The funeral of a former chairman might seem an unlikely place for reconciliation, but for Dougie Freedman and Steve Parish, that is where their relationship was restored.

Having led Crystal Palace to fourth in the Championship in October 2012, Freedman left to join Bolton Wanderers, something he later conceded was a mistake

While Parish and Freedman’s relationship was never irretrievably broken, there was lingering disappointment from the Palace chairman. The pair began to talk again within a year of Freedman’s departure, but a face-to-face rapprochement did not take place until January 2014, when the pair met at Ron Noades’ funeral in Crawley, after his death from lung cancer.

It was only then that amends were fully made, setting in motion a process that ultimately led to Freedman’s return to Selhurst Park, as sporting director, in August 2017 following his sacking by Bolton and a 13-month spell in charge at Nottingham Forest.

Freedman’s return was not universally welcomed by supporters, who had struggled to forgive him for walking out on the club five years earlier, but in the six years that have passed since, he has established a track record of making smart, successful signings on a relatively limited budget.

That relationship with Parish has been restored to the extent that the chairman recently told the High Performance Podcast that Freedman was the No 1 person he has hired in the 13 years he has been in charge.

“He taught me so much, so quickly, about the game when I came into it,” Parish said. “I felt responsible (for him leaving). If you watch those interviews, both of us feel responsible.

“Time is a great healer. He rang me when he was going to go for the Forest job and said: ‘I’m thinking about going for this job, what do you think?’. That was an important first step. If it’s business, I don’t bear grudges. I didn’t think we would necessarily find a moment to work together again but I’m pleased we did.”

Steve Parish (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Only three current Premier League sporting directors or equivalents have been in their posts longer than Freedman, yet the 49-year-old remains a largely unheralded figure beyond south London. Since coming back to Palace, Freedman has given just one interview – for the club’s Amazon TV documentary chronicling their promotion season of 2012-13 – preferring instead to work in the background.

It begs several questions: what are his guiding principles? What is he like to work with and for? And how has he managed to help keep Palace competitive in one of the most demanding football environments despite their lack of financial clout?

The Athletic has spoken to several people close to Freedman – all of whom spoke anonymously in order to avoid jeopardising their relationship with him – to build a picture of the real Dougie Freedman and how Palace go about recruiting players.

Freedman is a ferociously hard worker, watching around 150 matches a year around the globe, but he is not a one-man band when it comes to identifying and procuring talent – no club can afford to be in an age when the transfer market has never been so hyper-competitive or globalised.

Since returning to Palace, Freedman has brought the recruitment and analysis department together under one umbrella and the number of staff involved has increased from seven (two first-team analysts, two data analysts, two performance analysts and a head of performance and recruitment) in 2021 to 13 two years later.

Their CVs are formidable: data analyst James Simpson, for example, is an astrophysics graduate, achieving a first-class master’s degree, while his colleague Bobby Shojai is a graduate of the London School of Economics.

“He is so intelligent,” Palace’s head of performance and recruitment analysis Ben Stevens previously told _The Athletic _of Shojai. “He won’t watch any videos or analyse football itself. He is purely on the data. Bobby’s background is finance. He blows my mind every day.”

Academic backgrounds are prized, unsurprisingly given Freedman’s preference for the initial recruitment process to be entirely data led, with emotion removed from the process.

Simpson and Shojai are tasked with analysing which players fit into the culture of the team and, while that includes personality, it is about their role and how they would improve the squad on the pitch. Once players are identified, Freedman and his scouts begin watching them in person, analysing not just their performances but things like body language and psychology, before decisions are made and conversations are had with Parish and the board.

Extensive work is done into learning about the player’s background. “Dougie is not only big on talent, but on mentality and attitude,” says an agent who is familiar with how he works. “He extensively checks out the people he’s going to sign beforehand.

“He tends to avoid players he might think are a big-time Charlie. He’s concise in his summary. He is very focused on the future and always wants the next player, the next big thing, people who are on the rise.”

