Palace's season was really a tale of two clubs. One involved football and the other business. Most fans are really interested in the playing side of course, but inevitably what happens behind the scenes affects most club's players - witness the decline in Manchester City for example. Palace's season was dominated by both factors and each affected the other.
The euphoria of the Wembley win and the return to the Premier League was immediately tempered by the pundit's view that all three promoted teams would go straight back down. Palace were given no chance. The common view is that clubs have to spend money on better players to get success. Generally this is true, although both Derby and Leicester showed that limited success is possible on a budget. Palace's hope was to emulate this and stay in the Premier League.
However things got worse before they got better. The rumour that David Hopkin - the hero of Wembley - would be leaving for Leeds United came true, and he went. Despite Carlo Nash's performance in goal it was clear a more experienced keeper was need for the higher division and Kevin Miller was brought in from Watford. Some other players were associated with Palace; many became off/on moves with hitches and problems preventing a smooth transfer until the season had virtually started. Others simply didn't progress as other clubs moved in for the player concerned.
The only note of concern was that some of these players had recent injuries - in many cases causing long-term absence from their previous teams. Despite this the Eagles lined up for their first game at Everton with four new players in the squad. Lombardo and Warhurst made their debuts and were joined by Fullarton from the subs bench. The unexpected win - the first of many 'unexpected' away wins - was considered lucky by the media, for whom Everton had played badly rather than Palace playing well.
The encouragement this win gave the supporters stemmed from the play of Warhurst and Lombardo, with Palace's counter-attacking play ideally suited for away games. However it was at home that Palace suffered most, the first game against newly promoted Barnsley ending in undeserved defeat but setting the tone for the rest of the season. It seemed that everyone knew how to play Palace at home - close them down, mark them tight and wait for a break. The same problem had been evident in the last few league games of the previous season, but despite the new faces the Eagles hadn't solved the problem.
A promising young wingback - Jamie Smith - was also taken from Wolves and made his debut for the away win at Leeds. This was Palace's last win before a string of four defeats - including an embarrassing League Cup defeat at the Football League's bottom club Hull City - the recipients of a 7-3 beating themselves four days before. Then a win against Wimbledon 'away' seemed to give the team more confidence and despite drawing the next two games they did appear to be playing with more spirit. The second leg of the Coca-Cola Cup game against Hull saw a win scraped out in front of 6,400 supporters, noticeable for the fact that like the first leg - non of Palace's 'stars' were on view. Warhurst already missing through injury. Despite the win Palace were humiliatingly knocked out on the away goal rule.
Injury too had robbed Palace of David Tuttle in defence for what turned out to be the rest of the season, and although his ready replacement - Hreidarsson - eventually proved popular and effective there is little doubt that Palace missed Tuttle's experience. His absence left only Andy Linighan and Dean Gordon in defence with any real Premier experience and eventually Linighan's effectiveness dimmed until he was dropped. Despite losing at Old Trafford, Palace played very well and proved this with an effective home draw in their very next game against an Arsenal side at the top of their form. The Eagles then went to Sheffield Wednesday and convincingly won. A home win against Aston Villa seemed in the bag until a late error allowed the visitors to equalise.
Neil Shipperley hit a rich vein of form at this time too. Coincidentally Palace had bought Michele Padovano from Juventus - an experienced striker who appeared ideally suited for Palace's lack of punch up front. The highlight of Shipp's season was - strangely enough - the highlight of Padovano's too. In a memorable game at Leicester the Italian put Palace in the lead after Marc Edworthy was sent off and the Eagles reduced to 10 men. Palace were forced to defend their lead and substituted the Italian for Fullarton, leaving Shipperley to play up front alone - which he did brilliantly - hitting the crossbar and almost scoring on two other occasions. Only a typically late Leicester goal robbed the Eagles of the full three points.
Injuries then began to affect the team - not only that but several familiar players departed. Carl Veart left with the unsettled Gareth Davies, Kevin Muscat and most surprisingly Dougie Freedman - returning to the first division with Wolves alongside Muscat. The popular but enigmatic George Ndah also left for Swindon - ironically just before injuries robbed Palace of almost every striker.
