “He gets on with it, he’s strong, he’s aggressive — he’s what Tottenham haven’t had.

“I always felt you could bash Tottenham up when they used to come to Portsmouth. We always felt you could get after them and beat them. I don’t feel that now. He has been a major part in changing that because he closes down and is strong. That has rubbed off on other people. You need people like him if you are going to be successful.”

But save one iconic match against AC Milan in the San Siro the following season, Palacios’ best showings in a Spurs shirt were to be behind him as the player was struck by awful loss.

With the 2008-09 campaign coming to a close, Palacios’ teenage brother Edwin, who had been kidnapped in October 2007 and held for ransom ever since, was found dead in Honduras the night before Spurs’ game at Everton. Still, Palacios waited in the hotel lobby until morning to ask his manager’s permission to return home. Redknapp was astounded by the player’s character in the face of tragedy.

Naturally, Palacios was never quite the same after his brother’s death, and as Redknapp’s Tottenham evolved, the midfielder’s indispensability dwindled. Niggling injuries didn’t help and after numerous links with moves away he eventually departed for Stoke in August 2011.

Now 35 and having announced his retirement this week after finishing his career in his home country, there will always be a sense of what could have been for a player who had a profound effect on Spurs in a short period of time.

Yet his legacy remains. As well as transforming Tottenham from relegation candidates to Champions League hopefuls, Palacios was foremost a pioneer — the first example of what a modern Spurs central midfielder should encompass. You could say he set the standard for those who followed; from Sandro to Parker, Mason to Dembele, and Wanyama to NDombele.

Now the sight of an all-round, box-to-box modern midfielder is no commodity for Spurs fans — but pre-Palacios such a player was a rarity. He came in and turned a side’s soft centre to steel in six months and mirroring Ryan Mason’s fleeting influence on Pochettino’s Tottenham, proved that sometimes the greatest memories remain when you burn out instead of fading away.

Author

Josh Bolton

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