Alan Pardew lauded Jason Puncheon after his first goal of the season earned Crystal Palace a 1-0 win over Norwich City that all but sealed Premier League survival.
Palace had lost nine of their prior 14 games – and six straight at home – before Puncheon’s decisive strike at Selhurst Park.
Pardew refused to celebrate survival with Palace 16th, on 37 points and 10 points clear of third bottom Sunderland with six games to go. But he did praise Puncheon.
“He carries this football club in his heart,” Pardew said.
“Some players play for a football club, they’re professional, but they have no emotion to it. He’s born here, his family are all from here. They were probably all in the stands today.
“He was feeling the pain of this run. His introduction back in the last two games has been a huge lift for us. Not just because of the manner in which he plays, but his personality and his leadership.
“He hasn’t had his greatest season in terms of goals and assists, but he’s a massive individual for this football club. He represents everything that’s right about a black player, coming from this area.
“The way he conducts himself, handles himself around younger pros, particularly from ethnic origin. He’s a great credit to this football club. It couldn’t be more fitting that he got the goal, but I was absolutely delighted it was him.”
It was Palace’s first home win since the defeat of Southampton almost four months ago.
Pardew pointed to the FA Cup wins over Saints, Tottenham and Reading which have taken the Eagles to a Wembley semi-final, but he also sensed anxiety in the ranks.
He added: “When you’re on a run like we have (been on)… I was nervous today and I’ve been in this game a long, long time.
“If I’m going to feel like that, (the players) certainly will and they played like that.
“We probably just had enough on the pitch offensively to win it.
“I don’t know if we’re safe, but it’s gone a long, long way towards it.
“We want to look up. Mid-table is three, four points, only, away, and that’s our next target.”