With Palace playing top flight football for the first time in the club’s history, many fans expected a scrap for Division One survival. But an opening day draw with one of the biggest clubs in the country, Manchester United, buoyed the Glaziers’ faithful.
A season of struggle ensued though and, despite only recording six wins from 42 league games, Palace stayed up by a point at the expense of Sunderland and bottom-of-the-table Sheffield Wednesday.
Manager Bert Head added several new players to the squad in a bid to consolidate their top flight status during the 1970/71 campaign. And it seemed to do the trick as his side won four of their opening eight games, before nicking a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in October. Palace went on to finish 18th, eight points clear of the relegation zone.
But the following season saw the Glaziers start in much slower fashion, losing seven of their first nine matches to leave them rooted to the bottom of the table. Bert Head made radical changes, selling Alan Birchenhall and Steve Kember to Leicester and Chelsea respectively, allowing him to bring in Bobby Kellard and John Craven.
Many Palace fans regarded Kellard as the catalyst behind the club’s revival and he was soon rewarded for his performances by being made club captain. Under his leadership, Head’s men fought their way to survival, finishing four points ahead of relegated pair Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield.
The team could not repeat the feat in the 1972/73 season though and, despite a change of manager that saw Malcolm Allison take the reins in April 1973, Palace were relegated back to Division Two.
The club unveiled a new badge and a new nickname – the Eagles – but results failed to live up to the feel-good factor that created. Allison’s men lost 4-1 at home to Notts County on the opening day of the season – a result that set the tone for a disastrous season. Having started the season with high hopes of bouncing straight back into the top flight, Palace ended it having picked up just eleven league wins in 42 games – and were relegated for a second successive season.
Despite that disappointment, Allison was kept on as manager for the 1974/75 season, bringing in Terry Venables and Ian Evans from QPR. Despite their additions, Palace could only finish fifth in 1975 and 1976, prompting Allison to leave Selhurst Park. Venables was unveiled as manager – and made an immediate impact in SE25.
Palace finished in the third and final promotion spot, edging out Rotherham by just three goals in the race for Division Two. But that season was equally well-remembered for the Glaziers’ FA Cup first-round meeting with Brighton, when a second replay victory over the Seagulls witnessed the origins of the rivalry that now exists between the two clubs, as Venables clashed with his former Tottenham teammate and then-Brighton boss, Alan Mullery.
A solid first season back in Division Two was overshadowed by a horrific injury early in the campaign to skipper Evans, who broke his right leg after a tackle by Fulham star George Best. Evans was left sidelined for two years and never played for his country, or the senior Palace team, again.
Skippered now by Jim Cannon, who was midway through what was to become a legendary career with the club, Palace made 1978/79 a memorable campaign for the right reasons. Going into the final game of the season against Burnley, Venables’ men needed a single point to confirm promotion, while a win would see them claim the Division Two title.
Such was the interest in the game that stewards locked the Selhurst Park gates an hour before kick-off, with a record crowd of 51,482 inside the ground to witness an historic day in Palace’s history. Ian Walsh headed the hosts in front with a quarter of an hour to play, before Dave Swindlehurst sealed the win, and the title, just before the final whistle.
In the summer of 1979, Gerry Francis and Mike Flanagan arrived at Selhurst Park – both for record transfer fees at the time – and by the end of September ‘the team of the 80s’ was top of Division One. They eventually finished 13th, but the following season was to throw up another relegation scrap, sparked by Venables’ acrimonious departure to QPR in October 1980. Palace never recovered from his move to north London, recording just two wins in 27 games from November onwards, under three different managers and a new owner – Ron Noades.
Dario Gradi remained charge for the start of the 1981/82 season, but was replaced by youth team coach Steve Kember by mid-November, who guided Palace to mid-table. Many fans had hoped Kember would be given a chance to get Palace promoted, but the club appointed former Brighton boss Alan Mullery instead. Following two poor finishes of 15th and 18th, Mullery was also shown the door, paving the way for the start of a bright new era at Selhurst Park.