Hoof for the Sky: Crystal Palace 1990-1
Our Great Teams series of posts, soon to be augmented with its fortieth episode, has occasionally been joined by an occasional look back to those top flight seasons where it all came together in wondrous fashion for clubs more accustomed to life in less exalted company. In February, Adam Orton recalled Norwich City’s valiant heroes of the early nineties while just a couple of years before, Crystal Palace were the ones defying gravity. Here, we are delighted to welcome Terry Duffelen for his first post for us. many of you will know Terry as co-pundit on the always listenable Sound of Football podcast and he also devotes considerable time to analysis of the Bundesliga, both via the Bundesliga Show pod and the Bundesliga Lounge blog. Here’s Terry on those Eagles:
It had been on the cards for a while but the above banner headline in the London Evening Standard in September 1991 confirmed what all Palace fans had feared: Crystal Palace striker, Ian Wright, was moving to George Graham’s Arsenal and while we did not know it yet, the chain of events that would result in the Eagles’ rapid decline from the summit of the English Football had been set in motion.
That season, Palace went on to finish tenth in the old First Division. A respectable position for a club of its size and stature but the writing was on the wall. Wright’s replacement, Marco Gabbiadini, had been an ill-conceived signing, John Salako, the tricky England winger, had damaged his cruciates and was battling to save his career and the club finished the season with Chris Coleman, a centre back, playing up front. Changes would have to be made if Palace were to stay in the brand new FA Premier League, let alone emulate the previous season in which the Selhurst club finished third in the league. That’s right… third.
The year 1990 would prove to be a watershed in the English game. People were trying (and failing) to make sense of Hillsborough and English clubs were still banned from European club Football because of the Heysel Stadium Disaster. Fans were mistrusted and thought of as hooligans and the game faced a hostile Government looking to take punitive action against its supporters, in the form of ID cards. Football had become marginalised and if Italia 90 and Gazza hadn’t reminded the nation that there is a reason why soccer was a such a wonderful past time, it is difficult to imagine the English game enjoying the success it has today. While it would be fanciful to suggest that Crystal Palace played a role in the revival of the beautiful game it would fair to say they bore witness to the rebirth.
Prior to the 1990 World Cup a minor miracle occurred. After a cup run against lower division opposition, Crystal Palace met the mighty Liverpool in the semi-final. The newly promoted South London club had had a difficult first season in the top flight and had been humiliated at Anfield earlier in the campaign with a 9-0 thrashing at the hands of the Champions. Incredibly, Palace upset the form book and beat Kenny Dalglish’s team 4-3 in extra time to progress to a Cup Final appearance against Manchester United. Ultimately, the Reds triumphed after a replay thanks to Lee Martin’s solitary goal and the obstinacy of the match referee, Alan Gunn.
Despite this moderate success, manager Steve Coppell was under no illusions as to the task ahead as he approached the start of the 1990-1 season. He pointed out that Palace were among the bookies favourites to be relegated and that bookies made a habit of getting this sort of thing right. Coppell put his hand in his pocket and made a couple of crucial signings that would not only secure the club’s top flight status but put them within a thrice European Football.
In excess of one million pounds were spent on two signings from rival south London clubs: Eric Young from Wimbledon and John Humphrey from Charlton. Young was a centre half who had previously played in partnership with Andy Thorn who had himself transferred from the Dons the previous year. Their alliance would be regarded as just as valuable to the Eagles as the two strikers up front: the feared and hated Ian Wright and Mark Bright.
Wright and Bright had been the scourge of Second Division defences in the late eighties. Wright, with his mad skills and pace only turned professional at 22 years old and Bright, was a washed up Leicester City player seeking refuge in South London. If it hadn’t been for Palace’s crippling finances in this time, Coppell probably would not have put this duo together and not only would Palace have been denied the most prolific strike partnership of the age but in all likelihood the world of broadcasting would have been spared the Saturday morning chat show starring the pair in the early noughties. Quite a legacy, I’m sure you’ll agree.
In the middle were Geoff Thomas and Andy Gray. Thomas was a classic lion hearted midfielder: the club captain and the kind of player who was happiest grabbing a game by the scruff of the neck. Gray was a box to box lung busting player. Both enjoyed taking shots from range with varying degrees of success. Both were adored by the fans – even the fractious Gray who had previously left the club under something of a cloud.
On the flanks were Salako and Richard Shaw (left), Eddie McGoldrick and Humphrey. Salako was probably the club’s most gifted player: a left winger and very similar to his manager when he was a player. McGoldrick played on the opposite side and proved to be a functional if unspectacular winger.
Between the sticks was Nigel Martyn, signed the season before to replace the shell shocked Perry Suckling; the big Cornishman was the first ever £1 million goalkeeper. The first eleven was a curious mix of bargain basement signings made good, former youth players and expensive transfers. It reflected Palace’s journey from Second division no-hopers to title contenders in a few years.
Coppell’s Palace was very different Coppell’s Reading. This was the early nineties and if you wanted to get on in football on a modest budget you played the ball long to the big men up front. See also, Graham Taylor’s Watford, Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United, John Beck’s Cambridge United and Wimbledon managed by just about everyone except Peter Withe. In this time, an ideological battle was taking place between those who believed that the ball should be played on the ground and those didn’t care what you did with the ball as long as it ended up in the back of the net. You can guess which side the Press were on.
The fact that the Long Ball game was a tactical cul-de-sac doesn’t disguise the fact that this was a class war between the haves who could afford players that could pass the ball to feet and the have-nots who could not. The Long Ball game may have belonged to the Cretaceous period but it gave rise to some mighty beasts in the shape of Wright, Bright, Brian Deane, John Fashanu and Dion Dublin to name a few. These magnificent creatures live on today and continue to be treated with suspicion as though haunted by some latent race memory but I digress.
