Our Lockdown Dairies continue as the latest entry sees Colin Seymour return with a look back at a decade in which Palace really did test the patience and loyalty of fans.
Having supported Palace for the last fifty years, I would love to be able to say that my love and affection has never dimmed, but that would not be true. In the eighties, my loyalty was severely tested. Was that my fault or was it the team? Well, to be honest, it was probably a bit of both, but I blame the team (or should I say the club) for causing the rift in our relationship.
In the seventies, throughout my teenage years, I had supported Palace loyally, standing on the terrace at the Whitehorse Lane End as often as I could. As the new decade began, I was full of optimism. We finished comfortably in mid-table at the end of the 1979-80 season and despite losing Kenny Sansom that summer, the squad was still strong.
After a poor start the following season, Palace went into meltdown. The catalyst was the departure of manager Terry Venables to Queens Park Rangers. He was followed over the course of the season by four of our first team squad, whilst Peter Nicholas left to join Arsenal and Dave Swindlehurst left for Derby. The “Team of the Eighties” was being torn apart, and the players coming in were simply not in the same class. I can still remember the gut-wrenching disappointment as we announced the signing of players like Tommy Langley, David Price and Brian Bason, a feeling that remained when I saw them play.
Venables was replaced as manager first by coach Ernie Walley, then by the return of Malcolm Allison, a pale shadow of the manager he once was, and finally by Dario Gradi. After having just three managers throughout the seventies, we had gone through four in one season. Palace were relegated long before the final match was played, and when our fate was confirmed, it felt like we were all being put out of our misery.
In truth, the misery had only just begun. Whilst we avoided immediately falling through the trap door to Division Three, as we had in the seventies, the club’s fall from grace this time felt much deeper. The playing squad was uninspiring, the performances were dull and the results were disappointing. It appeared to be a forward step when Dario Gradi was replaced as manager by club legend Steve Kember, but that was undone in the summer of 1982.
Chairman Ron Noades followed the sacking of Kember with the appointment of Alan Mullery, to the universal disapproval of the fans. Given Mullery’s role in igniting Palace’s rivalry with Brighton back in the seventies, it felt like the appointment could only have been conceived by someone who lacked any feeling for the soul of the club.
I went to very few games in Mullery’s first season in charge. Now in my twenties, I was regularly playing football on Saturday afternoons so it would have been difficult anyway, but in truth, I was glad of the excuse. Nevertheless, when Palace faced relegation in the last game of the 1982-83 season, I knew I had to be there to support the team.
As in 1979, we went into that last game knowing what we needed to do, with the regular season having ended. As in 1979, we were playing Burnley. However, the comparison ended there. This time, rather than attempting to gain promotion to Division One, we needed a point to avoid relegation to Division Three. Given the comparisons, it was hard not to reflect how far we had fallen in just four years.
The problem for me was that my own football team were also catching up on a postponed game earlier that same evening. I calculated that I could finish playing in that game, and then drive over to Selhurst Park for the second half. When I got there, the turnstiles were closed. Along with a handful of other fans, I waited outside the Holmesdale End trying desperately to follow what was happening inside. Half way through the second half, the big exit gates were opened, and whilst stewards prevented people from getting in through one set of gates, I slipped in unnoticed through another. I was able to watch Palace hold on to a 1-0 win, to confirm our survival.
Alan Mullery somehow survived to manage the club for another uninspiring season before mercifully being sacked in the summer of 1984. At first, it felt like the club might continue our position as a laughing stock for the footballing world, when Dave Bassett was appointed as manager before changing his mind just three days later. The silver lining came as Ron Noades made the brave decision to appoint Steve Coppell as Palace manager at the age of just 28.
Although the results in Coppell’s first season were no better than the previous three, he was once again building the foundations for a bright future. Over the next few seasons, signings like Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Geoff Thomas, Andy Gray and Eddie McGoldrick not only transformed results, but transformed the style of play into an exciting, attacking force.
The trouble was, I wasn’t there to see it. By the second half of the eighties, I was married, living in North London and still playing football regularly. I went to Selhurst Park occasionally but my relationship with Palace had changed from a passionate love affair to a mild acquaintance.
It was at the end of the 1988-89 season, I found myself listening to the play-off matches on the radio. I listened as Mark Bright and Ian Wright’s goals won the semi-final second leg at Selhurst Park. I listened as Eddie McGoldrick gave us a vital away goal in the first leg of the final away to Blackburn – and I was preparing to follow the second leg that way as well.
It was on the morning of the match when I came to my senses. How could I not be at Selhurst Park? Even with a 3-1 deficit from the first leg, Palace were in with a chance of getting back to the First Division. I discovered that there were a few tickets left, which would be on sale at the box office that morning. I jumped in my car and drove over to South London.
As I drove into the Sainsbury’s car park, I felt deflated. There was a “Sold Out” notice outside the ticket office. Not to be deterred, I walked into the Club Shop to see if I could get a ticket there instead. To my relief, the manager had the last few tickets in his hand. I gratefully bought one and spent the next few hours waiting for kick off in a state of escalating excitement.
I had taken the first step in rebuilding my diminished relationship with the team. I had shown I still cared, but how would the team respond? Well, in a word, majestically. Ian Wright’s quick reaction to stab in at the far post reduced the deficit and Dave Madden’s cool penalty levelled the scores. In extra time, the nerves understandably showed. In reality, a 2-0 victory would have been sufficient, courtesy of our away goal, but three minutes from time, Ian Wright sent the crowd into euphoria by heading in at the far post to confirm Palace’s return to Division One.
I was still nervous about the future. After all, I could remember my excitement when Palace were promoted ten years earlier, and look how that ended up. But in that moment, only one thing mattered.
My love affair with the club had been rekindled.