The 3rd of March 1999. It might not immediately jump out as a particularly significant date for the younger generation of Crystal Palace fans, but it is one still very much etched in the history of the club.
It was on that day that the Eagles called in the administrators, ending Mark Goldberg’s short reign as owner of the club, and drawing the curtain on a period in which Terry Venables had been manager, Steve Coppell was director of football, and Attilio Lombardo adorned the famous red and blue.
While that might sound like the perfect blend for success, Palace’s relegation from the old Premiership at the end of the 1997/98 season proved to be a nail in the coffin for the finances. With players and staff still earning top-flight wages in Division One, Goldberg’s lofty ambitions eventually rendered his running of the club unsustainable, and he was forced to place the team he had supported as a child into administration, before himself being declared bankrupt in 2000.
For many, that would have been too bitter a pill to swallow. Although a number of previous owners have not been seen in the vicinity of SE25 after relinquishing control, Goldberg still holds the club close to his heart. He has been back to Selhurst Park a number of times since, while he has also proudly taken his place in the Palace end on numerous occasions, from survival Sunday at Hillsborough through to the more recent 2016 FA Cup final at Wembley.
Goldberg might have extinguished his fortune through football, but his love for the game still burns bright. His own playing career was ended prematurely due to injury, while he has unconditionally supported his son Bradley’s career which has so far featured stints with Dagenham and Redbridge and Bristol Rovers. The 53-year-old’s time at Palace clearly did little to deter him, and he has since had successful spells as manager of National League side Bromley, and is now back in an ownership role with National League South outfit Welling United.
Twenty years on from Goldberg’s first involvement with Palace, TEB caught up with him to hear his side of the story, discuss what it was like working with the likes of Sasa Curcic, Paul Warhurst and Lombardo, and learn about his aspirations to take Welling into the Football League.
Q. How did your takeover of Palace come about?
I was introduced to David Dean of Arsenal by my lawyer at the time and he offered to set up a meeting with Palace’s owner Ron Noades on the premise that I was interested in getting involved. I first met with Ron at Zi Teresa’s restaurant in Elmer’s End, where I told him about my love for the club and how I’d be interested in playing a part, and he welcomed me onboard.
My first involvement was a seat on the board and my introduction as a director was the 1997 Play Off Final when we were promoted through David Hopkin’s last minute curler. So that summer we had been promoted, and Noades had gone on holiday and left Steve Coppell to recruit his squad, bearing in mind that we didn’t have a squad capable of competing in the Premiership at that time, and I was very fortunate that Steve turned to me for some help on recruiting that summer. It was quite an induction for me.
So I had quite a lot of input even in my first summer as a director, and the idea was that I was always interested in buying the club. Ron and I had some fun in teasing out negotiations for me to take over one day. Ron played a game of poker with me, shall we say, and he knew that I was very keen to not only be a director, but to eventually be the owner. He placed a £40million price tag on the club, and in the end we agreed a deal at £22.8million, of which I paid him £14million in cash, and there were various down payments that I was going to pay over a period of time along with an option to purchase the freehold to Selhurst Park.
Q. You were only 35 when you took control of Palace, but had it always been an ambition of yours?
Yes, of course. My earliest memory of Palace is the first game I went to which was a first round FA Cup tie against Walton & Hersham at Selhurst Park during the 1975/76 season. In those days we were in the old Third Division, and my love for the club was instant.
I used to go and stand on the Holmesdale Road end, and some of the great moments were when we were in the lower divisions. Early memories involved travelling to games on the 227 bus, running home singing and celebrating the likes of Dave Swindlehurst actually hitting the target and Peter Taylor scoring a last minute equaliser against Peterborough.
I was there in the Shed End at Stamford Bridge with my Palace top on at fourteen years of age when we upset Chelsea in the fifth round of the 1975/76 FA Cup, and of course that famous night when we were promoted to the First Division in front of a club record 52,000 fans against Burnley at Selhurst Park.
In those days Palace weren’t that great of a team, and those moments were some of the highlights of my life. So you can’t really understand it if you aren’t a Palace fan, but we all know that when it’s in the blood, it’s in the blood, so when I had the opportunity to get involved with the club, I took it.
Q. Do you think the fan in you allowed the heart to rule your head at times?
There is no doubt that I let my heart rule my head. The problem was that I had a number of investors who didn’t come onboard on day one but said they would over time, and instead of me waiting for their money to come in, I took the plunge.
There were also a number of clubs at the time that had already become public companies, including the likes of Millwall, Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest, and my idea was that Palace would possibly do the same. So my plan was that I’d be chairman and owner for a little while, and would then make the club a public company so that instead of it just being my investment, every Palace fan could get involved among city investors. Then I would have simply been the chairman of the club that I love without having to fund it all by myself.
I could see the television money that was starting to come in, this was only at the start of the Sky Sports era, and the sponsorship deals were beginning to go through the roof. So if anything, I feel like I was a little bit too early for what has now become the norm. At the time I was ridiculed for offering a £750k salary to Terry Venables who had been the England manager the year before. As it happens, however, the doubters weren’t wrong, because Venables unfortunately didn’t do the job that I expected him to do.
