Born in Croydon, Jason Puncheon began his professional career at Selhurst Park – but it was not in the red and blue of Crystal Palace. The winger was part of the squad that played out Wimbledon’s final season before they were renamed Milton Keynes Dons and controversially relocated to Buckinghamshire. He made 34 appearances for MK Dons in total, but he failed to convince the League One club he was worth keeping beyond January 2006, when his contract was terminated.
The road to becoming an established Premier League player was not smooth. Puncheon had to take a step backwards after leaving MK Dons, dropping down to the fourth tier to sign for Barnet. He then rose to the Championship with Plymouth in 2008 but struggled to nail down a place in the team and was twice loaned back to MK Dons.
Puncheon’s big break came when he joined Southampton in 2009. The south coast side won back-to-back promotions to climb from League One to the Premier League. Puncheon was suddenly a top-flight player. But by the summer of 2013, he was deemed surplus to requirements by Mauricio Pochettino and sent on loan to Palace. It was the start of something special.
Not that anyone knew it at the time. Puncheon, who sat in the Holmesdale Road Stand as a kid, had a difficult start to his Palace career. The Eagles collected just three points from the first 33 available, a run which led to Ian Holloway’s departure in October. Tony Pulis was his replacement and Palace soon improved, to the extent that they moved out of the bottom three on Boxing Day with a victory over Aston Villa.
Puncheon soon became an integral part of Pulis’ team. He was more of a tricky winger than a lightening quick one, beating full-backs with guile rather than out-and-out pace. He also had a more polished end product than Yannick Bolasie, the man on the other flank. Puncheon showed he had a strong character too: after a horrendous missed penalty against Tottenham Hotspur, he scored back-to-back winning goals as Palace beat Stoke City and Hull City at home. The club duly made his loan move permanent before the January transfer window closed.
No Palace player scored more goals in the Premier League that season. Puncheon was particularly influential in the spring, as Pulis’ side pulled clear of the bottom three and into mid-table after a brilliant five-game winning run, during which the winger scored four times.
Pulis left on the eve of the new season after disagreements with Steve Parish about transfers. That threatened to plunge Palace into turmoil. Malky Mackay was lined up to replace Pulis, but Palace pulled the plug on the deal amid allegations of misconduct by his former employers Cardiff City. In the end the Eagles turned to a familiar face in Neil Warnock, but he struggled to get the best out of the players at his disposal and was replaced by Alan Pardew in January 2015.
Pardew brought the best out of Puncheon. The new manager’s impact was immediate. Puncheon scored the winner against Tottenham in Pardew’s first game at the helm, then found the back of the net again as Palace came from behind to beat Burnley 3-2. After the match, Pardew described Puncheon as “the best player on the pitch by a country mile”.
The former Southampton man was selected as an inverted winger on the right flank that afternoon, but Pardew would soon move him into a No.10 role. It was an inspired decision. Puncheon’s creativity was more effective in a central role, and his redeployment allowed Pardew to get both Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha into the side. In only his second match infield, Puncheon provided all three assists in a 3-1 victory over West Ham United that moved Palace eight points clear of the bottom three.
The Eagles won six of their last 10 matches that season, including a 2-1 triumph over Manchester City (Puncheon scored a free-kick) and a 3-1 win against Liverpool in Steven Gerrard’s final home game for the club (Puncheon scored his team’s first goal of the afternoon). In May the local lad was rewarded with a four-year contract extension, after which Pardew hailed his performances in the previous few months.
”Since I’ve come in, Jason Puncheon has been the best player,” he said. “He has orchestrated our play. We’ve given him more responsibility than he’s ever had in a central role and he’s answered all those questions. He’s made himself the intelligence of the team. You need to keep your best technical players. At the level we’re at, it’s difficult to get players of Puncheon’s quality. I’m really pleased to secure him.”
Puncheon continued to show those qualities in the first half of the following season, as Palace climbed to the dizzying heights of fifth; after 17 rounds of fixtures, Pardew’s men were outside the Champions League qualification spots on goal difference alone. Puncheon’s versatility was useful during this period: he played as No.10, a deeper central midfielder and on both flanks as Pardew kept things flexible.
The good times would not last, though – at least not in the Premier League. Palace tumbled down the table in the second half of the season, swapping their European aspirations for relegation worries. It was Puncheon who stepped up when Palace needed him most: his winner against Norwich City, and the celebration that followed, remains one of the club’s most memorable goals since promotion.
Despite their struggles in the league, Palace reached the FA Cup final in 2015/16. Puncheon was omitted from the starting XI, a decision he did not take particularly well. Nevertheless, he came off the bench to equalise against Manchester United, before Palace cruelly lost in extra time.
The writing was on the wall for Pardew, who was eventually dismissed in December and replaced by Sam Allardyce, who led Palace to safety. Puncheon did not score a single goal in 2016/17, but he did provide five assists and was a key player under Allardyce, who handed him the captain’s armband.
Unfortunately, though, Puncheon’s time at Selhurst was coming to an end. He only made 15 more Premier League appearances, his career derailed by a cruciate ligament injury suffered against Manchester City. Roy Hodgson did not consider him part of his plans, and Puncheon was released when his contract expired at the end of the 2018/19 season.
“It’s been an honour and a privilege to have represented my hometown club,” he said when his exit was confirmed. “I leave with memories that will stay with me forever.”