‘No one can take away the fact that for one day of one week of one year we were the best team in the land and we truly were the Team of the Eighties’ – Bill Nighy, Actor and Crystal Palace fan
Liverpool’s all-conquering side of the 1980s dominate discourse about English football in the penultimate decade of the twentieth century.
Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish presided over an era of spine-tingling glory and heart-breaking tragedy during their respective premierships at Anfield.
But in 1979, on the eve of Liverpool’s spell of supremacy, it was Crystal Palace who were tipped to rule English football.
Team of the Eighties, an instalment in BT Sport’s award-winning series of feature-length documentaries, chronicles the rise and fall of a club that went from unfashionable also-rans to one of the most glamorous in the land.
Narrated by lifelong Palace fan Bill Nighy, the BT Sport Film, which features contributions from former players including Vince Hilaire, Jim Cannon, Ian Evans and Peter Nicholas, offers a captivating and irreverent look at how two of the most colourful characters in English football history transformed Palace into contenders.
Malcolm Allison or ‘Big Mal’, flamboyant and controversial in equal measure, promised a revolution at Selhurst Park when he assumed the reigns in 1973.
He enjoyed success alongside Joe Mercer at Manchester City in the 1960s and 1970s, but the larger than life Allison couldn’t prevent Palace from slipping to relegation from the First Division in his first season in charge.
Not to dampen his spirits, Allison boldly declared at a champagne banquet after the last game of a relegation campaign that the potential of Palace is the same as Liverpool.
He changed the club’s nickname from the The Glaziers to The Eagles and the club colours from claret and sky blue to a red and dark blue to emulate Barcelona. Almost overnight the club was reborn but he couldn’t prevent a second successive relegation after another dismal showing.
Allison persuaded the club to put more resources into developing a strong youth team and his young side were as expressive on the pitch as their manager was off it.
Perhaps the best example of Alison’s exuberance came in his encounter with one of the biggest stars of the soft porn industry Fiona Richmond.
Richmond, who lived by the mantra 'humour, laughs and sex', was photographed with Allison and the playing staff before joining the squad in the communal baths.
The “most deified manager in history of football who took his team from first division to third division,” according to Palace Chairman Steve Parish was replaced by Terry Venables in 1976.
The former Palace player guided them to promotion in his first season and was revered by his players. “If grey was black you’d believe him,” said former full-back Paul Hinshelwood.
A subplot to Venables’ tenure was the success of Palace’s youth ranks. The youth team won the FA Youth Cup in 1976-77 with a side including Kenny Sansom, Vince Hilaire and Billy Gilbert and retained it the next year becoming the first team to do so since Chelsea in 1960 and 1961.
The prodigious crop of youngsters spearheaded Palace’s promotion charge which culminated in a must-not-lose meeting with Burnley on the final day. A 2-0 win secured the title and promotion back to the top flight.
Team of the Eighties also explains the origins of the unlikely rivalry between Palace and Brighton, a feud set in motion by the warring Venables and Brighton manager Alan Mullery.
First Division status restored, the accepted wisdom was that Palace would become a top team. Goalkeeper John Burridge aside, every player had come through the club’s youth academy. Now was the time to take on Liverpool and the rest, just like ‘Big Mal’ had promised.
They began the 1979-80 season in remarkable fashion. A 4-1 victory over Bobby Robson’s talented Ipswich side put Palace to the summit of English football for the first time in the club’s history.
A win against Brian Clough’s European champions Nottingham Forest followed soon after. The Team of the Eighties had finally arrived.
Defeat in a crossroads match against Paisley’s Liverpool at Anfield saw The Eagles nosedive. Venables’ crown started to slip in the ensuing months as Palace failed to replicate their early season form.
They finished 13th in their first season back in the big time but they couldn’t arrest the slide the follow year. After nine defeats in the first ten games, Venables quit to join Queens Park Rangers and relegation was effectively confirmed by February.
Liverpool continued to rule and Palace scrapped for survival in the second tier. But for one immortal moment, an unfashionable club from a pocket of South London ruled English football.
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