After a 1-1 away draw with Luton (yes Luton), the season go off to a flyer with a cracking 2-1 home win under the floodlights at Selhurst over Chelsea. I missed the first goal as I’d forgotten that they’d done away with the terraces in the Arthur Waite Stand over the Summer, so it took me a while to find my seat.
Coppell’s team embarked on a club record unbeaten start to the season that included wins at Carrow Road and The Baseball Ground, including a thrilling 2-2 draw with Nottingham Forest and an 8-0 thrashing of Southend in the League Cup which had the Shrimpers’ manager, Dave Webb threatening to turn the floodlights off for the second leg.
The penultimate game of that fourteen match run was a 4-3 win at Selhurst over Wimbledon. However, the achievement was tarnished by the shameful abuse leveled at Dons striker, John Fashanu following revelations in the tabloids that his brother, Justin, was gay. Every time he touched the ball he was wolf whistled and supporters called out to him with homophobic language while the stewards, from what I could see, stood by and did nothing. Fashanu, dealt with the abuse with consummate professionalism and scored a fantastic goal from range with a piece of individual skill, chipping Nigel Martyn from outside the area in a manner which his, now late, brother would have been proud.
Despite the off the field unpleasantness, that game remains a highlight in what was turning into the kind of season that left more than a few red marks on the skin as Palace fans continued to pinch themselves. Luton again, Manchester City, Sunderland and most satisfyingly, Liverpool were all beaten as Palace marched to third in the table. Despite their lofty position, talk of winning the League was played down by Coppell and after a gruelling and unsuccessful FA Cup third round tie against Forest that went to two replays, the fatigue started to set in.
A tedious 0-0 draw with QPR was followed up by a humiliating 4-0 shoeing at Highbury by the League leaders (and eventual Champions) Arsenal. After defeat at Coventry the Eagles bounced back with three wins in a row before going into a slump of five games which resulted in only a single 1-0 win – against Paul Gascoigne’s Tottenham.
The title “dream” was over but the Red And Blue Army did experience trophy success, in the form of the Full Member’s or Zenith Data Systems Cup. This long defunct competition was open to the top two divisions of the Football League but the senior teams (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United) did not participate. Consequently, many newspapers and fanzines risked incurring the wrath of the Disney lawyers by calling the competition a “Mickey Mouse Cup”. Whatever, Palace got to the final at Wembley and beat Everton 4-1 after extra time. Ian Wright scored a brace.
The game was very physical with some of the Everton players accusing the Palace players (Young and Thorn in particular) of deliberately trying to injure their opponents. That bad feeling was to have repercussions as Everton centre back Martin Keown was sent off a few weeks later in the league match between the two sides after a foul on Eric Young which put him out of action for months and was described by Martin Tyler who was commentating at the match as “unprofessional.” Keown would no doubt argue that Young had it coming.
In spite of a ritual 3-0 slaughter at the hands of Liverpool at Anfield, in front of a gleeful Clive Tyldesley, Palace were safely ensconced in third place. European football, via the UEFA Cup, was very much on the cards by virtue of second placed Liverpool’s ban (a legacy of Heysel) which would allow Palace into the competition. However, UEFA decided to end the Reds’ exile so the two qualification spots were allocated to the top two teams, after all. For the second season in a row, Palace had just missed out on Europe.
We consoled ourselves by rounding off this best ever campaign with two 3-0 wins. The first was at Wimbledon where Ian Wright scored a hat trick in front of the Palace fans in the Dons’ final match at Plough Lane before they moved to Selhurst Park. The second was a somewhat hollow act of revenge against Manchester United who, if memory serves, fielded a weakened team as they were due to face Barcelona in the European Cup Winner’s Cup Final a few days later. It was a satisfying way to end the season but did leave us wondering how we would have fared in Europe had we prevailed over United in the FA Cup Final twelve months earlier. This was, however, a minor gripe after what was otherwise a magnificent achievement – which, alas, would not last.
The cracks in the squad began to appear the following season after the club chairman, Ron Noades, decided that his opinions were of sufficient value that Channel 4 viewers would benefit from hearing them during a documentary on racism in football. Needless to say his somewhat stereotypical notions of the qualities or otherwise of black footballers caused controversy in the media and it is said, a split in the Dressing Room.
Despite Palace’s respectable tenth place finish they could not replicate that lethal strike partnership after Wright’s departure. Andy Gray also left, once again under a cloud and delighted in scoring against us for his new club, Tottenham. In the 1992-3 season, the first of the new Premier League, Palace were relegated on the last day at Highbury. A certain Mr I Wright was among the scorers that day and like Gray, celebrated his goal like a man who had no regrets about his departure. While Palace bounced back after one season, the Eagles have never been able to make it stick at the highest level and remain a steadfast second division club, despite the best efforts of some previous owners to put the club in the poor house.
As high watermarks go, finishing a season as the third best in the entire League is one that most clubs would be proud of. But the achievement did have the unfortunate consequence of setting an unrealistically lofty bench mark which they have since tried and failed to reach. Therein lies the cautionary tale for clubs that have ideas and ambitions that exceed their resources. I believe that for many years, the fans thought that Palace could recapture the success of the 1990-1 season and maybe go one better and qualify for Europe. However, after two spells in administration which almost led to ruination, the Selhurst faithful are, generally speaking, a little more realistic and happy to just have a football club to watch.
A club with happy memories and occasional success.