The Argentine goalkeeper reaching a decade of service at Selhurst Park talks to Alan Pattullo about his fond memories of Dens, ‘where it all began’
They describe him as the Hands of God, with reference to an uncelebrated episode in English football history. This readiness to play on the phrase that still haunts many south of the Border indicates just how fondly Crystal Palace supporters have come to regard Julian Speroni after a near-decade long association. A restaurant called Speroni’s situated at the club’s Selhurst Park ground is further evidence of how firmly established at the London club the goalkeeper has become, following his transfer from Dundee in the summer of 2004.
It is hard to credit that he has been with Palace for so long, just as it is sometimes difficult to believe the understandably nervous 20 year-old who took time to find his feet with Dundee has now become the byword for assured goalkeeping as well as fine-dining.
Later this evening Speroni will line up against Manchester United; ten years ago this weekend, it was Livingston, after he had finally dislodged Jamie Langfield from the No 1 spot at Dens Park. “It seems like another life now,” admits Speroni, as we sit facing each other at his eponymous restaurant. This establishment isn’t the one at Selhurst Park. Instead, it is a new restaurant that the goalkeeper has just opened in Purley, about four miles from the ground, and where a team bonding session was held at the start of this vital week as manager Tony Pullis – he is Speroni’s eighth at Palace, though “there have been 12 or 13, including caretakers” – sought to instill a sense of togetherness ahead of today’s clash with the champions; Palace are currently two points above safety although such is the tight nature of the league, victory over David Moyes’ side would take them into the middle reaches of the other kind of table in Speroni’s life.
He and his business partner opened the restaurant venture late last year. “It is a mixture of Italian and Spanish, because of our background,” he explains. At first he was not comfortable about using his name again, but there it is above the door: Speroni.
“The head chef is from Argentina so she is the one that organises the menus,” he explains. “But it is more Mediterranean with an Argentinian touch.”
Some inspiration is drawn from Visocchi’s, the Italian ice cream café in Broughty Ferry where Dundee’s sizeable group of foreign players used to congregate in the early 2000s; it was not unusual to drop by and spy Claudio Cannigia elegantly draped across a chair, cigarette in hand.
Other than the name, there is no link between the new restaurant and Speroni’s at Selhurst Park. “I am not running that one,” he smiles. “That was a few years back. I was in Argentina on holiday and they emailed me to say they were planning to open this place at Selhurst and they wanted to name it after me. I emailed back and said: are you sure? It can’t be true. They asked me if I was happy and I said of course, it is an honour for me that you think of me when you open this restaurant.
“I never thought I would be here this long,” he continues. “It is not normal for a footballer. It is not a common. I didn’t plan it this way, of course. I just got on with my job. But things turned out this way.
“And I am very pleased that they did.”
Aphorisms line the bare-brick walls. ‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference’. Another asks: ‘Did you leave it all on the field today?’ These are heavy considerations as you ponder whether to opt for the risotto or the chicken Speroni (a take on his mother’s recipe). Other than this, the place is understated. The decoration consists of line drawings rather than photographs although there is one photo; one which clearly seeks to highlight the existential existence of the goalkeeper. It is an artistic effort showing Speroni standing alone in his penalty area, with play at the other end of the pitch.
If ever there has been a goalkeeper who would seem to disprove the theory that goalkeepers must be slightly distant, perhaps even dislikeable figures, it is Speroni. He remains much loved at Dundee, as well as highly regarded, while his bond with Palace is stronger still. Unusually, however, there is reason for some angst in Speroni as he surveys the frothy latte that has been just been put in front of him. Heavily touted for a first call-up to the Argentina squad for their next friendly against Romania, he heard the news on Thursday that he has been left out, with time now growing short if he wishes to be included in the squad for this summer’s World Cup. But perhaps greater cause for unease is the uncertainty about where his club future lies. He is nearing the end of his current contract. Indeed, as of the start of this year, the 34-year-old has been free to negotiate with other clubs. This is news Palace fans will find extremely difficult to digest. Could this love affair with Palace be coming to an end?
