ASK those of a Crystal Palace persuasion which player has been their most important this season and there will be a near-unanimous response.

Conor Gallagher has weighed in with a string of energetic puppy-like performances, eight goals and made his England debut - and he is likely to be near the top of the list when the PFA young player of the year nominations are announced this month.

But there was a time from November onwards when even Gallagher lost his way for a couple of months. Of course, it was only natural for a callow midfielder in only his second full season to drop off a tad but there was also a very convincing explanation. Gallagher's dip in form coincided with Palace's own – they would win just two of their next 12 Premier League games - but it is likely the absence through injury of James McArthur helped to explain both. There was enough evidence to suggest that, following back to back 2-0 wins over Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Palace might have pushed for a European spot had he remained fully fit.

Instead, a hamstring injury sustained in the closing stages of that victory over Wolves has meant it has been a stop-start season for the Scot. Since his return to the fold, he has been limited to sporadic starts and appearances off the bench but his presence around the dressing room has coincided with a strong finish to the Premier League and progression to the last four of the FA Cup. Meanwhile, Gallagher's own return to form has also aligned with McArthur's recovery from injury.

Whatever the explanation, it has been a boon to Patrick Vieira, the Palace manager, who knows all too well the importance of McArthur's presence around his squad as he admitted when the Scot appeared in it at the start of February.

“It’s about his experience and his vocal presence when he is on the field. He is one of our leaders,” the Frenchman said of McArthur at the time.

In a season in which Palace have flourished due to a combination of the Frenchman's tactical nous and some very smart signings by Dougie Freedman, their Scottish head of recruitment, they now stand on the brink of an FA Cup final - and a potential European place via an alternative route.

Standing in the way will be Chelsea at Wembley Stadium tomorrow afternoon. In one of those quirks of modern football the terms of Gallagher's loan deal mean he will not be allowed to feature against his parent club and that means a vacancy in one of the two No.8 roles Vieira employs in a system with which he has had great success of late. The smart money is on McArthur filling it and certainly Palace supporters – who value his calming presence and organisational skills highly and whose affection for the Scot borders on cult-like – would have few problems with Vieira's team selection if he did.

“He's loved by the Palace fans,” says Jim Daly, comedian, television presenter and host of the Five Year Plan podcast. “He joined us in 2014 for like £7m. If you look at all of our transfers since then, he is arguably the best value transfer we have ever had for what we have got out of him. He's been fantastic and the Palace fans love him to bits. He is such a hard-working, honest midfielder and Palace fans can really see what he does for the team – and not just on the pitch but off it. There were times during lockdown – he had a bad injury during it and the stadiums were empty – and he almost took on a coaching role from the stands. He was coaching some of the young players like Tyrick Mitchell through the game and you could see that he really offered more than just what was on the pitch.”

“He is clearly someone who keeps himself to himself and cracks on with things. He is certainly not on social media tweeting bants all of the time. But he is so loved by the Palace fans and this recent form he has found under [Patrick] Vieira – he's been unfortunate with injuries – he has been absolutely superb. He's had a new lease of life even though he is 34 now. I think a lot of Palace fans are hoping that when he hangs up his boots in a few years that he hangs around in some sort of coaching role because he has clearly got an affinity for the club and we have one for him.”

It has been much the same for McArthur at whichever club he has been at. There was a time when he himself – much like Gallagher – was an all-action, goalscoring midfielder. During his early days at Hamilton Academical he played a starring role in Accies' first division promotion winning team. His dynamic partnership with James McCarthy in the New Douglas Park midfield persuaded Wigan first to buy McCarthy in the summer of 2009 then follow that purchase up with the signature of his erstwhile young team-mate the next.

McArthur would go on to win an FA Cup following an unforgettable final in which Wigan stunned Manchester City in 2013. A year later Neil Warnock took the then 27-year-old to Palace, where he has remained ever since. It speaks to McArthur's qualities that he has endured the coming and going of five managers, played in another FA Cup final (the painful 2016 defeat by Manchester United) and still remains a reliable pick for whichever manager happens to be occupying the Selhurst Park dugout. Daly offers an explanation as to why that might be the case.

“With Macca, there is very little drama, there never seems to be a problem with him except when he picks up injuries and then you do miss him,” he says. “He has played under six different managers in eight years at the club so that has to show that there is a sort of character in there for him to adapt. If you think of the regime changes, the system changes, the personnel changes, he has been through a lot at Palace and the fact that he is still here and is one of our most important players is a huge testament to the character and drive and adaptability of the guy. He gets better and better. He's going to go out on a high and, my word, if he can get us to the final he will certainly go out on a high.”