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1988: Palace's First Ever Trip To Wembley

18 May 2016


With Palace due to line up at Wembley on Saturday against Manchester United, thoughts immediately turn to that classic encounter between the sides in 1990, however that was not the Eagles’ first trip to the Twin Towers.

Two years earlier the Football League celebrated its centenary by arranging the Mercantile Credit Football Festival at the national stadium over the weekend of 16th and 17th April, with 16 league clubs drawn from all four divisions playing a knockout competition. The 12 games on the opening day would last just 40 minutes - 20 each away - while semi-finals and final were extended to an hour.

Qualification was based on the points gained by each club over 15 fixtures between November 1987 and February 1988. There were eight First Division clubs, four from the Second Division and two each from Divisions Three and Four, and all other Football League fixtures that weekend were suspended for what the organisation hoped would be a classic event.

However this never turned out to be the case. While 6,000 Eagles fans snapped up tickets to see their side finally get the chance to grace the hallowed turf, it failed to capture the imagination of Wembley regulars with Liverpool pre-selling just 35 tickets, Manchester United 24 and Everton a paltry four, but despite this a crowd of over 41,000 turned up for day one.

Palace qualified as the fourth club from the Second Division and were drawn against Sheffield Wednesday in the first round, who were then sitting eighth in the top-flight. The day before the FA stipulated that Ian Wright’s one-match ban, having been sent-off against Bournemouth, would apply to the tournament instead of the following league game, incensing Steve Coppell with this lack of common sense for a flagship event. Having been stripped of the opportunity to play at Wembley a distraught Wright couldn’t bring himself to even attend.

Even with this setback Coppell’s men set out at a furious pace against the Owls who replied in similar fashion, but goals were not forthcoming and the closest the deadlock came to being broken was midway through the first half when John Salako produced a cross that ended with Geoff Thomas shooting twice in rapid succession, only to see Wednesday blocking each effort on the line.

Despite the goalless affair those neutrals in attendance said it was the most entertaining game of the first day, which due to the short matches only saw a meagre eight goals scored in the first round. This meant that five games of the opening eight went to a sudden death shootout, in which the first miss would see that team eliminated. 

Neil Redfearn had the honour of scoring Palace's first "goal" at the venue with the first spot-kick in front of the vociferous Eagles supporters at that end cheering him on before Mel Sterland replied for Wednesday. Phil Barber, who had not missed in the previous day’s practice, then saw his effort saved by Kevin Pressman and Gary Megson converted his to end the Eagles’ interest at the first hurdle.

After a drab first day and no London-based sides remaining in the competition, Sunday’s games were played out in front of less than 19,000 fans rattling around inside a ground that could hold nearly 100,000 back in the late 1980s. Surprise semi-finalists Tranmere Rovers, then in the Fourth Division, were beaten by Nottingham Forest in the final four, with Wednesday also progressing to the final by knocking out Manchester United.

Just like the competition as a whole, the final was a washout as yet another encounter ended goalless, with Forest winning the trophy and £75,000 by prevailing in the shootout. They did so without the management of Brian Clough who had opted to stay at home for the weekend rather than prowl the touchline of Wembley, further hurting the damp squib of a tournament’s credibility which had been reduced to the status of an obscure quiz question for years to come.

However it will be remembered by those 6,000 Palace fans on the terraces that Saturday, who witnessed club history as their side made their first appearance at a venue they have gone on to enjoy some very special days at since.

Palace’s side that day: Suckling, Finnigan, Nebbeling, Cannon, Burke, Thomas, Pennyfather, Redfearn, Barber, Salako, Bright.  Subs not used: Pardew, Spiers, Stebbing, Pemberton, O’Doherty.

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