1988-89

To find Jim Cannon's name missing from the team sheet after 15 years took some getting used to, but was no great surprise. He could have probably played on for another year or so, but Coppell's ambitions for Crystal Palace required him to take a longer-term view, and improve each position wherever possible. Many people felt that Cannon was badly treated, but Coppell had shown his ruthless streak before - in the case of George Wood - and knew that he had to replace parts before they were worn out.

Jeff Hopkins
The fans' loyalty to, and affection for Cannon made it difficult for the new man to win them over, but Jeff Hopkins - for whom Palace paid 250,000 to Fulham - undoubtedly improved the team and eventually did a grand job as captain at the end of the season.

Less easy to understand was the release of Tony Finnigan to Blackburn, because although Palace had bought John Pemberton as a specialist right back, Finnigan had proved himself more than reliable in all sorts of positions and would have been extremely useful later on in midfield. To cover that area, Coppell had bought Dave Madden, who together with Pardew looked destined for the reserves, but who ended up as one of the heroes the following Spring.

Palace were reasonably pleased with their first result, a 1-1 draw with the eventual champions Chelsea, but with Nebbeling injured and Hopkins serving a suspension, Geoff Thomas was forced back into defence for the second game, a 2-0 defeat at home to Watford. Pardew thus came into the midfield with Pennyfather, and although he would never have been first choice he managed to stay there for virtually the rest of the season. Watford's victory was a quite convincing one, and for a few months they looked certain to bounce straight back to Division One; in the end they finished a place behind Palace in fourth, and lost out in the play-offs, demonstrating what a very long season it is in the Second Division nowadays.

By the time of the next game, against Walsall, both Glenn Pennyfather and Perry Suckling had been forced out with injuries, but Brian Parkin was an able deputy in goal, and with Hopkins and O'Reilly now back together in central defence, Thomas was again able to move forward into the midfield. Coppell's indecision about his wingers continued with Barber soon winning back his place from Salako, who in turn frequently came on as substitute for Redfearn, who began to feel aggrieved.

Neil Redfearn
After six league games, Palace had yet to win, were in 20th. position, and even Mark Bright hadn't scored a goal; perhaps Cannon's leadership had been more important to the well being of the team than Coppell had realised. Then, for no apparent reason, everything clicked into place and Palace won seven of their next eight games, including both legs of the League Cup tie against Swindon, and a 4-1 defeat of Plymouth which Palace so dominated that they could easily have scored ten. The one defeat came at Ewood Park, where after apparently cruising to another three points they managed to lose 5-4 to Blackburn, beginning the persistent worries about the frail nature of Palace's defence.

Despite Redfearn's important part in Palace's revival, he was still miffed at being substituted in earlier games, and Steve Coppell reluctantly granted his transfer request, whilst making it clear that he didn't want him to go. It seemed peculiar behaviour by Redfearn at the time, and I wonder whether he now regrets throwing away the chance of making it to the First Division, having failed to get there since with either Watford or Oldham. Into Redfearn's place came Alex Dyer, recently bought from Hull, for whom he had played especially well in recent games against Palace. It was intended that Dyer should play wide on the left, but he filled the gap on the right wing until Eddie McGoldrick's arrival, and his five goals in as many games included one direct from a corner to beat Birmingham, before injury put him out for the rest of the season. Also ruled out from then on was Geoff Thomas, who had justified the decision to appoint him as captain in only his second year, but whose insistence on maximum physical exertion for every minute of every game put him into hospital for a hernia operation. Pennyfather came back into midfield, and with two thirds of the season gone Palace were still nicely placed within three points of the play-offs, and poised for the run-in, as well as nearly reaching Wembley in the Full Members Cup, now called the Simod Cup. After knocking out Walsall, Southampton, Luton and Middlesborough - winning this last game 3-2 after being 2-1 down with two minutes left - Palace had to travel to Nottingham Forest for the semi-final, and were not disgraced in losing 3-1 after David Burke was harshly sent off.

Rudi Hedman
After this, their league form stuttered slightly, with Bournemouth inflicting only the second home defeat of the season, and it looked as though Palace had blown it once again, dropping below half way in the table. The turning point came at Vicarage Road, with Barber's superbly taken goal wreaking revenge on Watford, and a run of nine wins from eleven games put Palace right back into contention at the top. Come the final game of the season they still had a slim chance of grabbing the second automatic promotion place from Manchester City, the equation being that Palace needed to win by five goals against Birmingham, and City had to lose at Bradford. Palace were in rampant, irresistible form, but a large number of drunks had come down in fancy dress to celebrate Birmingham's relegation, and not only ruined the day but - which was worse - acted as if they hadn't even noticed the appalling carnage at Hillsborough a few weeks earlier, the inevitable result of the hooliganism of the last two decades. With fights having started in a part of the New Stand, a number of others broke through the recently lowered barriers and staged a full-scale pitch invasion, complete with the pathetic parody of combat so beloved of British youth. The cavalry arrived after what seemed like an age and broke up the proceedings with ease, allowing the game to continue. Although the blame mostly goes to a small number of the visiting supporters, there were enough home fans relishing getting involved to make one thoroughly sick and ashamed. The sad truth is that no legislation can prevent the barely concealed macho instincts of the young male from surfacing with the slightest excuse.

