The decision to bring Andy Gray back to Selhurst Park was a brave one by Coppell, who knew that it would be seen as eating humble pie, after taking such an apparently principled stand when he sold Gray less than two years before. On top of this was the fact that he cost Palace more than three times what Villa had paid, but Coppell couldn't resist restoring the Gray / Thomas / Bright / Wright combination, and I for one agreed with him wholeheartedly. As it turned out, Gray and Thomas only played three games together in central midfield before Thomas was used first in defence, then wide on the left, after which Gray played the second half of the season on the right wing. Some would say that it was foolhardy of Coppell to give Mark Dennis another chance to resurrect his career, but we were never given much opportunity to judge whether or not he had become a reformed character, injury keeping him out of the side for all but nine mid-season games.
The season started with an unattractive fixture away to Q.P.R., and although Palace played reasonably well they were beaten fair and square by Trevor Francis' team, the main disappointment being the failure to score. The next game was at home to Manchester United in midweek, Ian Wright's well struck late goal after Alex Dyer's flick on earning Palace a draw against a United side already being touted as title contenders after their impressive victory over the champions Arsenal. Palace in fact played much better in their third game, at home to Coventry, but were taught a lesson in how to kill a game stone dead by their defensive opponents, whose 1-0 win was completely undeserved.
The prognosis, then, was worrying; three games played, one goal scored, and only one point. Luckily, their next opponents - Wimbledon - were absolutely awful, and perhaps the ease of the 2-0 victory deceived the players into thinking rather more of themselves than was warranted, and was certainly no sort of preparation for the devastation to come at Anfield, just two days later. According to Steve Coppell, Palace created more chances that night than they had in any game so far, and Geoff Thomas even missed a penalty, but it seemed that whenever Liverpool came forward they scored a goal, which happened nine times. My knowledge of the game is all second hand, because I haven't yet been able to bring myself to watch the rush-released video of the game, but the concensus seems to be that many other teams have played worse at Anfield and got away with losing 3-0 or 4-0. If Liverpool's performance will go down in history, then so will the behaviour of Palace's travelling fans that night, who took their team's humiliation with humour and a strange sort of pride. The best joke was the chant: "You only sing when your winning", directed at the empty Kop end after the stadium had been cleared of Liverpudlians, and although Coppell said that "This will haunt us for the rest of our lives", the fans who were there made sure that they would look back on that night with affection.
Up to that point the defence had looked competent enough, but now Coppell was under intense pressure to make improvements, with poor Perry Suckling bearing the brunt of the criticism, unfairly in the view of many. With few alternatives available to him in defence, Coppell had little choice but to name an unchanged side for the next game, and they showed extraordinary character to bounce back in the way that they did, pushing Southampton all the way to earn a 1-1 draw. That result was overlooked by Palace's critics, who had now written them off as certain to be relegated at the end of the season, but the players confounded everyone with their next two results - victories over Nottingham Forest and Everton - which pushed them into the top half of the table. Those two games saw them playing with a confidence and discipline that nobody would have believed possible a couple of weeks earlier, and they maintained their impetus against Millwall, coming back from Hopkins' farcical own goal to win 4-3, with Bright and Wright scoring two goals each and looking at their buoyant best.
This surge of good form reached a peak in their next game, when they met Nottingham Forest in the third round of the League Cup, having narrowly negotiated the previous round over two dramatic legs against Leicester. Palace completely outplayed Forest - the eventual winners of the trophy - but just couldn't get the goal they deserved, which is why it was so hard to believe that they could have lost the replay as heavily as they did, by 5-0. Having defended his goalkeeper until now, Coppell had to concede that Suckling's loss of confidence was permeating the entire defence, and when he let in three more goals just three days later, it was the final straw. Suckling was replaced by Brian Parkin for the next game, ostensibly with a hand injury, and then Palace finally got the man they had been thinking about for a long time - the first million-pound goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn. Palace fans were deeply divided about Martyn at first, many thinking that a million pounds could be better spent in other areas, and believing that the popular Suckling had been unfairly treated. Such misgivings were reinforced when Martyn let eight goals past him in his first three league games, barely managing a save of any note. Perhaps the worst performance of the season came at home to Q.P.R., when the superannuated midfielders Peter Reid and Ray Wilkins were given as much time and space as they could wish for, and the recent, belated dismissal of Trevor Francis as manager inspired them to a decisive 3-0 win.
Now down once again to 18th. position, prospects again looked bleak, when Coppell finally made the signing that everyone had been clamouring for, that of a good centre half. Andy Thorn was the player needed to firm up the defence, and he immediately looked the part in his first game, away to Manchester United. Playing five at the back for the first time, Palace didn't gain many friends, but they did register their first away win of the season against all the odds, and this proved to be a turning-point, after which Palace always managed to keep themselves just clear of the relegation places. There were some more bad results - in particular at Arsenal and Everton - but also some convincing victories over Southampton, Spurs and Aston Villa, and survival was comfortably secured with three games still to be played. In fact, were it not for Manchester City's last minute equaliser in the final game of the season, after Niall Quinn had clearly controlled the ball with his hand, Palace would have finished the season in 12th. place in Division One - their highest ever.