“Yes, of course,” admits Speroni. “Anything can happen. You have different options, sometimes you have to move on. Obviously it will be hard for me not to see the Palace badge on my chest because it has been such a long time. This club is my house, the club is my family. I feel like I am a Palace fan. But as a professional you have to be able to move on – and be allowed to move on.
“Nothing has been offered yet,” he adds, with specific reference to a new contract (he is already well into his tenth season – what is normally regarded as testimonial territory). “They say they want me to stay, but I don’t know. Different chairmen manage the club in different ways, different directors. If they want you to stay they have to offer you a contract, a contract that you deserve. At the moment, this is probably going to be my last season for the club and I want to enjoy it as much as I can because I am having a great time.
“If I had to leave then I found Palace in the Premier league and I want to leave them in the Premier League,” he adds. “That is my target.
“Four times they have been in the Premier League and they have been relegated straightaway. If we can stay in the Premier League this season then that would be fantastic – it would be a mark in the history of the club.”
No one who saw Speroni’s uncertain displays early in his Palace career could have predicted that he would become a permanent fixture at the club, with a restaurant named in his honour. It seems cruel to have to make mention of this while sitting in such convivial surroundings, a little awkward too. There is a gentle admonishment.
“People always remember the mistake, that is common – it is easier to remember that than the great saves,” he says.
The Mistake in question occurred during a game against Everton when Speroni, on only his second appearance for Palace, attempted to dribble past Kevin Campbell. He was duly dispossessed and then brought the striker down, at the expense of a penalty which saw Thomas Gravesen equalise for the visitors on their way to a 3-1 win. Typically, Speroni has learned to treat the incident as a positive. “The fact everyone remembers that one that I made ten years ago means I have not done too badly, and you learn from your mistakes, of course,” he says. “I am still not sure it was a penalty. I have not looked at it again – you cannot look back. You learn from it and move on. Ten years on I know it was not that bad, I have seen a lot worse.”
It did, however, help cost Speroni his place in the team. Hungarian Gabor Kiraly was installed instead as then manager Iain Dowie pondered whether Speroni had what it takes to make it at the highest level. Of course, Speroni became friends with Kiraly, who is still playing in a pair of baggy tracksuit bottoms today (at TSV 1860 Munich, in Germany’s second tier).
“I am still in touch with him, he is a good friend,” says Speroni, who took another two years to re-claim his first-team place, but then won three player of the year awards in succession.
“Goalkeepers always tend to get on very well with each other, apart from the obvious exceptions. They call it the goalkeepers’ union, we all get on very well with each other, even back in Dundee.
“Jamie Langfield, Derek Soutar. They used to make fun of me, because my English was so bad,” he adds. “Good lads. I was so pleased to see Jamie playing in the Aberdeen v Celtic match in the Scottish Cup and to see him doing well.” Speroni is genuinely shocked to hear of the obstacles overcome by Langfield in the form of a life-threatening brain seizure: “I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that at all.”
While some details have escaped him he is well briefed on events at Dens Park. While he has not returned for a game since he left, he does make visits to the city to see friends that he made in his three-year spell in Scotland, and is confident that such trips will coincide with a game before long. He describes Dundee as “where it really all began” for him.
In 2001, he became the latest addition in Ivano Bonetti’s foreign revolution at Dundee, although Speroni’s arrival was held up because he had to wait to collect an Italian passport, one he qualified for because his parents were both born in Italy, and which circumnavigated the need for a work permit. He had played just two first-team games for CA Platense, a club based in the Florida district of Buenos Aires, when he found himself on a plane, bound, eventually, for Dundee.
“Normally what happens with footballers is you tend to play first in your country and then after a while, say a year or two, and then you have a chance to move on to Europe, which is what most South American players want to do,” he says. “But in my case it was completely different – I only played two games.”
Further underlining how long it has been since he began a new life in Britain, Bonetti’s first glimpses of Speroni were from a VHS tape of some of his performances in Argentina. The manager never saw him play live. “He and the goalkeeper coach Claudio Bozzini decided that they liked what they saw, and offered me a contract,” Speroni explains. “They were pretty special circumstances.”
“I had a big decision to make as well,” he continues. “For me, it was a big experience leaving home. I had to make a decision, should I play more games there before moving on or take a gamble and come to Europe, and I decided to take a gamble.”
