When Jerry Murphy left Palace in the Summer of 1985, after being a regular in the team for the past seven seasons, he was still only 25 years old and should have been approaching his peak, so why he was allowed to go on a free transfer is a mystery, especially so since Coppell had at times managed to get him to play with a new robustness. Perhaps the manager saw that Murphy could never really supply the fighting qualities that were to become so important to his team in the long, hard slog out of the Second Division, or perhaps the player simply didn't fancy being forced to work so hard for his living. Along with Murphy went Tony Mahoney and - sadly - Kevin Mabbutt, whose latest attempt at a comeback had lasted just three full games, and who finally had to submit to repeated injury. Mahoney's replacement in the squad was a similarly anonymous left-sided forward called Andy Higginbottom, while Murphy's place went to Steve Ketteridge, who had looked particularly good when helping Wimbledon to destroy Palace the previous winter. The other player to come to Selhurst Park was yet another young, black non-league forward from a club few people had heard of - Ian Wright from Ten-Em-Bee - and Micky Droy was persuaded to postpone devoting himself to his second-hand car business for another year, signing a new contract for the season.
Palace quickly gave notice that they were at last coming good with some promising early league results, and a fine League Cup victory over Lennie Lawrence's expensively reconstructed Charlton side, who were on their way to Division One. The prize for beating Charlton was a second round draw against Coppell's old team, Manchester United, and he was justifiably proud of the way Palace played over the two legs, despite losing both games by a single goal. Although United's First Division class was obvious in both games, they were never allowed to take things easy for a moment, and the most significant effect on the Palace players was that they really started to believe in their ability to work together as a team.
Ron Noades was also delighted with the home crowd of 21,506 - the best for two years - and gate receipts generally began to improve slightly as the season went on, although not enough to provide any more transfer money. Having stopped the financial rot, Ron Noades now came up with his latest brainchild for making money, not only for Palace, but for all participating clubs. 'Top Score' was a hideously complicated football pool to be operated by 86 of the 92 League clubs, and although few people thought it could ever work, Noades claimed that it would soon challenge the position of the major pools companies, the profit being ploughed back into the game. Typical of the scheme was the way that the Palace players - in the absence of any bona fide shirt sponsorship - sported a panel badly stitched onto their kit advertising Top Score and entreating the punters to "Play 6 from 49", a phrase which unsurprisingly failed to lodge itself in the consciousness of the nation; the competition finally folded after only three months.
With the emergence of Andy Gray as an unpredictable and dangerous goalscorer, and Alan Irvine's steady supply of testing crosses from the right, Palace's style was now becoming geared towards relentless attack, and Phil Barber topped the Division Two scoring table by the end of August with six goals from the first five games. The defence had become rather leaky, though, with the two full back positions proving a bit of a problem for Coppell. He tried David Lindsay in place of Sparrow for a while, but then decided to add some experience by buying Paul Brush from West Ham, relegating Sparrow to the odd appearance in midfield. Neither Hughton or Locke were entirely convincing at right back, and the young Irishman Ken O'Doherty was given a run at No.2, but whatever deficiencies there were in that position were compensated for by the fact that Cannon and Droy in the middle were as solid as any defensive partnership in the division. Being built like a munitions works, Droy rarely had to resort to foul play to win a challenge, but he was sent off in the home game against Millwall which, with Palace a goal behind, looked like resulting in their fourth defeat in five games. Not for the last time that season, though, Palace came from behind to win with goals from Barber and Gray, further evidence that Coppell had put some heart back into the team.
Three weeks after that Millwall game Palace once again found themselves trailing at home - this time 2-1 to Oldham - when Ian Wright came on as substitute for the ineffective Trevor Aylott. Wright had already scored several good goals for the reserves, but didn't yet look strong enough for the first team in his few appearances as substitute. His last-minute winning goal against Oldham, after Kevin Taylor's well hit equaliser, was headed in from such an unlikely position that it gave the impression of being a bit of a fluke. However, Wright was to score three more winning goals in the No.12 shirt throughout the rest of the season, and he quickly progressed from being "super-sub' to claim his place in the team alongside Andy Gray, a partnership that at its best was the most exciting I have seen.
With Kevin Taylor back in midfield after injury, Palace put together an excellent sequence of four wins and a draw in November, the highlight of which was a 3-1 victory at Leeds United. With neither Gray or Wright playing at Elland Road, Tony Finnigan alone was on the receiving end of the Yorkshire folk's traditional racism, but although he only scored three goals all season he saved two of them especially for that day, admitting that his anger at the crowd's behaviour had helped to fire him up.
Palace couldn't sustain the form to really challenge for promotion, and in particular were too often found wanting at home, losing to poor teams like Huddersfield, Hull and Shrewsbury, and more reasonably to Wimbledon and Norwich, after which they were never within spitting distance of the top three. By the last third of the season a good team pattern had emerged, with Finnigan dropping from midfield to right back, Nebbeling standing in very successfully for the injured Droy, and Irvine, Taylor, Ketteridge and Barber supplying Gray and Wright up front, Aylott finally having been dropped. The last month of the season saw the team earn some excellent results, once again putting paid to Portsmouth's ambitions by beating them 2-1, cruising to a 3-0 victory over Leeds, and putting four past Barnsley, Palace's best score for over three years. In fact the season's total of 57 League goals was the best since 1977, and from now on the fans could expect to see plenty of goals from Palace, whatever happened at the other end. The final position of fifth in the table was cause for celebration after so long spent struggling, and a year later would have earned Palace a place in the new play-off system for promotion, but Coppell was happy enough knowing that, by anyone's standards, he was succeeding as a manager.
Ron Noades chose a good time to announce the next money-making venture, with a new feeling of optimism on the terraces, and the Lifeline scheme was a success straight away. With half of the subscription money going back to members in the form of weekly prizes,
they were happy to donate the rest to the club, whose solemn promise was that it would be used exclusively to buy new players; whether Palace's recent success can be directly attributed to Lifeline or not, at least that is how it is perceived. Of course, the more significant source of income was the rent obtained from Charlton Athletic, forced to share Selhurst Park after being sold out by their own directors, and despite which they were promoted to Division One as runners-up to Norwich. The only evidence of their presence was a portakabin tucked away in the corner of the ground, and while the arrangement made not a scrap of difference to the Palace fans, for the Valley faithful it was a rotten way to be treated. One hopes for their sakes that they can move back soon, however much Palace lose as a result.
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