One player stands out from all the others as an automatic selection for the left back position. Kenny Sansom was the best of the impressively talented youth team who won the F.A.Youth Cup for two years running, most of whom graduated to the first team, and the First Division.
It is true to say that there are few genuine contenders for the left back position in this imaginary team, and the list of those who have filled that shirt is rather uninspiring, including as it does such functional players as John Loughlan, Bill Roffey, Les Strong and Brian Sparrow. Stewart Jump wasn't a bad player at all, but he seemed to be playing in the wrong position somehow, and Terry Fenwick was never a defender, although incredibly he went on to play as a centre back for England later in his career. Paul Brush played his part in Palace's revival under Steve Coppell before he submitted to recurrent injuries, and his successor David Burke, despite being prone to frequent errors of an elementary nature, was at least a true left back, and contributed to some valuable goals when swinging crosses over from that side in the promotion year of 1988-89.
Early in the career of Mark Dennis, he was considered one of England's brightest young hopes, but he repeatedly ruined his chances with his violent temperament, and the great shame is that in the few games he played for Palace between injuries in 1989-90, he impressed the sceptical supporters as potentially an extremely good player indeed. It is too early to say yet whether left back will be Richard Shaw's best position as he progresses, but his performances against Aston Villa's Tony Daley, and Peter Beardsley in the F.A.Cup semi final against Liverpool were outstanding in their own right, and he could turn out to be a very fine player, although perhaps more naturally at right back.
Apart from Jim Cannon, who I will deal with as a centre back although he played for two years in the No.3 shirt, the only other player worthy of consideration in this position is Peter Wall, who was with the club for eight years, although he broke his leg twice in that time, and missed long periods as a consequence. I always got the impression that Wall had more ability than he ever bothered to use, and that he sometimes felt that he should actually still be playing for his previous employers, Liverpool. Bought as a left back by Bert Head, by the time Malcolm Allison had taken over at Palace, a serious break sustained against Liverpool meant that Wall had been effectively replaced, first of all by Tony Taylor, and then by Stewart Jump and Jim Cannon. Although he made a brief comeback in 1973-74, the season when Palace slid straight down through Division 2, he was then out of action again until the latter part of the following season, when he replaced Paddy Mulligan as right back, and stayed there during the famous cup run of 1976. Although naturally left footed, he appeared just as confident on the right, and even played a few games as a kind of sweeper, a job which would have suited him very well if he had been a bit quicker. He eventually left the club in 1977, to play in the North American Soccer League, where his languid and intelligent style would, I am sure, have been well appreciated.
Whilst I cannot place Peter Wall ahead of Sansom for the left back position, then, I would certainly make a case for him at right back, another position where Palace haven't been terribly successful over the past 20 years, with Brian Bason, Gary Locke, Gary Stebbing and Steve Lovell being among those who I wouldn't want to consider for too long. In fact, Steve Lovell became an extremely prolific goalscorer after leaving Palace, at a time when Alan Mullery was desperate for a decent forward, and he must have been cursing his lack of judgement, which the supporters did from the day he came to the club.
A player who made the opposite transition, from striker to right back, was the curious looking Paul Hinshelwood, whose puny frame and curly hair earned him the nickname, derogatory at first, but ultimately affectionate, of 'Doris'. Hinshelwood was a fixture in the team that won the Second Division title in 1979, and as promotion was built on a remarkably good defensive record, he must take his share of the credit along with his colleagues, Sansom, Cannon and Billy Gilbert. His main strength, though, was in going forward, and although he didn't score too often, occasionally the ball would fall nicely into his stride as he galloped towards goal, and he would let fly with a fierce shot. Just like Sansom on the left, Hinshelwood was the starting point for a good deal of Palace's attacking manoeuvres, having received the ball from Burridge, but he did not have Sansom's talent for close control, so the longer ball up the touchline was more usual on that side of the field. What endeared Doris to the fans was not his playing ability, but his dogged determination to overcome his failings as a defender. Faced by a fast and skilful winger, he would crouch a few yards off his man all the way down the touchline, staring intently at the ball, until he was shown just enough of it to attempt the tackle. The lunge, when it came, would more often than not miss the ball and connect with the legs, but his fouls were always of a clumsy, even comical nature, rather than what you would call dirty. The vogue for Crystal Palace players at one time even earned Hinshelwood two England Under-21 caps, but effective though he was when things were going well, he was never more than an ordinary, if eccentric player, and after staying through the upheavals of the early 1980's, he was sold by Mullery to Oxford, and replaced by Gary Locke.
All of Palace's right backs from then on until the arrival of John Pemberton were being used in that position as a makeshift measure, and arguably the best of them was Tony Finnigan, really an attacking midfield player who was sold prematurely to Blackburn, and who could have done a better job in midfield than either Pennyfather or Pardew. Gary Stebbing was a player who never looked comfortable whatever position he played in, although he had shown promise as a youth - even playing for England - and he was always the target of abuse from a frustrated crowd, which left him without any confidence at all. Henry Hughton was another player more at home in midfield, and never the equal of his more famous brother, and the jury is still out on the latest incumbent, Pemberton, who deserved more praise than he got, despite occasional outrageous errors.
Looking further back, of course John Sewell must be considered strongly, more for his qualities as a captain than for anything else. With his upright bearing and his always immaculate appearance, he appeared to belong to another era even at the time of his greatest success, leading Palace to the First Division for the first time ever in 1969. Unusually, perhaps uniquely for a team skipper, Sewell made a point of never arguing with the referee, and took pride in the fact that he had never been booked. Most of his few goals came from the penalty spot, but his aimless punt against Gary Sprake in his final season with Palace, 1970-71, was one of the most memorable goals ever scored at Selhurst Park, and ensures his place for ever in Palace folklore. Sewell's successor, David Payne, did a fair job after being converted from midfield, but was always the ultimate utility player, and Paddy Mulligan, the Irish International, was injured so often that he rarely strung more than half a dozen games together. Mulligan's greatest moment at Palace was when he scored two of the five goals against Manchester United in 1972, the only time he scored for the club.
To summarise, then, with Sansom an obvious choice for left back, the other full back spot rests between John Sewell, Paul Hinshelwood and Peter Wall, with the last named being the selection simply because, even though he was more naturally a left sided player, on his best form he looked like a First Division player taking it easy, rather than a Second Division player struggling to keep up.
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