WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES
When Palace are bad they are very bad. When they are good, they are still sort of bad. Palace have long been inbetweeners, laughing in the face of success and nuzzling at the bosom of glorious failure. It may not be the rational choice but for those who like to ‘do different’, Palace is the only choice…
Image: Danny Last
“And even then, supporting Palace has a certain cult value – like pretending that some Peruvian rock band is the best in the world.”
- John Peel
There has always been something about Crystal Palace, and following them does strange things to rational people. It was ever thus, through formation and Johnny Byrne and Malcolm Allison and the Team of the Eighties, though never has the glorious turbulence of the club been more evident than in its recent history.
In my 22 years supporting Palace, they have:
Reached their only FA Cup final, beating Liverpool en-route in the semi-final – having lost to the Reds 9-0 earlier in the same season;
Won a now defunct trophy – the Zenith Data Systems Cup. It remains the only ‘major’ trophy in our collection;
Finished third (our highest-ever finish) in the top division with little reward – an early lifting of Liverpool’s post-Heysel ban meant we were denied a crack at Europe;
Toured apartheid-torn South Africa in 1992;
Won promotion to the Premier League three times;
Been relegated from the Premier League four times;
Entered administration twice;
Employed Attilio Lombardo, a grossly overweight Tomas Brolin, a pensionable Edgar Davids and the first Chinese players to ply their trade in England.
All clubs have a claim to the rollercoaster cliché, but few fit is as perfectly as Palace. As a child, you have no idea what you’re buying into.
In a family split down the middle, between Palace and Millwall, I (thankfully) chose my father’s side. My first Palace memory is my dad jumping up and hitting the front room ceiling with his fingertips in celebration at our opener in the 1990 FA Cup final. Sadly, I never got to go to a game with my dad as he passed away when I was six.
My first game was in March 1991, when some family friends took me to a home game against Derby in an executive box and I was taken to meet the players. I still cherish my autograph book full of the names of perhaps Palace’s greatest ever side – Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Geoff Thomas, Andy Gray, Eric Young, John Salako, Nigel Martyn – Peruvian rockers all of them, managed by the legend of legends at Selhurst Park, Steve Coppell. My second game was the ZDS Cup final, a 4-1 victory over Everton. I wasn’t old enough to calculate that things wouldn’t always be so good. Nevertheless, I was well and truly hooked.
There have been excruciating lows and outrageous highs. I never realised I could celebrate a text message relaying a late equaliser at West Bromwich Albion so hard. I wouldn’t say I’ve been to hell and back, but I have been to Barnsley – taking the soul-sapping club coach for a Tuesday night dead rubber which was so devastatingly poor that we had our money refunded. Character building I think they call it.
The bond I have with Crystal Palace is extraordinary, strengthened by my dad’s support for the Eagles, and the knowledge that my support is continuing a legacy. There have been some wonderfully happy days since 1991 – Wembley in 1997; Edgeley Park in 2001; the Millennium Stadium in 2004 – but it’s mostly been cruelly dashed hopes and abject misery, and I’ve loved every second.
Three periods of my time as a Palace fan stick out as particularly remarkable, and sometimes it can be instructive to delve beneath the obvious names, and examine how some lesser lights have represented turning points and stages in history. The following three men have, for differing reasons, helped to define what Crystal Palace are today.
1990/91 was a high point for Palace. We came third, won a trophy, and truly mixed it with the big boys. I was only six and only went to two matches, but the superb season review video of that campaign means that I can recall it almost as vividly as if I had been there. Images of the Palace Pro Set cards are etched in my memory.
Under Coppell and the ultra-prudent chairmanship of Ron Noades, Palace formed an exciting, vibrant squad from unfashionable nearly men, youngsters and lower leagues bargains. We were agricultural in style, but, like a cop playing by his own rules, we got results. It couldn’t last. Missing out on Europe, along with a lack of board vision, was hugely significant. In the summer of 1991, Palace ‘strengthened’ the squad with Chris Coleman and Lee Sinnott. Leeds, who finished behind Palace in fourth, bought Tony Dorigo, Rod Wallace, Steve Hodge and – mid season – Eric Cantona. They won the league in 1991/92. As with everything with Palace, it was a case of so near and if only.
Seasoned terrace campaigners are adamant we were one or two ambitious purchases from being league winners. Instead, talisman Wright, by now getting itchy feet, was sold to Arsenal for £2.5m early in 1991/92. Palace needed a quality replacement, and quick. They were linked with Alan Shearer and Brian Deane. They got Marco Gabbiadini. For £1.8m. In truth he was OK, but clearly he wasn’t Wright or right, and he didn’t gel with Bright. He lasted four months – 25 appearances and seven goals – before being sold to Derby for a significant loss. Wright’s departure was the beginning of the end of that great team, and Palace were relegated in the inaugural Premier League season.
