When The Eagles Reached Their Zenith

The 7th April 1991.

Wembley Stadium.

Palace were preparing to play in the Zenith Data Systems Cup Final.

Sat with my Dad excited and nervous waiting for the match to kick off, it didn’t bother me that this was considered a poor excuse for a tournament. The third cup competition in England behind the FA and the League Cups. It was still a cup.

The Full Members Cup, ran from 1985 to 1992 and was renowned for its sponsorship names like the Simod Cup and later the roll off your tongue Zenith Data Systems Cup. It was never really embraced by fans in England. Created in part by former Eagles chairman Ron Noades, the tournament was devised for English clubs during the European competition ban, after the Heysel tragedy.

It was open to all teams from the top two levels of the English Leagues the then Division 1 and 2. Despite this several teams didn’t enter the tournaments at all namely Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. For others, it was a worthy way to gain awards and honours and gave otherwise mid-table teams a chance of success.

The format was knock out and teams were divided between Northern and Southern sections with the winning finalists of each section taking part in the final under those glorious towers at Wembley.

Palace entered every single tournament, having little initial success before narrowly missing out getting to the final losing to both Nottingham Forest and Chelsea in separate years. However, with an exciting young team under the tutelage of Steve Coppell, the 1990/91 season was looking good.

The run in this season was considered fairly easy, the first game that December a home win against Bristol Rovers, that was followed by knocking out Brighton away 2-0, a victory that pleased the fans to no end, considering they had beat us in the tournament a few years before and resulted in a mini pitch invasion. Next up were Luton Town at Selhurst Park, who succumbed 3-1 with Palace proceeding to the Southern Area final over two legs against Norwich City.

Palace were away for the first match in a cagey affair that ended 1-1. The second leg was much more comfortable and the Eagles outplayed Norwich to win 2-0 and return to Wembley a little under a year since the FA Cup final loss in a replay to Manchester United.

The Eagles faced an Everton team considered one of the big clubs in the league at the time and were considered underdogs despite excellent league form. The attendance at Wembley made up mostly of Palace fans was, 52,460.

The first ninety minutes ended all square, Geoff Thomas having headed Palace into the lead with Everton replying almost immediately courtesy of Robert Warzycha which took the match into extra time.

Palace, were by now beginning to take over the match with their youth, fitness and physicality working to show up a tiring Everton. The tide well and truly turned when Ian Wright latched onto a Nigel Martyn punt down field and finished well on to give the Eagles the lead. Two goals in two minutes then put the match beyond doubt, first John Salako with a looping header before Ian Wright was put through again to score with a brilliant first time finish.

The final whistle led to a rapturous Palace following cheering the roof off Wembley, the win going some way to alleviating some of the disappointment from losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

For many the Zenith Data Systems Cup is derided and laughed at, unless you won it of course. Forest were proud winners twice and they don’t knock it. The final remains one of the best Palace matches I have watched and Geoff Thomas lifting the trophy is one of my earliest and fondest memories.

If we’re honest, we know as Palace fans these moments are likely to be few and far between and they are all the more special for it.

With Palace again shortly to play in another often derided tournament for a trophy against albeit better opposition in Asia, I hope they take the spirit of 1991 with them. I among many will be hoping to see another trophy in our cabinet, derided or not.



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Simon Allen

Simon Allen

Palace supporter for as long as he can remember thanks to his Dad. Passing the tradition onto his three young sons. Works in public affairs. Enjoys writing about Palace, sport and politics.

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