The period between 1978-1980 in football not unreasonably tends to be dominated by Nottingham Forest and their commando raid on Europe and its treasures. Liverpool, of course, were well to the fore but another team in the reserve trenches making their mark were Crystal Palace. Palace are a side who for some reason have never to my mind received a whole lot of coverage over the years. Lack of silverware is an obvious clue but it seems to be a bit more than that. Similarly placed in the southern outer rim of London to Watford’s northern spot, they are like Watford in that they sail under a lot of football radar perhaps.
The occasional Cup final appearance punctuated by cyclical promotions and relegations tends to be their perceived image. They sometimes will have an outstanding player or two ranging from Zaha to Wright, but by and large, they may well be picked off by bigger beasts. But invariably, they seem to get overlooked quite a bit due to the big London central four and they may indeed like it that way. I have heard thoughts on the club range from admiration at the noise levels at Selhurst Park, to the sneering at the wannabe Eastern European ultras clad in black at the Holmesdale Road end. Many years ago I knew more than a few fans who liked them simply because their kit colours were close to an English international kit of the time.
But going back to the time period there would be many who took great interest in that Crystal Palace team. It had been bubbling since the 1976 FA Cup run when they reached the semi-finals whilst in the Third Division under the stewardship of Malcolm Allison. The charismatic glow and colour of Allison was seamlessly matched by his coach Terry Venables who many argued could have been his son, such was the footballing and everyday DNA shared by the pair of them both on and off the pitch. If Allison could wear a fedora and have porn actresses in the team bath with him, Venables was writing crime novels and opening pubs and nightclubs. Allison had been one of the great thinkers of the game having developed it at West Ham. He would influence the likes of John Bond and Harry Redknapp who would, in turn, become managers.
Venables had turned down the Arsenal job to be involved with Palace and would have a whirlwind few tears with the club as he set about honing a very gifted set of youngsters who would win the FA Youth Cup two years in succession. The second half of the seventies in SE25 was a very exciting place to be. The shining light of that ’76 FA Cup run had been winger Peter Taylor who by 1977 had gone to Spurs but if Palace fans were upset about this they needn’t have been.
Youth team captain and left-back Kenny Sansom would have been the shining light of that youth team that now started to worm its way into the Palace first team. Palace had been promoted in 1977 from the Third Division and in August 1978 they set about the oncoming season with youthful vigour. Goalkeeper John Burridge who had come in from Aston Villa was the relative old head despite his exuberant personality but was still a few years short of 30. Elsewhere Jim Cannon who had been in the team for three or four years and had been converted from wing-back to centre-back was the captain. Yes, you read it right…wing-backs were not a Premiership creation and indeed Palace had implemented a sweeper system with Palace so emboldened forward thinking was very much part of the culture.
Threaded through all this an absolute glut of gifted youngsters who in such a progressive atmosphere were given their heads. Sansom was to become England’s second most capped left-back and had been around the first team since 1976. Comfortable on the ball, sharp in the tackle and fast his lack of height was never a problem. Billy Gilbert came into the side alongside Cannon when Welsh international Ian Evans broke his leg and Gilbert learned well from his captain. Leggy Paul Hinshelwood made up the right-back slot.
Midfield experience came from Steve Kember now in his second spell with the club after returning from Chelsea but he had plenty of young bucks to his running. Irishman Jerry Murphy on the left covered ground well whilst converted defender Peter Nicholas was full of Welsh energy and hard-tackling. His blond shaggy hairstyle competed with Billy Gilbert’s behind him and this similarity extended to their being born on exactly the same day and year. Nicholas was fearsome in the tackle and is remembered by many for taking on Graeme Souness in an international past the watershed midfield battle.
Vince Hilaire was the Zaha of the team. He became the poster boy of the side due to speed and skill in that position of the golden glow – the winger. His profile, of course, became heightened due to his race and at that time he, the West Brom boys of Regis, Cunningham and Batson and Forest’s Viv Anderson would have been the prominent black players in the country. He has since spoken of horrendous stuff from the nearby terracing from his wing position. Like Hinshelwood, centre-forward David Swindlehurst at 23 had a few years on these kids. Tall and strong he had good feet and mobility for a supposed target man and once Mike Elwiss got injured, he was joined by another Welsh youngster Ian Walsh who was a good foil.
Through good management by Venables, the team’s feet were kept on the ground as they fought it out with Brighton that season. They were only to lose four times and whilst not prolific at the other end, were fairly ruthless in the business of not conceding goals. 24 over 42 games told its own story. It all ended memorably on a Friday night when with apparently 51482 ‘officially’ in the ground the Eagles took flight to the First Division by beating Burnley 2-0. Walsh, by his own admission, scored his best ever header to open the scoring in the last quarter followed by a well-struck thump after a strong run from Swindlehurst. Walsh’s header was the sort of goal to accompany such a night and would have soothed many a Palace fan to sleep forever after.
I remember it being well covered on the national news that night and the clipped tones of ITN’s Chris Jamieson slashed against the frenzy going on around him. His feeling that‘a pitch invasion might seem justified’ was him really letting himself go. They ended as champions of the division. Kenny Sansom made his England debut the following week against Wales and the media went into overdrive as youth and the end of the decade heralded the ‘Team for the Eighties’.
It was fair and unfair. It had been a long decade and many tapped into a sort of new southern version of the ‘Busby Babes’. It was fair insofar as even in those days it was still rare for a block of youngsters to arrive almost en masse in a first team. That wasn’t wholly true either but the perception as always carried. In that respect, you could go with it and it wouldn’t be until the Manchester United class of 1992 came along that we would see something similar.
But for the awaiting and knowing First Division clubs it was a bit of a liberty and the press did Palace no favours as they headed up into headier climes. Venables sensibly added a bit of nous to the side recruiting ex-England captain Gerry Francis to bolster the midfield and Charlton goal machine Mike Flanagan. As so often happens the computer winked at all of us and landed their first fixture away to Malcolm Allison’s Manchester City. 0-0 was a fair result and Palace settled into the new division fairly unobtrusively which was probably no bad thing. Their first win was against Derby was in early September and their highpoint was probably beating Ipswich to top the table in late September.
Early October saw them lose consecutively away to Everton and Southampton and Liverpool were to beat them 3-0 at Anfield in December. No disgrace there of course though Bob Paisley, daddy of them all and the most patriarchal of all the managers in the First Division pithily remarked
“They may be the team of the eighties, but the seventies aren’t over yet”
He wasn’t trying to be nasty but was just reminding them they were in the big boys’ playground now.
Throughout the season they ratcheted up a few decent results to keep their heads well above water such as a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford and Highbury, a 1-0 defeat of European Champions Nottingham Forest and a scoreless draw with Liverpool. This writer went to Selhurst Park to watch their match v Manchester City. It was a fantastic game with Walsh and Swindlehurst scoring again in a 2-0 win all overshadowed by the return of Big Mal’s return to his earlier patch. A finish of 13th was more than respectable that season.
1980 would see the gradual break-up of the side amidst Venables falling out with Chairman Ray Bloye and Sansom moving to Arsenal. History recalls those Palace years as a brief period but as any football fan will tell you, any exciting team or trip is heightened at the time and especially in retrospect. That should go for the players involved as well. But beyond those southern suburbs, Palace fans, if it matters to them should be pleased that many of the rest of the footballing family enjoyed that team too. It was a good flight for the eagle.