So there were a number of things that didn’t happen which, at the time, if they had happened might have prevented it from being a total disaster, and who knows how many years in charge I might have had.
Q. How significant was it that when you agreed the deal to take over, the club was in the Premiership, but by the time you took control, Palace had been relegated to the old Division One?
It was very significant. In my first summer as a director we had Premiership wages, but we also had Premiership income, so I think we had a turnover of £14million that year. But when I actually took over the club we had been relegated, and it was the first time there was a gulf between Premiership and Championship turnover, which was enormous. The difference between our turnovers went from £14million to £6million, and we had a wage bill of £9million. So immediately I was faced with losing £3million just on player salaries, in addition to the debt that I’d inherited from the old regime. Whatever due diligence I should have done, I don’t think I would have ever been able to foresee that the difference in turnover would be that great, because it was the first year that there was that sort of gulf.
Q. Do you think the fact the club also went into administration under Simon Jordan shows the fragility of sustaining a football club in the modern era, and also the financial impact of relegation from the Premier League?
At the time I had to face up to the fact that I had to show support to Terry Venables and bring in new players, but at the same time balance the books, so it was very awkward. Simon Jordan spent longer than me in charge and lost even more, which goes to show that there’s no magic wand, and there’s no easy way other than to stay in the Premier League. The one chairman who has managed to do it is Steve Parish who is doing a fantastic job and enjoying the success of it.
Q. If you had your time again, is there anything you would have done differently at Palace? Do you regret buying the club at all?
Obviously if I could do it again I would do a lot of things differently, but I don’t regret what I’ve done because I’ve owned the club that I’ve loved since I was a kid, I’ve rubbed shoulders with some wonderful people and I’ve still got great friends through it. It’s part of the history of the club, hopefully I brought a few smiles along the way, and I like to think that, overall, those smiles outweighed the tears in the long run. The good news is that I’m still a massive Palace fan and I still enjoy being associated with the club, and even though I’m involved with non-league football now I’m still welcomed at games and very appreciative of the reception that I get from fellow fans.
Q. How involved were you in bringing Attilio Lombardo, one of Palace’s greatest ever players, to the club?
I threw a few names at Steve Coppell in the summer of 1997 including Attilio Lombardo and, at first, he was a little bit worried about foreign players being able to adapt to the league. But when Lombardo came over and Steve saw what he was all about he absolutely loved him from the very first moment.
Attilio Lombardo was the ultimate professional, and what he could do on the training ground was truly ridiculous. The way he looked after his body, how hard he worked, and the professionalism that he embodied on the training ground carried onto the pitch. He was a leader, inspired the players around him and we were very lucky to have him at the club at the time, so it’s obviously great to have been part of recruiting him.
Thomas Brolin was a different story, and we all laugh at the fact that he unfortunately ended up not being the player most Palace fans thought he would be. As youngsters we remembered him being one of the greats, and then unfortunately it didn’t work out for him with us.
Funnily enough, Brolin was Attilio’s mate, and spoke perfect Italian and perfect English, so when Lombardo was given the opportunity to be player-manager, Brolin was given the opportunity to be his translator. However, it was translated, ironically, into the fact that he was given the assistant manager job, which wasn’t actually right. But the story is probably much better and more amusing to say that Brolin was given that assistant manager role.
Q. Was moving into management with Bromley somewhat of a cathartic experience? Did you find it hard initially to be involved with football again?
Well I had my own football experience when I was younger as well. I got a scholarship to go to America where I was given the opportunity to play professionally out there, but I had a recurring injury problem to my lower back which meant I wouldn’t be able to make it full-time as a professional. I came back and started a recruitment business in London, but at the same time played for Bromley before becoming player-manager of the reserves at the age of 21, following a spell as player-manager of Beckenham Town.
When my time with Palace came to an end, I set up and coached the Bromley Under 9 team to get my son started in competitive football. There are now over forty youth teams across the age groups. I then ended up becoming manager of the first team and had seven or eight good years at Bromley, helping them get promoted from the Ryman Premier League all the way up to the National League where they are now. When I first got there they had 150 people watching, and now they’re averaging about 1200 people per game. So I’m definitely quite proud of what I did at Bromley.
Q. Now you are trying to build something similar at Welling?
When the new owners came in at Bromley I was deemed surplus to their requirements, so was looking for another club where I could get involved. I ended up going to Welling originally as manager, but also as owner. Now I’ve recognised that I can’t do both I’m really enjoying being owner, and I’ve got a young player-manager who I can liaise with very closely. It is the best of both worlds for me as I can enjoy football in its purest fashion with a young manager who likes to involve me.
Q. So for you, it was never a matter of what level, you just wanted to be involved with football again?
Exactly. I have a love for the game, and also I want to go on a journey. I wanted to take Bromley to the Football League but it didn’t quite work out, so now I want to go on a new journey with Welling.
My thanks to Mark Goldberg for sparing the time to share his story with TEB and we all wish him well for the future particularly with his new project at Welling which we will watch with interest.