Another football executive, who has known Freedman for many years, identifies another quality.

“He is a realist and a pragmatist, but he also has a very good understanding of the club because of the amount of time he’s been there in different roles and so has the ability to visualise a Palace player rather than a good player who is not necessarily good for Palace,” he says.

Freedman’s model may be well developed, but it had humble beginnings that stretched back to January 2011 and Palace’s signing of striker Jermaine Easter, his first as manager. Easter was identified by the Scot’s data-led approach as a player who was undervalued in the market and therefore ideal for a club with limited resources, whose staff worked out of temporary buildings at the club’s Beckenham training ground.

Jermaine Easter (Mark Wieland/Getty Images)

The deal was not a resounding success – Easter scored eight goals in 55 appearances – but the same principles were applied to signings such as Yannick Bolasie, Glenn Murray, Mile Jedinak, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Jonathan Parr and Joel Ward, all of which paid off handsomely.

“Dougie’s greatest ability is how he’s able to spot talent. He takes pride in finding people who are under the radar,” says one executive who worked with him at a high level. “He comes across as very driven, he knows what he’s doing.”

Since then, the model has been tweaked and refined to achieve better results. At Bolton, Freedman worked with a highly respected team assembled by Sam Allardyce, absorbing information from the likes of Lee Sargeson, now Everton’s manager of scouting operations, and Brian Prestidge, who subsequently became the director of intelligence and data insight at the City Football Group.

Palace’s budget is the lowest among the established Premier League clubs. Therefore, they either get to the player first or they are the last ones there — ideally the former – and the process of identifying talent is painstaking.

Recruitment staff ask 29 data-led questions around potential new signings to whittle down a long list of thousands of possible options to a much smaller shortlist of dozens. The in-person scouting process then takes precedence.

The supporters and club history are leveraged in negotiations. Prospective wingers, for example, might be shown clips of Wayne Routledge and Yannick Bolasie in action for the club, with the message hammered home that Palace supporters warm to skilful players who are prepared to take defenders on.

Yannick Bolasie (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

It is a system that has unearthed plenty of gems in recent years, thanks largely to the U.S. businessman John Textor’s arrival as a fourth general partner and an £87.5million acquisition of a 40 per cent stake in the club in 2021, which provided a significant boost to the transfer budget.

Marc Guehi was secured from Chelsea for £18million, Joachim Andersen from Lyon for an initial £17.5m, and Michael Olise from Reading for £8million in the summer of 2021, while last season, Cheick Doucoure became a mainstay in midfield after his £18million arrival from Lens. All have seen their values multiply several times over since then.

It is not a foolproof system. Alexander Sorloth, the Norwegian striker, was signed from Danish side FC Midtjylland for £9million in 2019 but struggled to establish himself in the Premier League, although Palace did at least break even on the deal when they sold him to RB Leipzig in 2020.

Alexander Sorloth (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Then there was Polish defender Jaroslaw Jach, a January 2018 arrival from Zaglebie Lubin who made just a single Premier League appearance, and Max Meyer, a German midfielder who had talent but could not impose himself on Premier League games. More recently, Odsonne Edouard and Jean-Philippe Mateta have struggled to impress consistently.

Freedman and Parish are acutely aware that Palace cannot afford too many missteps, which is one of the reasons the latter has such a hands-on role towards the end of the recruitment process. Parish will study video footage of targets himself and challenge Freedman on specific aspects of the deal. One early example of this process came with the decision to sign Murray from Brighton, a deal which raised eyebrows at boardroom level given it involved prising away the star striker of the club’s biggest rivals.

This internal debate is one of the reasons signings can be protracted, with every aspect of every deal interrogated by both the sporting director and the chairman. Insiders refer to the pair having a ‘cold shower moment’ when a deal doesn’t feel quite right; almost invariably, once those doubts are raised, they walk away. Sometimes that means missing out on talent, but in other cases, it helps limit the less successful acquisitions.

