I’ll take you all the way back to August 1973 and my 6th Birthday ‘Treat’. It was my brother and my first Crystal Palace game standing on the famous Holmesdale Terrace with our dad. Forget glory hunting this was X-rated pain, a 4-0 home defeat in the old Third Division (days before the soul was taken out of football by Sky TV). This was the harsh reality of following a club like Palace, a lifetime of disappointment at 4:45 pm on a Saturday or nowadays whatever time that draws in the foreign viewers. There was no other choice we lived five minutes from Selhurst Park, Palace ‘til we die!
However, when we moved down to Winchester in ‘76 and I entered into mainstream education for the first time, to my shame, I became a closet Palace supporter. We weren’t then and never will be a fashionable club of the likes of Liverpool, Man U, Spurs, and Chelsea. I was bullied a lot in mainstream school because of my speech, admitting to supporting Palace just added to the bullying. So, to try and fit in, I pretended to support whatever club my peers supported. So in Winchester (England’s Deep South) this meant following great Northern clubs such as Liverpool and Leeds United winning everything in the ‘70s. Thirteen years later, how things would change…
My previous blog told the story to how I ended up living on Merseyside for the last thirty years and counting. Ironically, at this time there was a renaissance of my love for Crystal Palace FC. Hypocritically I had become a bit of a ‘glory hunter’. We were infamously labelled as ‘The Team of the Eighties’ (after our first division promotion in ‘79) by the tabloids but never really lived up to this grandiose title. In reality, after a humiliating relegation in 1981 with one of the all-time lowest points total for a top flight team, we spent the majority of that decade in the mediocrity of the 2nd Division going nowhere fast. After more managers than Liverpool had trophies during the 80’s, Stevie Copple was appointed as our manager in 1987. In his first season we came close to getting into the newly formed end of season ‘Play-Offs’ but just missed out on the final day. This was the start of arguably the most successful period in our history.
In Spring of ‘89 there was a realistic excitement that we were putting together a serious promotion bid. Not least to ‘Wright Bright Nights’ and days, i.e. the goal scoring partnership of Ian and Mark respectively. We had a lively young squad of home-grown players who had come up through the club’s youth system. These factors combined led to us narrowly missing out on an automatic promotion spot, Chelsea and Man City ahead of us. I wonder whatever happened to these clubs..? Anyway, we were in the play-offs for a further four games if we were to get to the promised land of ‘The First Division’. This was in the days before Wembley hosted the play-off final.
We won our two leg semi-final against Swindon, and would be pitted against Blackburn Rovers in the Final. In the away first leg we lost 3-1, but with a crucial away goal. This would be vital in the home second leg. At full-time we were 2-0 up on the day, 3-3 on aggregate. Another 30 minutes of extra-time would ensue, as away goals only counted after 120 minutes in the English domestic game. We managed to find that winning goal (although slightly fortunate if my memory serves me correctly as this was years before VAR was introduced), and we had made it to the big time. Things started relatively ok in the 1989-1990 season until an evening trip to Anfield in the September. Let’s just say it was a reality check of the first degree, we conceded 9 and scored 0. Fate would have it in the words of Vera Lynn, “we’ll meet again” that season…
In January 1990 we played Liverpool in the league at home. I was so confident we would beat them I was drunkenly telling everyone in a Liverpool nightclub the night before the game, until someone suggested I better close my mouth if I didn’t want a trip to The Royal A & E department. Predictably we lost 2-0. As the months of 1990 went on, we were beginning to build up a head of steam in the FA Cup. We were fortunate in being given ‘easy’ ties on paper, and unlike many other seasons not embarrassing ourselves. To my surprise anyway, we had snuck into the Semi-Final and waiting for us would be the Mighty Reds who had put 11 past us without reply already this season. On paper a ‘no-brainer’, even more pundits in a Sunday Mirror poll the day of the game (8th April) gave 2nd Division Oldham Athletic more chance of beating Man U in the other semi, than us beating Liverpool. To be fair, Oldham were a decent outfit around that time and had reached the League Cup Final of that season, and Man U were nothing special like they are today.
For the first time in history, both games were held on a Sunday and broadcast live by the BBC. For some irresponsible reason, given the tragedy of the year before, Liverpool v Palace was a midday kick-off at Villa Park with both set of fans having to travel over a hundred miles to the venue. Whereas the other semi-final, Man U v Oldham, was a local trip by both set of fans to Maine Road (home of Man City) and was a 3 pm start. I was unable to watch the game live due to an already booked coach trip. I did have a Walkman so was able to catch the game on a fuzzy mediumwave radio broadcast. Predictably, Liverpool were one nil up by ‘goal machine’ Ian Rush and were looking comfortable at half-time. I feared the worse. Then Palace got an equaliser shortly after half-time courtesy of Mark Bright and then went ahead, 2-1 thanks to Gary O’Reilly. Unbelievable, but as a Palace fan we never get too far ahead of ourselves especially against a team like Liverpool. And we were proved right, they got back on equal terms with a goal from Steve McMahon, and then we gave away a penalty, 3-2 to the Reds, John Barnes scoring from the spot. As injury time came, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was coming load and clear through my earphones. We gave it a good go but sadly it was not to be. In the dying seconds we got a set piece and Andy Gray (not the Everton Legend and ex-Sky punter) banged the ball in the back of the net for us, 3-3 into extra time.
My emotions were all over the place trying to remain calm at the back of the bus. Extra time was edgy but I got the sense Palace were gaining in confidence. Midway through the second half of extra-time, up pops ‘Super Al’ as Alan Pardew makes it 4-3 Palace! The next few minutes to the fulltime whistle seemed like an eternity but we had done it. A trip to Wembley against Man U, who had to have a reply against Oldham to get to the Final, but sadly we couldn’t hang on to a 3-2 lead. Super Ian Wright came on with his first touch of the ball scored a blinder to equalise in normal time, then scored again in extra time. However, Mark Hughes got the equaliser late into extra time and Man U went on to win 1-0 in the replay, thus saving Fergie from the chop and leading to two decade of dominance by Man U. I often wonder what would have happened if we had won that game, League title and Champion’s League cups would grace the Selhurst Park trophy cabinet…(and my girlfriend wonders what would have happened to Man U had Fergie been sacked).
That semi-final has been an inspiration in my life, every time I think about it it brings a smile to my face. I’ve nothing personal against Liverpool, on the contrary (to my better half’s family’s disgust, being die hard Everton fans), I support the reds in Europe and against the big London & Manchester teams. Leaving the Merseyside rivalry aside, games like these show that even against the odds there’s always hope. From that time to this, I’ve followed Palace through thick and thin; the latter being the case most of the time. I’m proud to stand up and say “Palace ‘til I die”!
COMING UP IN NEXT MONTH’S BLOG, the start of a six part serialisation of my diary of a rail trip round the UK in late Summer 1990.