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Leeds United v Crystal Palace: Dougie Freedman interview

Dougie Freedman's evolution from professional footballer to assistant manager of Crystal Palace was nothing less than natural progression; a calling, in some respects.

His interest in coaching has never been a guarded secret.

Freedman was running Palace's reserves at the age of 33 and, for the

two-and-a-half months in which the club loaned him to Leeds United, his long commute to Yorkshire was intensified by his insistence on attending coaching courses in London on his days off.

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"It's what I want to do when my legs give up on me," he once said, "and you've got to put the hours in." Now 36 and unofficially retired, involvement in tomorrow's game at Elland Road is recompense for those hours. But it will remind Freedman why, in his words, the life of a coach is a "poor second" to that of a player.

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Elland Road is liable to touch his sense of nostalgia. Freedman was part of the squad in Leeds for 14 matches in 2008, a short period of service but long enough for him to appreciate the club's finer attributes. Given the chance at the end of his loan, he would have chosen to stay for as long as Leeds were willing to have him.

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"All I heard was silence," Freedman said. "I was waiting for a call from (then Leeds manager) Gary McAllister but communication seemed to break down completely. I'm not sure what happened.

"I read a few things in the paper saying I wanted a certain length of contract or I wouldn't move from London because of my family but that's a load of crap. I'd have taken a deal up there, no questions asked.

"Leeds are huge in stature but they're a close-knit club. It's a proud and loyal place and I bought into their mentality straight away. The intensity of playing at Elland Road – I've been without it ever since and not out of choice. It's something I regret.

"I still get a feeling of jealously whenever the Palace players leave the dressing room and head for the tunnel. It'll be the same tomorrow, and probably moreso. I'm extremely lucky to be an assistant manager and it's a dream of a job for me but, compared to playing, coaching is a poor second-best."

Recollections of his weeks with Leeds are unlikely to reconcile Freedman to the reality of retirement. By fate or coincidence, he was on the books at Elland Road at a time of utter bedlam, unique even by United's standards.

The club were fighting two separate but related battles, attempting to qualify for and win League One's play-offs while bitterly contesting a 15-point deduction imposed on them by the Football League. Defeat was sustained on both fronts, despite Freedman's six goals and an epic legal challenge.

The striker's final appearance was made at Wembley, in a play-off final loss to Doncaster Rovers. Freedman would not admit as much but the transfer to Southend United which materialised later that summer must have given him a feeling of obscurity. "It was different," he says diplomatically. "You were very aware of what you were missing."

His playing contract with Southend was torn up by mutual agreement in March of this year and another door opened. The appointment of Paul Hart as manager of Palace saw Freedman invited to become his assistant, an invitation he accepted readily. His job was safeguarded in June when Hart's exit from Selhurst Park made way for George Burley, Palace's existing boss.

The long and short of the brief given to Hart and Freedman was to stave off relegation from the Championship, a goal achieved after a tense draw at Sheffield Wednesday on the final afternoon of last season.

Burley and Freedman are presently in the same situation with a squad third-bottom of the Championship. A recent period of debilitating insolvency has had a lingering effect but there was light on their horizon as they prepared to travel to Leeds today with the wind of three successive home wins behind them.

"There's no extraordinary difference between how we're playing now and how we were playing a month ago," Freedman said. "But in terms of results, you could say we've turned the corner.

"It's not a mystery. Basically, we've finally got a fully-fit squad – or thereabouts – and that's helping no end. I can see the confidence rising. If you look through our squad you'll see a lot of decent players but that's not much consolation when a bunch of them are injured. As much as I hate using the word luck, I don't think we've had a lot of it.

"But that's management for you and I've been round the block in the last eight or nine months. Talk about learning on the job. It might look hard from the outside but I'm lucky to be able to start my coaching career like this, at a club I love. Coaching was always the next step for me.

"It's on days like tomorrow that I think to myself 'Christ, I wish I was still playing'. I haven't lost that impulse yet. But I found out soon enough that mixing playing and coaching was impossible. I couldn't commit to both. At some stage you've got to accept that you can't be a player forever."

Freedman's opinion of Leeds is no greater than his affinity for Palace, the club with which he is most synonymous. His assessment of their squad, meanwhile, stands up to close examination, as Leeds might discover.

Their goalkeeper, Julian Speroni, was courted unsuccessfully by Fulham in the summer. A midfield including Neil Danns and Darren Ambrose – recently recovered from a leg injury – does not look inadequate in the Championship. It is players of that standing who Burley and Freedman will trust to see Palace through tomorrow's game.

Freedman can talk to their squad at length about how easily visiting clubs fold at Elland Road. He remembers clearly a league game between Leeds and Carlisle United in which three goals in 19 minutes – two of them his – won a crucial fixture that Leeds were in danger of losing.

"When Leeds get going and the crowd get with them, they've got a fantastic knack of blowing teams away," Freedman said. "I've seen it myself. There's always a point when something clicks and they come at you in swarms. That's the time when you try to stay composed and use your head. It's not easy – even as a Leeds player, there were periods in that stadium when I couldn't hear myself think.

"It's my first time back as a player or a coach and it feels a bit overdue. But divided loyalty isn't an issue. You only have to look at the table to see that we need points and we need results. There's no danger of me walking into the wrong dressing room. None at all."

 
 
 

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