Let me start with a confession: I haven’t always supported Crystal Palace. Growing up in Croydon at the same time as Ian Wright and Mark Bright were inspiring the club whose stadium I could see from my bedroom window to reach the top flight for the first time in a decade, I probably should have done; it was the obvious choice. But I didn’t.
Instead I was seduced by the skills of John Barnes and Liverpool’s all-red strip and, as such, there was only one team I wanted to win when the two teams met at Villa Park in their 1990 FA Cup semi-final, which happened to take place the day after my ninth birthday.
Following “my team” from 250 miles away at that stage involved watching videos detailing their unprecedented era of success before I was finally able to see them live at Selhurst Park in January of that year. Steve Coppell’s side had been thrashed 9-0 at Anfield a few months earlier as eight different goalscorers found a way past visiting keeper Perry Suckling – something I taunted my Palace-supporting friends about at school the next day.
Seeing the team that would win the title by nine points in the flesh as they strolled to a 2-0 win in south London was enough to convince me I had made the correct choice. Even after Alan Pardew’s header for Palace in the semi-final on 8 April ended Liverpool’s hopes of winning the double, I remained staunchly in the red corner.
Yet my faith would be severely tested the following season as Coppell’s exciting side, made up largely of players from the local area, recovered from losing the FA final against Manchester United to secure a remarkable third-placed finish in the league behind champions Arsenal and, yes, Liverpool. A 1-0 victory over Dalglish’s team at Selhurst Park in December 1990, courtesy of Bright’s winning goal, was particularly hard to stomach for one confused child in the family enclosure.
Palace reached the final of another cup competition three months later, although its name will mean nothing to most supporters under the age of 38. Established in 1985, when English clubs were banned from European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster, the Full Members’ Cup aimed to provide an extra competition for clubs in the top two divisions. By 1991, English clubs were starting to be allowed back into Europe, but the Members’ Cup – by then sponsored and known as the Zenith Data Systems Cup after two seasons as the equally glamorous-sounding Simod Cup – was still going strong. All but five of the First Division clubs entered that season, with Everton seeing off Leeds over two legs in the Northern Area final and Palace beating Norwich to ensure they would represent the south at Wembley.
The final was scheduled for 7 April – my 10th birthday – and my dad must have sensed an opportunity. Just like against United 11 months earlier, Palace supporters came armed with red and blue balloons that were released as the teams emerged from the tunnel.
The game itself was largely forgettable in normal time and it has required a trip to YouTube to fully remember that Geoff Thomas put Palace ahead with a header, only for Robert Warzycha to equalise 120 seconds later. But I will always remember what happened next: Ian Wright’s goal in the 101st minute after he latched on to Nigel Martyn’s long punt and fired past Neville Southall. John Salako made it 3-1 in the second period of extra-time before a brilliant first-time finish from Wright rounded off a famous victory.
“When Geoff goes up to collect the Zenith Cup, we were there, we were there,” sang the fans on their way home after Thomas had become the first captain in Palace’s history to pick up a senior trophy.
After missing out on a Uefa Cup place despite their highest-ever league finish, Palace were relegated at the end of the Premier League’s inaugural season in 1992-93 as Coppell’s exciting side broke up following the sale of Wright to Arsenal. But my head had already been turned and things could never be the same after that day at Wembley.