With order restored, Ian Wright completed a hat-trick, and Palace's domination of the game was such that they could certainly have won by more than 4-1, but the delay meant that the result from Bradford was known long before the end; a draw meant that Manchester City had finished just a point ahead of Palace, and the disappointed players saw out the bulk of the second half without too much strenuous effort.

At last, after three years of coming so close, Palace had made it to the play-offs, and approached them confident in the knowledge that they had finished a clear third in the table, and simply deserved promotion. With both O'Reilly and Nebbeling injured, the latest signing - Rudi Hedman - was thrown in at the deep end, and played his part in a decidedly dodgy defence, although it was Jeff Hopkins whose own goal gave Swindon the advantage in the first leg of the semi-final. It was fitting that Bright and Wright should score the two goals in the home leg which won the tie, and put Palace through to the final against Blackburn. One of the worst defensive performances of the season had been in the earlier 5-4 defeat at Ewood Park, and once again Palace were prone to some alarming errors at the back, Blackburn this time winning 3-1; even the to the most optimistic fan, it was now hard to fancy Palace to come back in the second leg. Nevertheless, a capacity crowd of 30,000 turned up at Selhurst Park to give them a final push, and the atmosphere surpassed even that of the Burnley game ten years earlier, with the task apparently that much more difficult and the tension palpable. Steve Coppell had a crucial decision to make, because both of his injured centre backs were now fit again, and his choice of O'Reilly rather than Nebbeling precipitated the latter's angry demand for a transfer. As it turned out, O'Reilly played out of his skin alongside Hopkins, and Palace's triumph was built on a defence that looked safer than it had all season. Alan Pardew had still not been accepted by the crowd despite his undeniable improvement throughout the season, but the pass which he made with the outside of his right foot to set up Ian Wright's first goal was a touch of genius which transformed him overnight into a cult hero. Wright himself reacted instinctively to the half chance to make it 1-0, and Palace were steaming.

Eddie McGoldrick
In the second half Eddie McGoldrick received the ball and set off on a diagonal run towards the goal, which was something he had been oddly reluctant to try, considering his status as the Coppellite winger of the side. McGoldrick ran out of steam and lost control of the ball as he came inside the penalty area, but defender David Mail bundled him down anyway, and George Courteney pointed without hesitation to the penalty spot for the most peculiar and unnecessary offence I have ever seen. Back in March, Palace had been awarded four penalties in a game against Brighton and only scored one: since then the job had been successfully given to the player now wearing the No.4 shirt, the transfer-listed Dave Madden. Although he was obviously Coppell's fourth choice in midfield behind Thomas, Pennyfather and Pardew, Madden had got better and better since being given his chance, and the crowd really appreciated a player who could consistently make space and time for himself to look up and make long, accurate passes to his colleagues. Madden it was, then, who kept his cool to put Palace 2-0 ahead from the spot, levelling the aggregate scores and taking the game to extra time. After another half-hour's play, that scoreline would have been enough for Palace to win, with the away goal counting double, but Ian Wright's simple header near the end from McGoldrick's cross made it 3-0, and put Palace once again back into Division One. That game had many heroes, but the one who deserves particular praise is Perry Suckling. With the score still at 2-0, Blackburn's admirable Simon Garner struck the best shot of the game, a perfect volley from the edge of the box, but Suckling made a first class save to tip it over the bar, and ruin what was perhaps Garner's best ever chance to make it to where he belonged, in the First Division.

Dave Madden
To have missed out on promotion for a fourth time might have been so disheartening for Palace that it could have left the club in crisis, and certainly both Bright and Wright would have been strongly tempted to move on, but the emphatic way that the team overcame both Swindon and Blackburn after being behind was an indication of the quality that they had above all others; their spirit. Coppell had assembled a collection of good and average players, the sum of which was greater than its parts, and nobody could deny that they deserved their chance in the First Division, although most also thought that their stay would be a brief one. To be a Palace fan that day felt wonderful; at 3 o'clock we were more or less resigned to applauding a brave but doomed effort, and by 5.15 we were celebrating with all the passion that had been unspent for the past ten years.

 

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