Our series of Lockdown Diaries continue as Colin Seymour works his way through the decades of supporting the Eagles, this time with a look at one that saw the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
Being a Palace fan has always been something of an emotional roller coaster. We have all grown used to the ups and downs, resigned to the fact that in all probability, each high point is merely a prelude to another low. But even in comparison to the turbulent history of the club, the nineties was a decade of extremes – five visits to Wembley and three Premier League relegations, cup glory and cup heartache, last minute play-off victory and last-minute play-off defeat, our highest ever league finish and our failure to qualify for Europe.
Of all the memorable occasions that Palace have been part of down the years, the one that has probably been talked and written about more than any other is the FA Cup Semi-Final victory over Liverpool in 1990 – and rightly so. This was Palace turning an all-time low into an all-time high. After our record 9-0 league defeat earlier in the season, nobody really gave Palace a chance of reaching our first FA Cup Final, including me. I just wanted the scoreline to be respectable.
I didn’t have a ticket for the game. After a few years of following Palace from afar in the eighties, I wasn’t yet a member and that was the only way to buy a ticket. Still, it wasn’t so bad as both semi-finals were due to be shown live on TV. With the wall-to-wall coverage of football that we see today, it’s strange to remember that this was the first time that a Palace match had ever been shown live on TV, so my excitement was almost as great watching from home as if I had been at Villa Park.
When Liverpool led at half-time, I never imagined the emotional torture I was about to endure. I remember the ecstasy of Mark Bright’s equaliser, the hope created by Gary O’Reilly’s goal, the devastation of Liverpool regaining the lead, the euphoria of Andy Gray’s equaliser and the torment of Andy Thorn’s header hitting the bar in injury time. By extra time, my emotions were in such turmoil that I almost didn’t know how to celebrate when Alan Pardew gave Palace the lead once more. Of course, Palace held on and we were in the FA Cup Final for the very first time.
Fortunately, I was able to be at Wembley for both the FA Cup Final and the replay. The first game was a great occasion, with the fairy-tale of Ian Wright coming off the bench to give Palace the lead before Mark Hughes’ equaliser cruelly took it away. That was followed swiftly by the abject disappointment of the replay, when Palace failed to perform to the same high level.
Even though I had been waiting to see Palace play in the FA Cup Final for over 20 years, my favourite Wembley memory probably came a year later, when Palace played in the Full Members Cup Final (known that year as the Zenith Data Systems Cup). This was a competition that ran from 1985 to 1992, for clubs in the top two divisions. Admittedly, its importance to clubs and fans was low, certainly in the early rounds. But having reached the final, it was a competition that the 40,000 Palace fans who were at Wembley really wanted to win. This was the chance to grab our first ever piece of silverware, if you discount the odd divisional championship along the way. Although the match finished 1-1 after 90 minutes, Palace strolled to a 4-1 victory in extra time, with two goals from Ian Wright and another from John Salako. As Geoff Thomas went up to lift the ZDS Cup, I was there!
Palace played brilliantly throughout that 1990-91 season, achieving our best ever finish of third in Division One. It was a position that in most seasons would have fulfilled another dream of mine, to see Palace play in Europe. Unfortunately, back then, shortly after the lifting of the ban on English clubs playing in Europe, only the top two clubs qualified and Palace missed out.
All our Premier League relegations have been painful, but the worst for me was undoubtedly in 1993. Palace players famously completed a lap of honour after the last home game that season, thinking that survival was assured. It seemed reasonable at the time. Oldham Athletic would have to win their last three games to overtake us, the first of which was away to an Aston Villa side that would end the season as runners-up. Even when Oldham unexpectedly won that game, the concern was not too great. Their next game was against Liverpool, the same night that Palace were playing at Manchester City. Palace picked up a creditable point, but Oldham won again, leaving them just three points adrift.
Now the alarm bells were ringing loudly. Palace’s last game was away to Arsenal, whereas Oldham faced the much easier prospect of a home game against Southampton. Oldham clung on to a 4-3 victory, while Palace lost 3-0 at Arsenal. What made it so painful for me was that the only way I could get a ticket to the game was through my wife’s family, who were all Arsenal supporters – and so I watched the match from the Clock End at Highbury, surrounded by Arsenal fans, as Ian Wright, my former hero, led Arsenal to victory. We had been relegated on goal difference with 49 points.
The following season, Palace were promoted again as champions, before unluckily being relegated once more in 1995 despite finishing fourth from bottom. This was the only season in which four teams were relegated from the Premier League.
The following two seasons, I experienced the contrasting emotions of play-off finals at Wembley. There was heartbreak, as Steve Claridge shinned the winner in the last minute of extra-time, followed by ecstasy as David Hopkin’s last minute winner sent us back to the Premier League, almost causing me to faint with excitement.
Unfortunately, everything started to slip away the following season. With results going against us, Steve Coppell was replaced as Palace manager by Attilio Lombardo, a great player with no managerial experience who couldn’t speak English. It only got worse when chairman Ron Noades took over managerial duties for the last three games of the season. The final indignity that season was that Palace qualified to play in Europe – but not in the way I had dreamed.
The Intertoto Cup had been introduced by UEFA as a summer tournament, with the incentive that the three winning clubs would secure a place in the following season’s UEFA Cup competition. The inconvenient timing of the matches meant that teams from England were only entered if they had nominated themselves. Despite finishing bottom, we were the highest placed team who had expressed an interest, so in the summer of 1998, Palace played in Europe for the first (and only) time, ironically against a team from deep within the Asian half of Turkey. I didn’t go, and nor did many others. Interest was so low that, reportedly, fewer fans than players travelled to the away leg.
Only six months later, in January 1999, the club fell into administration. Suddenly, the highs and lows of the last ten years paled into insignificance. The threat that the club might go out of existence was a stark reminder of what the club meant to me and so many others. All my other dreams for the club became unimportant.
Survival was all that mattered – and that took over a year to be confirmed.