In 1905, the newly-formed Crystal Palace club applied for membership of the Football League but were rejected. They were then refused entry into the Southern League First Division, meaning that they began life as a member of the Second Division – a league that was largely made up of reserve teams of established First Division outfits.
Former Middlesbrough boss John Robson was named as the club’s first manager, bringing with him a clutch of players with whom he was familiar, including Newcastle United captain Ted Birnie. But that didn’t help Palace in their first ever Southern League match, which ended in a 4-3 defeat to Southampton Reserves.
That was to prove the club’s only defeat of the season, as Robson masterminded an unbeaten run that took Palace all the way to the Second Division title, which they clinched at closest rivals Leyton Orient. By this time, the club had a local boy, George Woodger, as their star player up front.
Despite a superb showing in their first ever season, Palace struggled in the Southern League First Division, finishing second from bottom. But they rediscovered their form in the FA Cup, where they beat Newcastle United at St James' Park in the first round – a result that still stands out as one of the best in the club’s history. Southern League champions Fulham were also disposed of, as were Brentford in round three, before Everton finally knocked Palace out of the tournament.
Ahead of the 1907/08 season, manager Edmund Goodman brought in Josh Johnson who became first-choice goalkeeper until World War One, making 295 appearances for the club, while Welsh international winger Bill Davies also joined from Tottenham Hotspur. In the five seasons leading up to the outbreak of the war, the club’s lowest finish in the Southern League was seventh, finishing as runners-up in 1913/14 when only goal average denied them the title.
Woodger was succeeded at centre-forward by Charlie Woodhouse, who immediately became the club’s top scorer in the 1910/11 season with 15 goals in 33 matches, before he died suddenly late in 1911. Ted Smith joined Palace from Hull City and in 1913/14, Palace enjoyed their best ever Southern League campaign when the Glaziers, as they were nicknamed at the time, missed out on the title after only managing a draw against Gillingham in their final game.
The Great War took a heavy toll on Palace. The club were not allowed to complete their 1914/15 home fixtures because the Crystal Palace and its grounds had been requisitioned by the Admiralty at short notice in February 1915. Their captain, Harry Hanger, had already left for the frontline in December, while wingers Ben Bateman and John Whibley also went to serve their country.
Playing on a borrowed ground at Herne Hill with temporary players and finding the Southern League and FA Cup suspended, the Glaziers joined the London Combination – a period that saw them lose 11-0 at West Ham in April 1918.
There was better news for the club though when it was announced that they were to have their own headquarters once again at The Nest, opposite Selhurst railway station. The stadium had been Croydon Common’s ground since 1908, but, after the club folded, Palace agreed to lease the arena in time for the 1918/19 campaign, which was to prove the final London Combination season.
Attendances at The Nest continued to rise and Palace’s performances on the pitch improved as a result. They finished the first post-war season third in the Southern League First Division, just two points adrift of Portsmouth and Watford.