Helping him decide to make this leap was an incident shortly before he left when a gang of armed supporters burst into the dressing room and accused the players of not trying. Although he played only twice, he was at Platense long enough to fall in love with Marina, who worked for the club as a sportswriter.
The young couple suddenly found themselves living in a flat on Victoria Road, which curls up towards both football grounds in Dundee. It had been vacated by Dundee striker Juan Sara, who became his best friend at the club as well as a church going companion at the Central Baptist church in the city, where they found pews full of friendly faces.
Speroni was also helped by the cosmopolitan make-up of Dundee at the time; there were, he recalls, as many as six Argentinians, and Spanish and Italian were the main languages in the dressing room. It was a heady, if unsustainable, time at the club. Although Speroni just missed legendary compatriot Cannigia’s 25 match-stay at Dundee, he was there when Temuri Ketsbaia signed, and, later, when Fabrizio Ravanelli made a short-lived appearance as the death rattle signalling the imminence of Dundee’s first administration grew louder. “I would like to have some of those players now and play with them again,” he says. “Georgi Nemsadze, what a player. What a team that could have been. They were as good as the players I have played with at Palace.”
He remains in touch with Sara, who is now coaching at River Plate. Bozzini, his former goalkeeper coach, still sends him texts, although Bonetti, who is now working in television in Italy, is harder to pin down. Speroni became closer to Jim Duffy, Bonetti’s successor, in any case. It was Duffy who advised the young ‘keeper about the move to Palace. “He played a big part in me coming here. I didn’t know England, but I sat down with him and he talked to me about it, and part of my decision was based on what he told me about moving on career-wise,” he says.
As a holder of an Italian passport, Speroni could play for Italy. Moreover, having lived in England for over a decade, he could, according to Fifa nationality rules, even represent a country whose goalkeeping issues are well documented. Speroni is well placed to consider the case of Fraser Forster, with former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton among those voicing concern that someone playing in the Scottish leagues can be expected to cope with performing at the very highest level of the World Cup finals.
“I can understand why somebody might say that – I played in Scotland and I think it is a great league obviously but it is not as strong as the English Premier League,” says Speroni. “But I also believe football is football. And I think if you play well then why not? The same thing happened with me in the Championship. Am I a better goalkeeper now because I am in the Premier League? I don’t think so.”
Speroni has had to deal with his own disappointment at being omitted from Alejandro Sabella’s squad for next month’s friendly with Romania. He had been encouraged to think that he might have been selected since Argentina’s goalkeeping woes are even more pronounced than England’s. Their No 1, Sergio Romero, is currently No 2 at Monaco, and his understudy, Catania’s Mariano Andujar, is also not a regular at club level. Palace supporters have been in ferment that their hero might be starring at the World Cup. Wednesday’s news is therefore a blow.
Although Speroni has not ruled out appearing in Brazil, he accepts that his chances have become slimmer still.
“I do not want to get my hopes higher than they should be,” he says. “I am realistic. I know the manager has been working with the same group of players for the last three years. But to be honest with you, I really do feel like I deserve the chance to show what I can do, just one chance.”
“I could apply for British citizenship,” he adds, playfully. “Another journalist from Argentina contacted me about this possibility, and I said to him: because I have been here for such a long time, and because I started my career in Scotland, and I was so welcomed, I will always be thankful. And it is the same in England. I have nearly played my whole career here. Ten years now. I will always be thankful of that, and how welcomed I was.
“Obviously my heart at the moment is with the Argentina national team. I want to represent my country. But of course if the opportunity came… I give you an example. I have an Italian passport but I don’t have a connection with Italy apart from family history. I don’t think I could play for them. But in Scotland and England I do have that connection. I would be proud to represent them.”
Should the unthinkable happen and he has to leave Palace, remaining in England, where his son Thiago has just started school, is his preference. However, he will always have the memories of his time in Dundee as well as a guitar picked up in the city’s Wellgate shopping centre, and on which the Hands of God have learned how to pluck out several tunes. Now he has graduated to playing in front of an audience. “I can play at Wembley in front of 80, 000 but I get more nervous in front of 15 people in church,” he smiles.