During the lockdown, many fans have seen the opportunity to take stock and look back at what has been a whirlwind for the club since the turn of the century. In our latest entry to the Lockdown Diaries, Colin Seymour looks back at a period that was certainly not boring.
In the 2000s, survival really did mean everything to Palace supporters, both on and off the pitch. In a decade that started and ended with the club in administration, the threat to Palace’s existence was all too real, whilst the threat of relegation often loomed large. It says a lot about the club and its fans that we celebrate survival just as much as success, and some of our most memorable matches are relegation battles that we have lived through.
For me personally, it was a time when I wasn’t able to attend many matches. I was living in north-west London with a young family, and my weekends were taken up with coaching my son’s football team – training on Saturdays and matches on Sundays. But despite the fact that I wasn’t able to be at Selhurst Park as often as I would have liked, I still felt really connected to the club.
That may partly have been a result of the unprecedented amount of Palace news that was now available on the internet. But like many Palace fans, the closer connection also came from the adversity we found ourselves in, and a feeling that we were all in it together. In early 2000, like many other fans, I invested £1,000 when the Supporters Trust was set up in a bid to save the club (money that was later returned when the club came out of administration). It felt like the least I could do – I would never have forgiven myself if the club had folded and I hadn’t done my bit.
In early 2000, with the club in administration and surviving on meagre resources, the team were facing a relegation battle. But it felt like everyone was pulling in the same direction – the chairman (Peter Morley), the manager (Steve Coppell, back for his fourth spell in charge), the players, the fans, and even it seemed a former player.
That was Matt Jansen. Matt had joined the club in February 1998, endearing himself to us all by choosing to join Palace over Manchester United. I loved him from the moment I saw him play – he was a natural goalscorer and such an exciting player to watch. It broke my heart when the club went into administration in January 1999 and Jansen, our most valuable asset, had to be sold to Blackburn Rovers.
Fast forward to the end of April 2000, and Palace were playing Blackburn in our last home game of the season. I was at Selhurst Park, hoping that Palace could achieve the win that would ensure we stayed up. Palace fans have always welcomed back former players who have given good service to the club, but the welcome given to Matt Jansen was something special, despite the fact that he had only played 26 games for the club. I even remember him signing autographs for Palace fans as he came off the pitch after the pre-match warm-up.
As we know, former players always score against Palace and after about half an hour, the inevitable happened – Jansen scored for Blackburn. To his credit, he looked disconsolate. In the second half, Jansen was determined to avoid any risk that he might score again, playing deeper and deeper as the half went on. Fortunately, Ashley Cole and Clinton Morrison both scored to give Palace victory. The players celebrated by throwing their shirts into the crowd, and Coppell followed suit by throwing his jacket into the crowd.
Whilst survival had been confirmed on the pitch, it took another two months for the club’s survival to be confirmed off the pitch. When it was, the relief was huge. However, our troubles on the pitch were far from over.
At the end of the next season, the team were in an even more perilous position. The re-appointment of Alan Smith as manager had not been a success. Palace went into the final games of the season in the bottom three. Our last home game was against Wolves, and like the previous year, a win seemed to be essential. Sadly this time, the Palace performance was lacklustre and we lost 2-0. Relegation seemed inevitable. To stand any chance of staying up, we had to win our last two games away to Portsmouth and Stockport, and even then we were relying on results elsewhere to go our way. Alan Smith was sacked as manager, and Steve Kember took over for the last two games. It seemed to be a gesture that was too little, too late.
However, that was the change that rejuvenated the team. In midweek, I listened on the radio as Palace beat Portsmouth 4-2. That gave us all hope. Now we had to beat Stockport on Sunday. There were no guarantees that a win would be enough, but three other teams could be overtaken if results went our way. Watching the Stockport match on TV was torture. As the match wore on, I grew more and more nervous, slipping further and further down in my chair until I was in a near horizontal position.
With three minutes left and the match still scoreless, I had begun to accept the inevitable. When David Hopkin cleared the ball with his hand from the edge of our penalty area, my only thought was to shout that it was outside the area. I remember my surprise as the referee waved play on, I remember the ball being played out to Dougie Freedman and I remember his run into the penalty area. As the ball hit the net, I remember achieving the almost impossible task of leaping into the air from a horizontal position.
This being Palace, there were still moments of torture to come. In the last minute of injury time, Alex Kolinko slipped as the ball drifted over his head before he was able to scamper back to save a potential own goal. There was trauma elsewhere too. Two of the three teams above us had the points they needed to stay up. Only Huddersfield were within Palace’s reach. The TV coverage was cutting over to the other matches when goals were scored and I remember the feeling of sheer panic when they went over to show Huddersfield on the attack. This time, fortunately, it was to show the Birmingham keeper making a point blank save. Palace held on to beat Stockport, Birmingham held on to beat Huddersfield and Palace were safe.
In the two years that followed, Palace finished comfortably in mid-table. In 2003-04, Palace were on the edge of the relegation zone as Christmas approached, but Iain Dowie led Palace on a remarkable run to the play-offs where, after overcoming Sunderland on penalties, we beat West Ham in the final at the Millennium Stadium. Unfortunately, the following season ended the same way as every other Premier League season up to that point, as Palace were relegated once more.
Palace made it to the play-offs again in 2006 and 2008, but lost in the semi-final each time. Then, in January 2010, Palace plunged back into administration. As the old decade drew to a close and a new one began, it was once again the survival of the club that was front of mind.
The club’s prospects for the new decade looked bleak. Returning to the Premier League was beyond our wildest dreams – all we could hope for was that we would still have a club to support, and that was far from certain. Little did we know that we were about to witness the most consistently successful period of our history.