If there had been no more to Palace's season than that, it would still have been just cause for celebration, bearing in mind the low expectations at the outset: but of course this was also the year that Crystal Palace reached the F.A.Cup final, for the first time in their history. For the record, let us also remember that for the second year running Palace reached the last four of the Full Members / Simod /Zenith Data Systems Cup, cruising past Luton, Charlton and - eventually - Swindon, before falling apart against Chelsea, who went on to win the final. The other route to Wembley had been less challenging up to that point, at least on paper, and Palace certainly had the luck of the draw. They entered the F.A.Cup in the third round, and made heavy weather of despatching Second Division strugglers Portsmouth. Nigel Martyn in the Palace goal was at fault as Guy Whittingham's looped header put Pompey ahead, and it took a cracking volley from Geoff Thomas to put his team back in the game. With time running out, and the match heading for a replay on the South coast, Andy Gray found himself just outside the Portsmouth box with the ball at his feet, and instantly decided to win a penalty. He pushed the ball forward past Mark Chamberlain, who obligingly stuck out a leg for Gray to trip over, slowly pick himself up and thump home the resulting spot kick.
The next round was somewhat easier, as it should have been against an awfully poor Huddersfield defence, and although Ian Wright was missing after breaking his leg in a league game against Liverpool - just as he was about to score - Palace should still have got more than the four they managed, courtesy of Hopkins, Salako, Bright and a messy own goal. Rewarded with another home tie in the fifth round against Fourth Division Rochdale, Palace were nearly thwarted by a series of stunning saves by goalkeeper Paul Welch, who was only beaten by Barber's firm right foot shot from close range. Having hit the winner, Barber reeled away triumphantly towards his chief critics in the New Stand enclosure who had been getting on his back after his recent form, which had been undeniably bad. With only eight teams left in the competition, Palace were once again given nearly the best draw possible against another Fourth Division side, this time away at Cambridge. One always had a feeling that this would be a difficult one, though, and Cambridge played the better football for much of the game; but Palace never panicked and finally won with a scrappy goal, weakly directed into the net by Geoff Thomas' normally redundant right foot.
With due respect to Palace's opponents, few teams can ever have had such an easy passage to the semi-finals, and everyone watched the live draw for the next round praying to be paired with Oldham, or at a pinch Manchester United, but definitely, definitely not Liverpool.
Executives of television companies now dictate the fixture list for Cup as well as league games, so for the first time both semi-finals were to be played on a Sunday, one at noon and the other at 3.30, for the benefit of the T.V. audience. The Football Association, determined to prove beyond all doubt their incompetence, scheduled the local derby between Manchester United and Oldham for 3.30 at Maine Road, meaning that the other two sets of fans had to make their way from Liverpool and London to Aston Villa's ground in Birmingham, with orders to arrive by 11 in the morning. I am ashamed to say that I didn't bother going, being convinced that a long journey up would be followed by a longer one home, after a noble 1-0 defeat. My decision was also influenced by memories of the terrible anti-climax of losing the semi-final in 1976, and of course by the fact that I could see the game live on the box anyway.
As Liverpool kicked off the second half, they were quietly confident of the course of the next 45 minutes, but as John Pemberton quickly intercepted the ball, someone lit his fuse and let him go. He skinned two Liverpool defenders - which you simply don't do - and belted a cross towards the head of Barber. It fell to Salako, whose fierce shot hit Grobbelaar, looped into the air and was blasted into the net by Bright for the equaliser. If we went potty then, we went even pottier when Gary O'Reilly forced the ball in from close range to put Palace - unbelievably - in front, and for a while it looked as though they would hold on to the 2-1 lead, so well were they playing. Then McMahon equalised after an extremely dubious free kick, and minutes later Liverpool went ahead again, this time following an equally dubious penalty decision, Barnes scoring from the spot. Having regained the lead so emphatically, the natural response was to assume that this time Liverpool would hold on tight, and after the earlier ecstasy we couldn't help but think that now it was all over, gallant though the effort had been. Andy Gray's equalising goal, when it came, epitomised the difference between the two teams that day, with Geoff Thomas twice getting first to the ball and heading it goalwards, and then Gray outjumping the besieged Liverpool defenders to head firmly into the net. Palace had put themselves back into the game again by displaying the same sense of purpose and solidarity that had earned promotion the year before, and 90 minutes of pure drama came to a climax with Andy Thorn heading against the bar, when he looked certain to score the winner.
Opinion was sharply divided on who Palace would prefer as their opponents at Wembley - the Second Division giant-killers Oldham, a team with a similar spirit to Palace's, or the ragged collection of over-priced individuals known as Manchester United. After United had unconvincingly whinged their way past the Latics, Palace were confident that the cup was theirs for the taking, having already beaten and drawn with United in the league, and finished the season on the same number of points. The big question leading up to the final was whether Ian Wright would be back in time from his second broken leg, and it was only during the final week before the game that he had his first 90-minute run-out in a reserve game. Andy Thorn was in danger of missing out for a while, but made a spectacular recovery from a badly injured heel, and Mark Dennis, Jeff Hopkins, Alex Dyer and Eddie McGoldrick were all fighting to be fit in time. The other talking point was the patently unjust allocation of tickets by the F.A., which resulted in Palace having only 14,000 out of 80,000 available seats in the ground, with Manchester United's quota nearly double that. Confusion reigned, with Ron Noades on the one hand laying into the F.A., ostensibly on the fans' behalf, and on the other hand making sure that he realised the maximum revenue by allowing those with enough money to effectively buy themselves priority. The arguments about the fairest way of allocating Palace's share of the tickets could go on for ever, but I can see no reasonable opposition to the notion of giving top priority to existing Club members, in recognition of their loyalty.
