The FA Cup finals of the late 1980s and early 1990s can be distilled into their memorable moments, such is the strength of their enshrinement in folklore: 1987 and 1988 gave us unlikely winners, a diving header and a penalty save; 1989 saw an emotionally-charged Liverpool beat Everton; 1991 had Paul Gascoigne; 1992 became symbolic of the end of an era for Liverpool.
Right in the middle of them comes 1990. The team who had dominated the 1980s made it as far as the semi-finals, while the trophy was lifted by a team who then dominated the 1990s. In the middle of the two sit Crystal Palace, victorious over then-league champions Liverpool, but whose defeat in their first ever FA Cup final to Manchester United left them with a serious case of what might have been.
1989-90 was Crystal Palace’s first season back in the top flight, and they performed about as well as could be expected, finishing 15th and ensuring survival with two games to spare. The Eagles’ season was typical for many promoted sides – plenty of defeats (including a 9-0 humbling at Liverpool), a few draws and some scraped wins, and a 2-1 win against Manchester United. While historical perspective offers the temptation to paint the 1990 final as David versus Goliath, Manchester United had ended the season in 13th place.
The Crystal Palace squad of nobodies
In some respects it seems harsh to describe a team who earned promotion to the top flight and made it all the way to the FA Cup final as a bunch of nobodies, but with notable exceptions, there is a distinct lack of household names in the Palace squad that contested the two games. This was a group of players with an average age of 25 (Manchester United’s players for the final averaged 26), with very little in the way of top-flight experience, having either come up through the club or from the lower leagues.
Phil Barber was the team’s longest-serving player, having been plucked from non-league Aylesbury United in 1984; Ian Wright was spotted playing for Greenwich Borough and signed in 1985; Mark Bright was signed from Leicester City in 1986, the same year that youth system products John Salako and Richard Shaw made their debuts as fresh-faced 18-year-olds; 1987 saw Geoff Thomas join from Crewe, Gary O’Reilly move from Brighton and Alan Pardew sign from Yeovil; Thomas’s ex-Alexandra teammate John Pemberton transferred in 1988, the same year David Madden arrived from Reading; Andy Gray, having started his career at Palace, returned after spells at Aston Villa and then QPR in July 1989; the final pieces in the puzzle joined partway through the 1989-90 season – Andy Thorn, who was part of the Wimbledon team that beat Liverpool in 1988, and Nigel Martyn, who became England’s first £1m goalkeeper.
The road to Wembley
Crystal Palace made it to Wembley in 1990 facing only one top-flight team: Liverpool, in the semi-final, having first seen off Portsmouth, Huddersfield Town, Rochdale and Cambridge United. Facing Liverpool in their fancy silver kit, Palace lined up in a 4-5-1, although they played much of the game in a 3-5-2 – Shaw moved inside, closer to O’Reilly and Thorn; Pemberton, nominally a right-back, pushed forwards alongside Barber, as he and Salako provided the width; Thomas and Pardew patrolled the centre of the park, while Gray pushed up almost as a second striker behind Bright. Despite playing five in midfield, there was very little width for much of the game; Palace’s plan was to play long balls, usually from Martyn, aimed at Bright.
Liverpool, in a more traditional 4-4-2 featuring many star names, played a shorter passing game than the Eagles. This allowed them to control midfield, and they took advantage early on – Pardew gave away possession in his own half and the ball found its way to Peter Beardsley, who played a through ball that allowed Ian Rush to beat the offside trap, round Martyn and open the scoring. Rush would go off injured around the half-hour mark – as teams could only name two substitutes back then, it was baffling that Kenny Dalglish opted for two full-backs – this meant Steve Staunton came on, operating on the left of midfield, with John Barnes moved up front, but Liverpool could not extend their lead.
Crystal Palace started the second half before Liverpool did – well, sort of. The men in silver, having made their second change to bring on Barry Venison for Gary Gillespie, kicked off but a wayward pass in the direction of Burrows and Staunton on the left wing was intercepted by Pemberton. He surged forward and crossed over the heads of Bright, Alan Hansen and Glenn Hysen, but straight to Salako. He shot across the face of goal and it was turned in by Bright. Seizing the momentum, the Eagles took the lead soon after – a free-kick was crossed into the box, Bright knocked it down and O’Reilly fired home. Liverpool would restore parity themselves, with Steve McMahon finding the net from a free-kick routine, and then have a golden chance to win the game late on. Pemberton fouled Staunton to concede a penalty, which was duly converted by Barnes, but Liverpool could not close out the game. In the final few minutes, another set-piece led to another penalty box melee that Liverpool couldn’t deal with, and somehow Gray’s header found a way into the net, despite the presence of four defenders on the goal line. Palace actually had a chance to win the game with the last act of normal time, as a free header from Thorn whistled over, but it wasn’t to be, and the 90 minutes finished with the score at 3-3.
Extra time was more of the same, and once again Liverpool were undone by a set-piece. Famously, Gray’s corner was flicked on at the near post by Thorn, and Pardew was able to steal in at the back post and find the net. However, it’s only fair to mention Martyn’s heroics as well. With Liverpool laying siege to the Palace goal, he produced a spectacular save to keep out a header from Barnes. The game ended 4-3 and Crystal Palace were heading to the FA Cup final for the first time in their history.
