Would Relegation Be So Bad? (Part 4)
In the summer of 1991 Palace fans were delirious with pride after seeing their team finish third in the top flight, narrowly missing out on a European place.
That was something I never thought would happen. Surely we wouldn’t cock things up again?
Yes we did, and don’t call me Shirley!
In itself, the 1991-1992 season wasn’t a disaster, but there were elements that were and should have been warning signals about what was to follow.
The season started off well enough with three victories from the first four games. The season seemed to be continuing where the previous one had left off. We had little to suspect anything was going to go wrong, after all, we had the same team as the year before.
On the 21st September 1991 we traveled to Oldham Athletic and won 3-2. The game wouldn’t be particularly memorable if it wasn’t for the fact that Ian Wright scored his last goal for the club. Mark Bright, along with John Salako, were also on the score sheet that day making it the last goals of the Wright/Bright double act.
On Tuesday 24th September, Ian Wright signed for Arsenal for a reported £2.5million. Even at the time I thought the fee was cheap, there was no other striker in the league like him. Just two months earlier Liverpool paid £2.9million for Dean Saunders… Wright ended the season as the league’s top scorer with 29 goals.
Back then there were no mobile phones, well, not for us mere mortals. We had no internet and 24 hour sports news didn’t exist. We barely had all night TV!
All we had was Clubcall and Teletext. One would cost you a £1 a minute and the other would cost you 30 minutes of your life to get to the page with news about your team on. Then, when you were half way through reading the page it would change. Sure you could use the ‘hold’ button but then if the news was a two page job then you’d have to wait for the page to come around again.
How did society function?
So, the first I heard about Ian Wright leaving Palace was on the day he signed for Arsenal when it was across the back page of The Sun. Unlike most Sun readers, I read the paper from back to front.
Later we know that the deal happened quite quickly with Arsenal’s offer being made and accepted the day before with Wright going to Highbury and signing the next day. Wright famously told Palace chairman, Ron Noades, that he could go to Arsenal for talks on the Tuesday because he had to pick up a TV for his mother. He went, he signed and we were all bitter about things.
Indeed, we never got to hear the truth about what happened for several years, thanks to the array of media that we have today. Had I known then what I know now I would not have had such bitterness for Wright and Noades.
At the time there was the suspicion that Wright wanted to leave Palace after comments Noades made in a Channel 4 documentary about racism in football.
Noades said: “The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense.”
Noades claimed he was “stitched up”, with the quotes taken out of context. At best the remarks appeared injudicious and naive, although Noades remained good friends with black players such as Gray, Wright and Bright up until his death which would lend weight to his claims.
So, with £2.5million sitting in the bank we needed to find a new goal scorer. Someone with flair and skill who could slot in to replace Wright.
We signed Marco Gabbiadini from Sunderland for £1.8million who Palace manager Steve Coppell admitted had never seen play before he signed him. He later revealed he felt under pressure to sign someone. This came from the man who needed to be convinced during a number of weeks to part with £50,000 to sign Geoff Thomas!
Marco Gabbiadini was a roaring success. So much so that four months and five goals later we sold him to Derby County for £1million, who were trying to gain promotion from the old Division Two.
What’s puzzling about the whole Gabbiadini saga isn’t that we sold him, he clearly wasn’t the striker we needed, but that he scored three goals in his last five league games for us. He scored in each of the three games during the Christmas period but maybe by then the decision had been made to cut our losses.
The season petered out and we ended up in tenth place. That was still quite a respectable position given that we’d lost a 29 goal striker without having a replacement.
The disappointing thing about the whole season was Leeds United. Leeds finished one place behind us in 1990-1991 season, in fourth, but they signed a player who moved them forward to win the title. Eric Cantona.
Whereas Leeds signed a game changing player, we sold ours. Maybe, just maybe, we’d have been up there had we scattered Ian Wright’s 24 league goals that he scored for Arsenal into our games.
But life doesn’t work like that, does it?
The 1992-1993 season saw the reinvention of football, the Premier League was born! Out went the beautiful old Football League trophy that had been awarded to the top division winners since 1888 and was replaced with a lump of stainless steel with oversized handles.
It is a hideous trophy and to relegate the historic beautiful old trophy to the second tier is shameful.
