Following Alan Mullery’s unsuccessful spell in charge, Steve Coppell was unveiled as Palace’s new boss in June 1984, with former captain Ian Evans named as his assistant. They found the 1984/85 season a steep learning curve though and the club’s survival in the Second Division hinged upon a pair of unexpected victories in April, over promotion hopefuls Portsmouth and Blackburn.
Coppell gradually built up his squad, dipping into non-league to buy players such as Andy Gray and Ian Wright, with the latter building up a prolific strike-partnership with Mark Bright throughout the rest of the decade. While their legacies in SE25 were just beginning, 1987/88 proved to be the final season for Jim Cannon, who brought his career to an end after 571 league appearances for the club.
Wright and Bright continued to lead from the front though, amassing 44 league goals in the 1988/89 season as Palace finished third to clinch a play-off place. Despite losing the first leg of their semi-final tie at Swindon Town by a solitary goal, Wright and Bright netted at Selhurst Park to send Palace into the final against Blackburn Rovers.
In the last play-off final ever to be played over two legs, Palace again found themselves with work to do at Selhurst Park after falling to a 3-1 defeat at Ewood Park. But two more goals from Wright and a David Madden penalty were enough to secure a long-awaited return to the top-flight.
Five games into the new campaign, Palace were humbled 9-0 at Liverpool – a result that led to the purchase of Britain’s first £1 million goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, and defender Andy Thorn. Coppell’s reinforced backline secured a 15th-place finish, but the 1989/90 season was best remembered for the club’s majestic run to the FA Cup final against Manchester United. Palace led the Old Trafford giants twice at Wembley, before drawing 3-3 after extra-time. The replay was much cagier, with Lee Martin scoring the only goal of the game just before the hour mark to break Palace hearts.
If that was a historic achievement for the club, their feats during the following season would live equally long in the memory. They finished in their highest-ever league position of third in the First Division, and having gone so close to winning the FA Cup the previous May, Palace returned to Wembley in April 1991 for a Zenith Data Systems Cup showdown with Everton, when goals from Geoff Thomas, John Salako and a Wright double saw the Eagles run out 4-1 winners.
Palace were members of the inaugural Premier League in 1992/93, but the Eagles went into the final day of the season needing a point at Arsenal to survive, despite already acquiring 49. Nearest rivals Oldham Athletic, however, won their previous three games. Palace were relegated after a 3-0 defeat, in which Wright scored for the Gunners against his former club, and a few days later Coppell resigned.