Following Alan Mullery’s unsuccessful spell in charge, Steve Coppell was unveiled as Palace’s new boss on 4th 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 Division Two hinged upon a pair of unexpected victories in April, over promotion hopefuls Portsmouth and Blackburn.
After the success of Andy Gray, who played 21 games that season after signing from non-league Dulwich Hamlet, Coppell picked up another player from outside the professional leagues in the summer of 1985 – Ian Wright.
Thanks in part to the nine league goals of Wright, plus 10 from top scorer Gray, Palace fared much better during the 1985/86 season, finishing in 5th – an achievement Coppell described as “good, but not good enough.”
Hopes, and indeed Coppell’s expectations, were high for the 1986/87 campaign, especially after a makeshift team won 3-2 at Barnsley on the opening day. With Mark Bright adding to the firepower in SE25, it was surprising that the Eagles failed to find the net in over half of their away games that season. That ultimately cost them a place in the newly-introduced end of season play-offs, as Palace finished 6th.
Goals were the least of the team’s worries the following year though, finding the net 86 times in 44 league games, as the flourishing Wright and Bright partnership hit 44 league goals between them. Geoff Thomas, signed at the start of the season from Crewe, also caught the eye in his debut season in south London. But while Thomas’ SE25 legacy was 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, again amassing 44 league goals in the 1988/89 season, as Palace finished third. A scintillating finish to the campaign saw Palace climb from 12th at the start of March, to within a point of automatic promotion by mid-May. The most memorable game during that sequence was the 2-1 win over Brighton on Easter Monday, during which referee Kelvin Morton gave five penalties.
The Eagles soared into the play-offs in fine form and, despite losing the first leg of their semi-final tie at Swindon 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 Ian Wright and a David Madden penalty were enough to secure a long-awaited return to the top flight.
Steve Coppell made early plans for the 1989/90 season, which included the re-signing of midfielder Andy Gray. But five games in to the new campaign, Palace were humbled 9-0 at Liverpool – a result that led to the purchase of Britain’s first £1m goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, and defender Andy Thorn.
Coppell’s reinforced back line helped Palace rise up the table t First Division safety, finishing in a credible 15th place. But the 1989/90 season was best remembered for the club’s majestic FA Cup run, which took them all the way to the final, for a Wembley showpiece against Manchester United. Palace led the Old Trafford giants twice, 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, with notable wins over Manchester United, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Selhurst Park, as well as a 2-1 win at Leeds. But it was another trip to Wembley that stole the show.
Having gone so close to winning the FA Cup the previous May, Palace returned to the national stadium in April 1991, for a Zenith Data Systems Cup showdown with Everton. And this time, they weren’t to be denied, as goals from Geoff Thomas, John Salako and an Ian Wright double saw the Eagles run out 4-1 winners.
With Ian Wright departing for Arsenal during the summer, 1991/92 proved a less successful season in SE25, but Coppell’s men finished comfortably mid-table to secure their place in the inaugural Premier League. That was to prove an even more frustrating campaign though, as the Eagles went into the final game of the season needing a point at Arsenal to survive – but were relegated after a 3-0 defeat, in which Wright scored for the Gunners against his former club.
Palace were sent down despite amassing 49 points – a tally which remains the highest ever for a relegated Premier League side. Oldham Athletic stayed up at the Eagles expense, after winning their last three league games, including an unexpected victory a title-chasing Aston Villa.
Just a few days after the club’s relegation from the newly-formed Premier League, Steve Coppell ended his successful Selhurst Park tenure, after handing in his resignation.