The pre-season talk was about Alan Shearer and if he would choose to sign for Blackburn Rovers or Crystal Palace. In the end he signed for Blackburn Rovers for £3.5million though years later Ron Noades claimed he offered Southampton more money.
So you can imagine what we were all thinking when Shearer’s first game for Blackburn was against Palace at Selhurst Park. The result was a 3-3 draw with Shearer scoring two goals, both thunder bastard strikes at the Holmesdale end. I happened to standing behind the goal that day and the whole thing couldn’t have been scripted better!
Four draws from the opening four games followed by three defeats wasn’t the best start to the season but we also had a new striker. Chris Armstrong signed from Millwall and took eight games before he managed to find where the net was. He would go on to score fifteen goals in the league.
As the season went on we ended up drawing more games than we lost and lost more games than won. As always seems to be the case with Palace, it was a lack of a decent regular goalscorer that seemed to be our undoing as just one goal in any one of the sixteen games that we drew would have seen us stay up.
Hell, we even lost six games by one goal so just one goal in any one of those games would have seen us safe too.
In the end we were relegated in typical Palace fashion.
On 1st May we beat Ipswich Town at Selhurst 3-1 and with two games remaining we were eight points ahead of Oldham Athletic who had three games to play and we had a slightly better goal difference.
Oldham had games away to Aston Villa (second in the league), at home to Liverpool (sixth in the league) and at home to Southampton (eighteenth in the league and safe when they played).
It looked like an impossible task for Oldham to turn the point deficit around. Because the Palace hierarchy were so confident that we wouldn’t be relegated and because it was our last home game of the season, the team performed a lap of honour after the win over Ipswich.
The next day Oldham won away at Villa Park. At the time it was the second from bottom side beating the second from top side on their own turf. Admittedly, Villa couldn’t have caught title winners Manchester United but still, nobody saw that happening.
On 5th May Crystal Palace drew 0-0 at Manchester City while Oldham beat Liverpool 3-2 at home. This meant that going in to the last game of the season we were three points ahead of Oldham. We had a goal difference of -10 and they had -12.
So Palace had to travel to Highbury to play Arsenal who had nothing to play for, sitting in tenth place. Oldham entertained Southampton, who were one place above us in the table but mathematically safe from relegation by a point.
To cut a long story short we lost 3-0 at Highbury. Ian Wright scored the first goal for the home team and celebrated like he just won the cup! He later said that he didn’t think we’d be relegated… Still a idiot for doing that!
Oldham won 4-3 after surviving a late Southampton come back. At one point Oldham led 4-1 so even if we lost 1-0, both teams would have the same goal difference, we’d have been relegated because we scored fewer goals.
How Palace is that? Doing a lap of honour to celebrate avoiding relegation and then getting relegated just for the hell of it.
To be fair, who would have foreseen Oldham getting nine points from their last three games, all by one goal margins?
Once again, Palace managed to turn a bright outlook in to total mess up.
Ron Noades, one of the major architects of the Premier League left it in a humiliating manner.
So the story goes, Steve Coppell resigned while he and Noades were in the toilets at Highbury. Coppell was due to get a ten year bonus had he stayed another season and Noades paid him it anyway.
So to complete the three of a kind relegation series, Palace decided to bounce back immediately this time. We retained most of the squad who were relegated, including Nigel Martyn, John Salako, Richard Shaw, Chris Coleman, John Humphrey and Eric Young.
Gareth Southgate, our youngest ever captain lifted the Division One trophy before our final game of the season at home to Watford.
We promptly lost the game 2-0 but it didn’t matter. After 105 years we finally managed to win the First Division Championship trophy by seven points from Nottingham Forest.
Okay, we might have had to have a new league invented and get relegated to do it but it was the same trophy that all the great teams lifted.
Or was it? Sadly, no it wasn’t. The trophy in 1993 as it is today is a replica trophy with slightly different detailing to differentiate the importance of the current league with the old one.
We we won the Division One trophy… which is the Championship today… which is really Division Two… They just mucked up football!
But, on the plus side, when Manchester United ‘finally’ won the league after a 25 year wait it wasn’t the Division One trophy. So they still haven’t won it, have they? No, but we have!
Up yours, Fergie. Up yours!!!