Questions are asked of the model each time a deal proves unsuccessful, with the process picked apart in an attempt to decipher what went wrong and whether lessons can be learned. There is an acknowledgement that data can only take you so far and that footballers are not an exact science.

Ultimately, Parish has the final say and there can be a reluctance to sanction significant spending, but the pair have a good working relationship. Trust is the most important component and that appears to be there.

Freedman is strong-willed, focused and one-track-minded. It was a trait that was evident in his playing career, then as a manager, as Palace discovered to their cost in 2012.

“I was a young manager at the time and I didn’t really have the experience to handle the attention I was getting (from Bolton),” Freedman told the _When Eagles Dare _documentary. “You also have a huge ego when you’re doing well, my circle of influence was wrong at the time and I was too impatient. I didn’t really know what I had.”

(Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

He is a more conciliatory character now, although that focus has not been diluted, particularly when he tackles the crunch point of transfer negotiations or discussions over a player’s new contract.

“He’s not manipulative, but he’ll make you feel the most important person to him when he’s dealing with you, whether you’re an agent, a player or a family member,” says another agent who has dealt with him. “He’s very focused and has his attention on you for the period of time you’re with him. He’s very smart and makes it like you’re talking to a friend in order to get what he wants. He plays the game.

“If you don’t know him well enough he will captivate you at the beginning. Depending on how important he sees you, he will be consistent, if he doesn’t, he’ll just keep it moving. It can come across as very cold.

“Once he feels he’s got what he wants he moves on quickly, but I like that. He doesn’t really do small talk – if he’s talking to you there is a reason why he’s doing it.

“He’s more personable than some other sporting directors. He’s tricky but respected.

“Everything (at Palace’s training ground) goes back to him, from the security to the canteen staff, sports science, everyone, he has full control of everyone in the building, it all goes through him. It’s almost like Alex Ferguson, I think that is probably his mentor.”

That is not the only quality he shares with Ferguson, according to another who has worked with him on deals.

“He’s quite ruthless in dealing with people and can be hard-nosed when standing his ground. Dougie is capable of holding his own in the jungle. He respects you more if you stand up for yourself.”



Sharks are circling Palace - but it’s all part of the plan

Freedman’s success, and longevity, at Palace has not gone unnoticed at other clubs and there have been expressions of interest from rivals. For now, though, he appears wedded to the Palace project.

If there has been success with recruitment, identifying players and finding the right profile to improve Palace’s squad, there is still one question to be asked: how does that success translate into the next stage of this strategy — the selling process and reinvestment of funds for who comes next?

As yet, Freedman has been largely untested in this area. There was the sale of Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United for £50million in the summer of 2019, but that is the only major outgoing deal negotiated since his arrival. With Palace boasting so many highly prized young talents — clubs are already circling around Olise, among others — there are likely to come sooner rather than later.

Being able to offer a pathway to bigger and better clubs is fundamental to Palace’s model. It is one of the reasons they were able to attract players with the calibre of Guehi, Olise and Eberechi Eze in the first place: those kinds of players, not unreasonably, will see themselves as belonging on grander stages in due course.

Michael Olise

Michael Olise (Clive Rose via Getty Images)

Freedman does not shrink from this potential disruption. He sees players moving ‘up’, ‘sideways’ (to clubs of a similar level as Palace) or signing new long-term deals at Selhurst Park as vindication for the recruitment department. That even applies to his own staff: one of the club’s scouts, Chris Jones, was appointed as Middlesbrough’s head of scouting last summer and left with Freedman’s blessing.

But being able to replace departing talents on a consistent basis is difficult: the examples of Leicester City and Southampton, both now in the Championship having previously been admired for their recruitment approach, are testament to that.

If there are to be true judgments cast on Freedman’s capabilities, then they will only be fully formed by upcoming transfer windows, where Palace’s young talent is certain to attract not just interest but formal approaches.

How that is handled will determine how his reputation is viewed. The reality, though, is that perceived success or failure is defined predominantly in the present. What has gone before will only be a footnote.

(Top photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)