The tale of Mark Goldberg should have been cautionary, but sadly similar stories have played out at many clubs in recent years. An ambitious, self-made upstart with foundations built on sand, he decided he wanted a plaything, and in the late 1990s, his football team was it. His purchase of the club from Noades was inauspicious, buying the club but not the stadium.
He funded some extravagant purchases (including the maniac Sasa Curcic), briefly made God-like midfielder Lombardo player-manager, and finally settled on Terry Venables as coach following another relegation. Tel was paid extravagantly, yet refused to cut short a holiday to take charge of an Intertoto Cup tie against Samsunspor. He bought lots of expensive dross and, unsurprisingly, things quickly unravelled and Palace were soon in administration.
Things were bleak and relegation in 1999/2000 looked inevitable. However, as the bond between players, staff and supporters grew ever stronger, that man Coppell managed to forge a competitive side out of loan signings, has-beens and never-weres. Merlin Premier League sticker veterans Dean Austin and Andy Linighan were giants, on and off the pitch, as they galvanised a club on its knees.
A hero of mine at the time was Ashley Cole. He arrived, unknown, from Arsenal for a short loan spell to cover the problematic left-back position. Expectations were low, but he was outstanding. From his first moments in red and blue, his immense quality was obvious. He played a vital role in helping Palace avoid a catastrophic relegation, including scoring a peach in a narrow win over Blackburn. He quickly established himself back at Arsenal, Palace were saved that summer, Goldberg eventually wound up managing Bromley, and everyone lived happily ever after (sort of). To this day, Cole still speaks of Palace with affection, and Selhurst is perhaps the only English ground outside of Stamford Bridge where he is guaranteed a good reception.
Palace are at an exciting point in their history. Two and a bit years on from another turbulent administration where extinction was a very real possibility, they find themselves finally united with their ground, managed by a club legend and owned by four lifelong fans who are transparent and progressive. The club is tight-knit, and at its very heart is the youth academy, run by Issott (pictured, below left).
Historically productive, it has raised the bar in recent years – the one positive legacy of Simon Jordan’s tenure. Where once it produced plenty of good players, it is now developing and polishing outstanding talent. Victor Moses – who fled to England following the murder of his parents in religious riots in Kaduna in 2002 – is blossoming beautifully after his cut-price, administration-induced move to Wigan; Wilfried Zaha and Jonathan Williams are future superstars. There is an abundance of quality bubbling beneath, too.
Issott and his team work tirelessly to source and nurture talent, and an embryonic but already fruitful arrangement with the Oasis Academy allows young players to get nearer to Malcolm Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours. Issott and Dougie Freedman work particularly closely, and the gaffer is prepared to throw kids in – Williams was handed his full debut at arch-rivals Brighton last season when he was still 17. He ran the game.
Young players and parents – with a cursory nod to John Bostock’s stagnation at Spurs – are attracted to Palace as they know kids will be educated and coached expertly, given a chance, and allowed to move on to bigger and better things when the time and money is right.
There are few things as special for supporters as seeing ‘your own’ flourish, and the academy’s success is dovetailing with a new-found optimism, a unique atmosphere driven by the Holmesdale Fanatics, and a reawakening of the relationship between club and local community, and south London at large.
The immediate future for Palace is bright and sustainable, but battle-weary Palace fans are guarded against getting too carried away. Kipling would approve of how Palace deal with triumph and disaster. What other team could be relegated from the Premier League on 49 points? What other team could lose the Division One play-off final in the last minute, only to win the Division One play-off final in the last minute the following year (bouncebackability indeed)? What other team could win promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs having sat 19th in late December? When Palace are bad they are very, very bad. When they are good, they are still sort of bad. Historically Palace have been inbetweeners, laughing in the face of success and nuzzling at the bosom of glorious failure.
Even now, with patience the watchword but good times on the horizon, Palace are taking a different route. Success won’t be bought, it will be earned. Marquee signings won’t take us to the Premier League, academy players will.
The motto of my alma mater fits Palace perfectly: Do Different. If you want Megan Fox, choose Arsenal; if you want your awkward newsreader crush, choose Palace. If you want van Gogh, choose Liverpool; if you want paintings of dogs playing pool, choose Palace. If you want Radiohead, choose Manchester City; if you want Mar de Copas, choose Palace.