It was an inauspicious start.
Nineteen minutes into his home debut for Crystal Palace, Julian Speroni received a backpass from Tony Popovic. The Argentine goalkeeper, signed from Scottish side Dundee a few weeks earlier, controlled the ball and assessed his options. Everton striker Kevin Campbell was closing him down quickly, but Speroni still had time to make a clearance.
Instead he tried to dribble around Campbell, who nicked possession and was then brought down by an ill-judged slide tackle from Palace’s new No.1. Thomas Gravesen made no mistake from the penalty spot, and Everton went on to win 3-1 at Selhurst Park.
“Julian Speroni has good feet but I think he’s got to get used to pressure situations and clear his lines,” the manager Iain Dowie lamented afterwards.
Speroni would go on to start in each of Palace’s next four Premier League games, all of which ended in defeat. However, he was replaced between the sticks by Gabor Kiraly for the 1-1 draw with Aston Villa in late September, and the Hungarian kept his place for the remainder of the season.
In fact, Speroni would appear in only nine league games over the next two campaigns – both of them in the Championship following Palace’s relegation in 2005. There were opportunities for him to walk away but Speroni decided to stay put as Kiraly’s deputy.
It was a difficult time for him, though. At one point he slipped further down the pecking order as Scott Flinders challenged Kiraly for the starting spot, with Speroni sometimes failing to even make the bench.
Peter Taylor, who had replaced Dowie as the club’s manager after the latter controversially decamped to Charlton Athletic, eventually lost faith in Kiraly. Towards the end of the 2006/07 season, Taylor decided to give Speroni the second chance he had been waiting for.
“I don’t know what is happening with Gabor at the minute, but I’m hoping to have a look at Julian for at least two of the remaining games to see whether he can stake a claim to be No.1 next year,” the Eagles boss said.
Speroni clearly did enough to impress him. It is fair to say the man from Buenos Aires had some doubters to win over initially. Despite his occasional outings in the previous two seasons, Palace fans’ abiding memory of Speroni was that error against Everton. He had shown flashes of quality after that, but the Selhurst Park faithful needed more evidence before they were willing to accept the Argentine was good enough to start week in, week out.
Taylor, an exciting winger for Palace during his playing days, was sacked in October 2007, in large part because the style of football was so dull. Neil Warnock replaced him and was more than happy to stick with Speroni, who went on to play in every single league game that season. Palace quickly shot up the table under Warnock and ultimately secured a place in the play-offs, but Bristol City proved too strong over two legs.
The season thus ended in disappointment, but Speroni could reflect on it with positivity. He was deservedly named Palace’s Player of the Year, impressing with his sharp reflexes and all-round shot-stopping ability. The Eagles ended the campaign with the best defensive record in the Championship, an achievement for which Speroni deserved the bulk of the credit.
The accolades would keep coming for the former Dundee man. After signing a new three-year contract with the club in 2008, Speroni went on to win the Player of the Season prize in both of the next two campaigns, setting a new club record by scooping the gong three years in a row.
The 2009/10 season was a rollercoaster for Palace, who went from play-off push to relegation battle after being plunged into administration.
A 10-point deduction led to a winner-takes-all showdown with Sheffield Wednesday on the final day, when a 2-2 draw was good enough for Palace to survive at the Owls’ expense. Amid ongoing uncertainty over the club’s future in the weeks that followed, Speroni further endeared himself to the supporters when he declared: “I have said many times before I would play here all my life if I could.”
There was certainly interest in him from elsewhere. Warnock, who had left for Queens Park Rangers in March 2010, brought Clint Hill and Shaun Derry across west London with him. He wanted a reunion with Speroni too, but the Argentine stayed put after talks with Steve Parish and the other members of the CPFC consortium that eventually completed its takeover of the club.
The transfer rumours kept on coming, though. In 2011 Celtic, West Ham United, Middlesbrough and Fulham all registered an interest in a man who was by now regarded as the best England-based goalkeeper outside the Premier League. But Speroni stayed loyal. He was enjoying life in south London on and off the pitch, and he had grown to love the club for whom he had by then made more than 200 appearances.
Palace and Speroni secured a return to the top flight in 2013, with the Argentine playing a key role in the victories over Brighton & Hove Albion and Watford in the play-offs. Under Ian Holloway, Palace made a poor start to the season and looked to be staring relegation in the face, but Tony Pulis did a fine job of pulling them clear of trouble. After an impressive 11th-place finish, Speroni was named Palace’s Player of the Year for a fourth time.
The 2014/15 campaign would turn out to be his last as Palace’s first-choice goalkeeper. Warnock, returning for a brief second spell in the dugout in the first half of that season, remained a huge fan of Speroni’s. After a crucial penalty save against Burnley, Warnock said of his custodian: “I think they broke the mould when he came, he’s a one-off… I don’t think I’ve ever heard him shout – maybe that’s his biggest problem – but he’s a gem of a person and he trains like that every day.”
Warnock was correct in his assessment of Speroni, who was never the most vocal of goalkeepers. That was in part down to his nature: he is a humble, polite man who was not one for ranting and raving at his team-mates.
At 6ft 1in he was on the short side for a goalkeeper and was never particularly dominant inside the area. As a shot-stopper, though, he was extraordinary. Speroni pulled off some breathtaking saves down the years, frequently leaving Palace fans in disbelief at what they had just witnessed.
Between 2015/16 and his eventual exit at the end of the 2018/19 season, Speroni only played 14 league games. Yet he remained an important and well-loved member of the squad, and was always ready to step in when called upon. He bid an emotional farewell to the club after the final-day meeting with Bournemouth at Selhurst, with the fans giving him the send-off he deserved.
Speroni is a bona fide Palace legend. He has made more appearances and kept more clean sheets for the club than any other goalkeeper, and sits fifth in the overall list of games played having pulled on the Palace shirt 405 times over a 15-year period.
“I hadn’t heard much about Palace before I joined,” Speroni, who grew up 7000 miles away from Selhurst Park in Buenos Aires, told this writer in an interview for Rabona in 2015. “I never imagined I would come here, let alone stay for so long. It’s not something that happens in the current era.”