Cup Final fever
‘FA Cup Fever’ has become a bit of a cliché, but only because so many people have succumbed to its symptoms over the years. In 1990 I lived in Beckenham, practically equidistant between stadium and training ground. While I was too young to fully appreciate it at the time, my parents tell me they remember pretty much the whole local area getting caught up in the excitement: many houses and shops being decked out in red and blue, with scarves and bunting adorning milk floats and dustbin lorries; Capital Radio played Glad All Over a ridiculous number of times. Basically, it was the sort of thing that looks absurd when you see other teams do it, but it’s so easy for everyone to get swept up in. Back when top-flight football clubs could still claim to be part of their local community, the Eagles had the support of theirs ahead of the biggest game in their history.
Palace lined up with the same team and formation as the semi-final, albeit staying closer to a traditional 4-5-1. This line-up is, by quirk, the last time an all-English team contested the FA Cup final, and their manager, Steve Coppell, became the youngest man to lead out a side at Wembley.
The game started slowly, with both teams feeling each other out, without really threatening either goal early on, although Manchester United shaded possession. Once the Eagles did get a chance, inevitably from a free-kick, they made it count, taking the lead when O’Reilly scored with a header. This spurred the Red Devils on – Brian McClair missed two good chances before Bryan Robson equalised, heading home a cross. There was no further scoring and the teams went in all square at half-time.
Manchester United started the second half more brightly, and took the lead when a clearance was charged down inside the Palace penalty area and fell to Mark Hughes. Things nearly got a lot worse for the Eagles, when McClair once again was denied, this time by a goal-line clearance from Thorn. Around this time, Crystal Palace changed to a 4-4-2, when Barber came off, his spot on the right taken by Gray, allowing Wright to come on as a second striker. Almost immediately, he made two defenders look foolish and fired the ball past Leighton. Despite the best efforts of both sides, no winner could be found, and with the score at 2-2, they headed for extra time.
Just two minutes into the extra period, Wright doubled his tally, converting a cross from Salako. Palace decided to sit deep, and stay very narrow and compact, and Alex Ferguson’s response was to withdraw Gary Pallister and replace him with Mark Robins. They managed to keep Manchester United at bay until the last few minutes. Paul Ince drew a huge save from Martyn as the Red Devils piled on the pressure. This eventually told with seven minutes left, as a move through midfield saw the ball move wide to Danny Wallace, whose pass to Hughes enabled the Welshman to double his personal tally and level the score at 3-3. This would be the end of the scoring, and the teams would have to do it all again a few days later.
The replay was incredibly bad-tempered. Palace set out to be as physical as they could, to get their opponents as riled as they could, and had two players booked before their first shot on target – Bright, for an aerial challenge on Manchester United’s replacement goalkeeper Les Sealey that was little more than a clothesline to the stomach, and Pardew for cynically scything down Paul Ince; he had escaped a booking a few minutes earlier when he threw the ball in McClair’s face. Salako registered the first shot on target, before Gray had what proved to be Palace’s best chance of the half. When Bright was fouled by Steve Bruce in the D, Gray struck a free kick through the wall (between Bruce and McClair) only for Sealey to save – rather fortunately – with his legs. Manchester United almost scored with a free-kick of their own, as Neil Webb’s curling shot could only find the side netting.
The Red Devils started the second half more brightly, with Hughes advancing into the Palace area but unable to find McClair on two occasions. They got their breakthrough in the 59th minute. A long pass by Webb out to the right wing found McClair, whose deep cross enabled Lee Martin to escape the Palace defence and fire home. The Eagles rolled the dice after this, bringing on Wright in place of Barber, and he immediately posed problems for the Manchester United defence when he forced a corner. Salako delivered it, and in the scramble, the ball fell to Gray, who was denied by a reflex save from Sealey. At the other end, another free-kick led to a free header for Robson, but his effort hit the bar. With virtually the last kick of the game, Wright had a golden chance to equalise, but from a very tight angle he could only find the side netting. The final whistle sounded soon after, and Manchester United had equalled Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur’s record of seven FA Cup wins.
What happened next…
The significance of this win for Manchester United has been well-documented, but Crystal Palace actually outperformed them in the league the following season – the Eagles’ third-place finish is still their best-ever final placing in a top-flight season, and returned to Wembley to win the Zenith Data Systems (Full Members) Cup, beating Everton 4-1 in the final. The following year they dropped to 10th, after selling Wright to Arsenal, and in the first Premier League season they were relegated on goal difference. The 49 points they earned that season is still the highest total by a relegated team (equivalent to 44 points in a 38-game season), and would have been good enough for 15th the following year.
There followed a period of yo-yoing between the top two divisions, and then came administration when Ron Noades sold the club to Mark Goldberg – during this period many of the club’s best players left for far below their true value, including Shaw, the last of the 1990 squad to leave the club. He made over 200 appearances for the Eagles and went on to make a further 300 for Coventry City. Gray, Martyn, Salako, Thomas and Wright would all go on to represent England, with Martyn in the squad for Euro 1992, and most of the others making their debuts in the ill-fated USA 1994 qualifying campaign; the same five would all be voted into Crystal Palace’s Centenary XI; Coppell would resign from Palace and then return on 427 different occasions. Since 1991, the Eagles have played three games at Wembley, all play-off finals, winning twice.
The literary Ed Quoththeraven (it’s not a character, just a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt)