Brian Sparrow
Steve Coppell had worn the No.7 shirt for Manchester United and England with great success, and it is not surprising that he was to see this position as a key one in rebuilding the team, signing the Scottish winger Alan Irvine from Everton. His assessment of where the weaknesses lay was spot on, and for the first time since the days of Kenny Sansom, Palace tried using a natural left back in the No.3 shirt, with Brian Sparrow coming from Arsenal. Trevor Aylott was signed from Luton as a direct replacement for McCulloch, and with Giles having gone during the Summer, Coppell signed another forward, Tony Mahoney from Brentford, although it never became clear what his position was meant to be. The really significant departures, of course, were Billy Gilbert and Vince Hilaire, whose contracts had expired and who were therefore at liberty to move wherever they wished. Inspired by Peter Nicholas' stated desire to leave the club, they at last decided to give up waiting for things to improve at Palace, and went to Portsmouth and Luton respectively, leaving an uncommitted Nicholas and Jerry Murphy behind, with Jim Cannon, as the last reminders of the halcyon days under Venables. With Gilbert gone, and Lacy of little use, Coppell signed Arsenal's central defender Chris Whyte, an excellent footballer who regrettably only played 17 games before returning to Highbury under very peculiar circumstances.  

At once the philosophical difference between Mullery and Coppell became evident, with the new manager's team starting from the premise of a solid and logical shape, and players being used in very specific roles, contrasting with Mullery's confused and aimless formations. Behind the scenes, Noades was claiming that the club was now heading in the right direction financially, denying accusations that Palace lacked ambition, although he did appeal for a millionaire to take over as Chairman and inject some cash for new players. He had in mind someone like Elton John, but the closest

Trevor Aylott
we got was a rumour about one of Status Quo, which came to nothing. Another good sign was that Alan Smith's youth team had been reconstituted, and two 15-year-olds - Richard Shaw and John Salako - were soon making names for themselves.  

On the field, Coppell's newly wrought team made a poor start to the season, and very soon found themselves in the bottom three, with the manager fairly happy with his defence and midfield, but bemoaning "the age old problem of getting the ball in the onion bag". Trevor Aylott was carrying on where Langley, McCulloch, Jones and Brown had left off and Mabbutt's by now predictable injury problem was once again keeping him out of the team, leaving Cummins and Mahoney to forage up front to little effect. Cummins, who had looked as if he could have been such a good player, was apparently homesick in London and moved back to Sunderland, and with Whyte moving back to Arsenal shortly afterwards, this gave Gavin Nebbeling an extended run in the centre of defence alongside Jim Cannon, who had by now passed Terry Long's club appearance record.

Apart from the perennial problem of scoring goals, the midfield formation was unbalanced, with Irvine, Stebbing and Nicholas all being exclusively right-sided players, and Murphy as the only left-footer. This was remedied when Phil Barber, who was bought originally as a centre forward, replaced Stebbing in the team and took up a position wide on the left, releasing Murphy to his more natural central position. The immediate effect was an unbeaten run of eight games, with the best result a 3-1 win at Grimsby, who had recently knocked Everton o

Alan Irvine
ut of the League Cup, and who were one of the Second Division's better sides. Palace's second goal that night was scored by a player making the first League appearance of his career, the 20-year-old striker Andy Gray, signed recently from Dulwich Hamlet. Gray had once been at Selhurst Park as a schoolboy, and had later joined Brentford as an apprentice before an ominous 'personality clash' with the manager seemed to put an end to his chances in the professional game. Coppell, still with little money to spend, had been scavenging around the local non-league teams for talent, and as well as cleverly spotting Gray's potential had also bought Steve Galloway from Sutton. Galloway did well in the reserves, scoring plenty of goals, but his way into the first team was blocked at first by Andy Gray, and ultimately by Ian Wright. Coppell was also persuaded to give a trial to Tony Finnigan - a friend of Gray's - and was sufficiently impressed to take him on as well, thus strengthening the squad at minimal cost.  

The run of improved results came to an emphatic end when Palace lost 5-0 at Oxford, followed a few weeks later by a home defeat at the hands of Millwall in the League Cup and - especially humiliating - another 5-0 drubbing at home to Wimbledon, an abysmal performance which remains Palace's lowest point under Steve Coppell. His decisive response was to drop Nebbeling and Aylott, bringing in Stebbing and Finnigan in their places, but he knew that the main problem was a weakness in midfield caused by Peter Nicholas' acrimonious departure to Luton. Henry Hughton was a versatile player, having played in midfield, as centre back, right and left back, and even in goal when George Wood was injured against Shrewsbury, but he wasn't the answer to this particular problem. To fill the gap, Coppell spotted another bargain, and signed the undervalued Kevin Taylor From Derby. His inclusion in the team alongside Murphy restored the familiar symmetry to

Micky Droy
the midfield, but the signing that really proved to be Palace's short-term salvation was that of the giant centre half, Micky Droy from Chelsea. Despite his long experience in the First Division, not too many people expected very much from the 33-year-old. but he confounded everyone by transforming Palace's defence and emanating an aura of effortless self- confidence that settled all those around him. You simply knew that Droy would win everything in the air, and his trips forward for free kicks and corners - he scored in his first game - were reminiscent of Ian Evans at his troublesome best.   

The most satisfying result for the few remaining fans was the 2-1 victory over Portsmouth which helped ruin the chances of Billy Gilbert and Vince Hilaire returning to Division One, and at the same time made Palace's own position fairly safe. By the end of the season they had climbed to 15th. in a 22-team division, well clear of relegation, and Coppell had started to lay the foundations for a successful future despite home crowds of frequently less than 5,000.   


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