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.
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.
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.
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.
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