The Eagles’ 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final win over Reading on Friday night secured their first semi-final appearance since 1995. Eagles fans have their eyes on a bigger prize this time, and have a team from their recent past, which manager Alan Pardew featured prominently in, as a reference point.
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A narrative thread in English football’s recent history goes something like this. There are any number of teams, who, if they had just manage to beat Manchester United on a given day in the late 80s and early 90s, would have ensured that there was no red Mancunian domination of English football for the ensuing two decades, and Alex Ferguson would still be Alex Ferguson now.
Steve Coppell’s Palace team of 1990 who Ferguson’s United overcame 1-0 in a replay after a hugely entertaining 3-3 draw in the first fixture are one of the most appropriate teams to put into that category. While underdogs that Palace team, spearheaded by the lethal Ian Wright-Mark Bright strike partnership, founded on Geoff Thomas and Andy Gray’s midfield industry and backstopped by Nigel Martyn, English football’s first million-pound goalkeeper, were a serious proposition, and good enough to finish third in the league the following season.
Palace did benefit from a kind draw, not facing top-flight opposition until an epic semi-final with Liverpool. They squeaked past Portsmouth in the third round courtesy of a last-minute Gray penalty, before thrashing Huddersfield 4-0 and negotiating a trip to Fourth Division Rochdale courtesy of a Phil Barber goal. Their toughest test came against a robust, yet talented, Cambridge side containing Dion Dublin, among others, in the quarter finals. Thomas’ goal separated the two sides, which led to the Villa Park showdown.
The semi-finals of the 1990 FA Cup were supposed to follow a convenient narrative for those interested in the final’s viewing figures and potential advertising revenues. Liverpool, in their last days as English football’s dominant force, were expected to comfortably beat a Palace side who they had walloped 9-0 at Anfield earlier in the season, and United were expected to breeze past Joe Royle’s Second Division Oldham, who would go on to be champions of a very strong second tier the following season.
What we got were the two best semi-finals in the FA Cup’s history. United needed a replay to see off an Oldham side who came from behind twice to draw 3-3 in the first game. Palace v Liverpool, which was the earlier kick-off, provided a see-saw template for the Mancunian duo to follow.
Palace, who were missing Wright with a broken leg that would restrict him to a substitute’s appearance in the final, in which he scored twice, were 1-0 down at the break, before right-back John Pemberton roused them early in the second half. A lung-busting run begat a great cross on the run which fell to John Salako. Salako miscued a shot into Bright’s path. The man who would become Mr Michelle Gayle hammered the ball pitilessly into Bruce Grobbelaar’s net. The lead then changed hands twice, Palace taking it through Gary O’Reilly before a Steve McMahon thunderbolt and a soft John Barnes penalty put Liverpool back in the ascendancy.
Some awful keeping from Grobbelaar in failing to collect a high ball and subsequent statuesque defending in reaction to Thomas’ attempt to head in allowed Gray to do what his captain couldn’t for 3-3, before Pardew reacted quickest to a corner nobody seemed to want to deal with to prod the winner in.
The final’s trajectory was similarly turbulent, O’Reilly opened the scoring before Bryan Robson’s equaliser set the stage for Mark Hughes and Wright to exchange braces which enforced the (dull) replay settled by left back Lee Martin’s winner.
With a semi-final against Watford standing in their way, and the semis being comprised of four teams who will all fancy their chances of beating each other in a one-off game, Palace fans will be daring to dream that the team Pardew is in charge of can go one better than the one he played for 26 years ago.
Palace, Everton, Watford, Man United and West Ham fans: Do you think that this is your year in the FA Cup, and why?
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