Phil Barber
Palace now found themselves in the unaccustomed position of being fancied for promotion, and that looked an accurate assessment when they won their first three games, two of them away from home. The first 'Lifeline' signing was the Millwall winger Anton Otulakowski, who immediately came into the team on the left, mirroring Irvine's role on the right. This meant Phil Barber reverting to centre forward and Andy Gray dropping to substitute, a strange decision since Gray had apparently established himself towards the end of the previous season, and combined particularly well with Wright. Coppell perhaps felt that Barber's graft was more valuable than Gray's erratic brilliance, and his selection of Phil Barber ahead of other, more gifted players is something for which he has been criticised ever since.

Having only just scraped past Third Division Bury in the second round of the League Cup, Palace were once again drawn against First Division opposition - Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest - and relished the challenge after having done so well against Manchester United the year before. In fact they surpassed that performance in the home leg, drawing 2-2 after twice being ahead, and then lost the away leg by a single late goal from Clough's son. They really did play some excellent football over the two games, and Forest could not have complained had Palace gone through to the next round rather than them.

Mark Bright
Shortly after losing to Forest, Micky Droy went to Brentford on a free transfer and Gavin Nebbeling came back into the side, but the most significant change was up front, with Mark Bright being signed from Leicester. Bright's first game was a dramatic affair against Ipswich, and he scored Palace's first goal on a day when Ian Wright's last-minute equaliser earned them a 3-3 draw, after an inexplicable run of five defeats had landed them back in the middle of the table. Soon afterwards, an injury to Otulakowski - from which he never recovered - allowed Barber back into the team on the left, and it was at the same time that Andy Gray began to stake his own claim for a midfield place, where his perverse talent was to eventually settle. Starting with a 5-1 destruction of Hull City, Palace embarked on a run of games that took them past Christmas and into the New Year with five wins out of six, and once again they were back in contention at the top of the table. With confidence at a peak, the prospect of meeting Forest again in the F.A.Cup third round was one that they looked forward to without fear, and they played superbly to win by a single goal from Alan Irvine. Palace's 40,000 signing Gary O'Reilly made an impressive debut in this game, replacing Nebbeling, but the star for Palace was Tony Finnigan, a forward turned midfielder, turned right back, who now played the game of his life at left back to obliterate Forest's most dangerous player, Franz Carr. Dreams of a glorious Cup run were swiftly shattered in the next round at White Hart Lane, though, when Spurs won easily by four goals, one of them a beautifully finished close range own goal from one of their former players, Gary O'Reilly.

The next few weeks were worrying ones for everyone connected with Palace, when it became known that the Wimbledon chairman, Sam Hammam, had approached Ron Noades with a view to merging the two clubs. All sorts of scenarios were invented, such as the two managers job-sharing, the names being combined, and only the best players from each team being kept on, but Noades disclaimed any such ideas, assuring anyone who believed him that all the moves had come from

Gary O'Reilly
Hammam's direction. It later transpired that Steve Coppell was very much against any form of merger, but nevertheless Noades took the entirely honourable course of printing a questionnaire in the programme for the game against Blackburn, and promising to abide by the opinion of the fans. With the results of the survey demonstrating the strength of feeling - the fans voting nine to one against a merger - the scheme was immediately scuppered, and the team celebrated by pummelling Birmingham 6-0. Gray's outstanding performance, coming through from midfield to score one and set up two other goals, finally sealed his place in the team at the expense of Ketteridge, who later moved on to that traditional home for old Palace players, Leyton Orient. From then on, Palace were always just outside the play-off positions, eventually missing out by one place, and in the final analysis it was again inconsistency at home that cost them the few crucial points, with earlier defeats by Shrewsbury and Grimsby being especially damaging.

It was interesting, after the 0-0 draw with Plymouth, that Steve Coppell drew attention to their uncomplicated long-ball game, and contrasted it with what he saw as Palace's more subtle approach through midfield. The polarisation of opinion on this issue over the last few years has now become such that too many commentators on the game start from the point of putting a team into one category or another, and let that dictate how they go about watching the game. Palace themselves have fallen foul of this lazy approach, becoming branded as 'Route One' merchants, when in fact Coppell's teams have always placed great importance on the use of wingers, and have been most effective when first Irvine, then Redfearn, then McGoldrick have been on song. It may be true that the defenders have on the whole lacked the ability of someone like Alan Hansen to bring the ball forward, but that isn't the same thing at all as the gung-ho tactics so favoured by Wimbledon, and so despised elsewhere.

Andy Gray
The last home match of the season had all the makings of a great game, with Palace wanting to win to give themselves a chance of making the play-offs, and Portsmouth needing victory to go up as champions. With Gilbert and Hilaire once again on the opposing side, the biggest crowd of the season witnessed Palace outplay Pompey and win with a goal from substitute John Salako, although Ian Wright's final touch gave him the credit. As it turned out, Portsmouth still went up and Palace stayed down, but the result emphasised that at their best Palace could match anyone in the Second Division, and would surely be the team to catch in next year's race for promotion.


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