The town of Croydon was festooned with red and blue, and everywhere you went you would see Palace shirts, thousands of people having paid over £20 for the honour of walking around advertising Virgin Airlines. The prospect of Palace meeting and maybe beating United seemed to excite the rest of the country as well, and it became the most eagerly awaited Cup Final for many, many years. Although United have an amazing number of supporters throughout the world, everyone else was rooting for Palace, and when it came to the day itself we certainly didn't feel like the underdogs the bookmakers claimed we were.
The atmosphere at Wembley was simply wonderful, and with no hint of trouble from rival fans it just felt that you were part of a great old-fashioned sporting occasion, with a cloth cap and a rattle. As the players came on to the pitch, the cascade of red and blue balloons from the Palace section made a display of colour that the T.V. cameras couldn't hope to do justice to, and the club's biggest moment in 85 years had arrived. With Ian Wright on the substitutes' bench, the team who started the game were the same 11 men who had seen off Liverpool, and once again it was clear that Coppell had decided to retain the man-for-man marking system that had been so effective in that game. Richard Shaw stuck closely to Neil Webb, and with John Salako more or less at left back, Mark Bright was left alone up front with support on the wings coming from Barber and Gray. It was no surprise that the first goal should come from a free kick planted high into the penalty area, since all the experts had latched on to the fact that all four Palace goals in the semi-final had come from such free kicks or corners. Gray feinted, Barber crossed, and O'Reilly's header squeezed away from between him and Pallister and looped over the flapping Jim Leighton into the net. Palace tried desperately to hang on to the lead for the rest of the half, but a clear foul by Bruce on Gray gave possession to United, and the defence stood and watched as Wallace and McClair combined to set up Robson for the headed equaliser, although the decisive touch came from John Pemberton's shin. That mishap aside, Palace had defended well, making at least as many chances as Manchester United, and went in at half-time still feeling confident that they would win.
The second half continued along the same lines until another bit of lax defending by Palace presented a chance to Mark Hughes, who had done little up to that point, but who snapped it up to put United 2-1 ahead. Steve Coppell delayed the inevitable substitution until 20 minutes from the end, but when Ian Wright eventually came on, the effect was devastating. With his very first touch of the game he got away from Phelan's lunge, left Pallister on his backside in the box, and stroked the ball past Leighton for one of the most perfect goals he will ever score. The game had swung Palace's way, but with players already dropping with cramp they were just unable to press home their advantage in normal time, although Gray came extremely close with a right foot shot on the turn, and another half an hour of a classic Cup Final was needed.
Not too many people really wanted a replay, but of course Ron Noades was one who relished the prospect, Palace having a much bigger allocation of tickets to sell due to the absence from the second game of all the freeloaders and corporate shindiggers. Nevertheless, the arrangements for selling tickets were a complete shambles, with nobody having a clue what was going on even as the queues were forming on the Sunday morning. The most shameful profit-making enterprise is the club's telephone ticket information service, whereby you are made to pay an excessive amount to find out information which most other forms of entertainment provide via the box-office, or even on a free telephone number. Even this, at 25 pence a minute, was unforgivably giving out the wrong information all Sunday morning, but of course there is no mechanism for getting your money back. After all the hard luck stories from the first game, this time it appeared that everyone who wanted a ticket was able to get one, but the replay turned out to be a major let-down.
While nobody could honestly claim that Palace deserved to win, the same can certainly be said for Manchester United, and it was undeniably a bad game. The Palace players were heavily criticised for their physical approach to the match, but I sincerely believe that this was not a deliberate tactical ploy by Coppell, rather an ill-advised reaction by individual players to United's similar style in the first game. Players such as Wallace, Hughes and especially Robson, not only rely on systematic foul play as part of their game, but have the gall to appear outraged if they are penalised for it. Robson's reputation for intimidating referees into letting him get away with murder was a feature of his game for many years, but reached a peak as his effectiveness as a player diminished, yet he still retained his image as a world-class player despite scant supporting evidence.
It was a very sad night - not because Palace lost, but because they played badly - but already the memory of that game is fading fast. The images that will remain are those of the red and blue balloons and ribbons, the singing, the feeling of togetherness and - dare I say it - community, that are rarely experienced and which are almost becoming unique to the game of football, at least in this country. The semi-final victory over Liverpool and the drawn final were two of the greatest days ever, and what was important to the fans was not really the final outcome, but the fact that they were there, and part of it.
"WE'RE PROUD OF YOU"
Back to 1988-89
Forward to Goalkeepers