Palace found themselves in mid-table in the league as the winter approached, having been as high as 10th at one point. Even with star players missing and some poor individual performances - the Israeli Zohar for one - Palace still seemed to be coping with the top level. Only the defeat at West Ham - after an abandoned game when the floodlights failed - showed up Palace's defensive frailties. These were in fact disguised by wins in the FA Cup against Scunthorpe and a 3-0 win at home to Leicester in which Bruce Dyer scored a memorable hat-trick. Between these games and the 5th round tie at Arsenal, Palace lost every league game.
If Palace's season turned on any one point it isn't clear which one - but the three consecutive games against Arsenal may have been breaking point. First they faced them in the FA Cup 5th round at Highbury and not without confidence after the display at Selhurst earlier in the season. This creditable 0-0 draw was followed by a 1-0 defeat in the league six days later, but ten days after that Arsenal won at Selhurst in the Cup replay. The Palace defence - now including the French under-21 international Valerian Ismael - never recovered. They conceded 12 goals in the next three games, including six against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and found themselves in the relegation places. At one point Palace were so short of players that Tomas Brolin found himself playing unexpectedly - he had only been training with the team in an attempt to get fit for a return to football. Palace had also bought Marcus Bent from Brentford - a bright hope for the future but one who had never played higher than the second division
Off the field activities now really affected the team. Marc Goldberg, a wealthy local businessman, had already showed an interest in buying control of the club from Ron Noades. He had agreed a price and Mr Noades confirmed he would only sell if Mr Goldberg could guarantee to complete the sale by the end of February. Following negotiations the money would be paid in instalments and at the due date Mr Noades agreed to the sale. Mr Goldberg then became 'chairman-elect' and announced his plans for the future of the club. Within a few days some drastic and exciting changes were announced - some of it premature and some of it clearly damaging to the playing side as the press added speculation to the announcements.
Mr Goldberg had a five-year plan to make Palace a top club. It included bringing ex-England (and Palace) manager Terry Venables to Selhurst Park for the five-year term. However Mr Goldberg had yet to meet with Mr Venables and agreement was not reached until the end of April. By this time Mr Goldberg had seen an agreement with Glasgow Rangers to buy Paul Gascoine fail, and announced that Attilio Lombardo would replace Steve Coppell as team coach. Unfortunately Lombardo didn't speak English and Tomas Brolin was nominated as interpreter for the team. The press criticism sank deep as Palace's results sent them further into trouble.
The defeat at Aston Villa in March was only illuminated by the presence of Jansen who scored a wonderful individual goal. Relegation now seemed certain. It was followed by the unexpected win at Newcastle which gave supporters brief hope of the miracle that was now needed, with Palace ten points adrift at the bottom of the table. It was not to be, and three consecutive defeats virtually sealed relegation. One more uplifting win at home to Derby County saved Palace the ignominy of going a whole season without a home League win, but their fate was sealed nine days later when Manchester United came to Selhurst and pushed Palace aside in front of the largest home crowd of the season.
A season of disappointment came to a close with the same kind of apprehension as that of two years previously. In order to bounce back up into the Premier League, Palace have to keep their best players. Whereas before it was the players who left the club, this time the worry would be based on the prospect of a new management team's assessment.
By Tony Dudley
A G A G Kevin Miller 38 0 Michele Padovano 8(2) 1 Dean Gordon 36(1) 2 David Tuttle 8(1) 0 Marc Edworthy 33(1) 0 Sasa Curcic 6(2) 1 Simon Rodger 27(2) 2 Matt Jansen 5(3) 3 Hermann Hreidarsson 26(3) 2 Dougie Freedman 2(6) 0 Andy Linighan 26 0 Itzhik Zohar 2(4) 0 Andy Roberts 25 0 Rory Ginty 2(3) 0 Paul Warhurst 22 3 George Ndah 2(1) 0 Attilio Lombardo 21(3) 5 Carl Veart 1(5) 0 Bruce Dyer 21(3) 4 Patrizio Billio 1(2) 0 Jamie Fullarton 19(6) 1 Sagi Burton 1(1) 0 Neil Shipperley 17(8) 7 Leon McKenzie 0(3) 0 Jamie Smith 16(2) 0 Ivano Bonetti 0(2) 0 Tomas Brolin 13 0 Clinton Morrison 0(1) 1 Valerien Ismael 13 0 Danny Boxall 0(1) 0 Marcus Bent 10(6) 5 Gareth Davies 0(1) 0 Kevin Muscat 9 0 Tony Folan 0(1) 0 Neil Emblen 8(5) 0 Robert Quinn 0(1) 0