Palace head to Hong Kong at the end of this week to participate in the Premier League Asia Trophy, with a star-studded squad set to feature in front of sell-out crowds, which will be a far cry from their previous visit to the region 22 years ago.
In the opening weeks of 1995, the Eagles were invited to participate in a prestigious friendly game against Happy Valley, traditionally one of Hong Kong’s most successful sides, after chairman Ron Noades had beaten off competition from a host of Premier League teams including Aston Villa, Manchester City, Coventry City and Southampton to land the all-expenses paid trip in April.
However, after the ink had dried on the contract, things conspired against Palace. Progress to the semi-finals of both the League Cup and FA Cup had rearranged their fixture list beyond recognition, causing serious congestion towards the end of a campaign that saw Palace clinging onto safety by their fingertips, with four teams due to be relegated that term to reduce the league down to 20 clubs.
Sensing that the last thing his squad needed was a 72-hour round trip to the other side of the world sandwiched between crunch games against league leaders Blackburn Rovers and high-flying Nottingham Forest, manager Alan Smith had tried to pull his squad out of the commitment. However, the organisers were adamant that Palace had to attend, despite Villa’s offer to fill in, and so following a Thursday night 2-1 defeat to Blackburn, the Eagles jetted off.
With the game taking place during an international break, Palace had already seen their star players such as Chris Coleman, Iain Dowie, Ray Houghton and Dean Gordon ruled out due to call-ups, plus John Salako and Nigel Martyn were injured. However, Smith (above) further weakened his side by not selecting anyone who featured against Rovers, meaning the likes of Gareth Southgate, Chris Armstrong and Eric Young also didn’t require plane tickets.
Therefore, it was a mixture of reserve players and juniors who travelled to the Far East, including the out-of-favour Simon Rodger, George Ndah, Bruce Dyer and John Humphrey. Eight youth team players made up half of the playing squad, causing further complications as the juniors were on the brink of claiming the South-East Counties League Division Two title, and the reserves needing to play the following Wednesday.
Smith and some of his fellow coaches also travelled over for the game, although he wasn’t pleased about doing so. “I’m knackered and I could have done with a weekend in the garden,” he said at the time. “The players are dead tired. They’ve had two cup semi-final, two Easter games and the Blackburn match. The players badly want a rest. We have an absolutely vital match against Forest and that has to come first.”
After landing in Hong Kong, the game with Happy Valley took place on Sunday 23rd April. The hosts fielded guests Jan Molby and Nigel Clough in their side, with Palace naming the likes of Danny Boxall, Robert Quinn and Rory Ginty, but the Eagles took the lead when Dyer was slipped in and an emphatic drilled finish from the edge of the area found the bottom corner.
However, Happy Valley would draw level thanks to a superb solo effort that saw one of their players turn on the halfway line and burst forward, wriggle past three defenders and then round Jimmy Glass in the Palace goal before tucking home into the empty net.
With the scores level after 90 minutes, extra-time was played before the game went to a penalty shootout with Happy Valley triumphing 6-5 after Damien Matthew (above) missed the crucial kick, and Palace were rapidly on their way back to England with £30,000 in prize money, Only the smallest mention of the trip appeared in the Forest matchday programme stating that a number of the younger players had travelled to Hong Kong for a game.
Despite keeping his key men at home, Smith would see his side lose four of their final matches to be relegated from the Premier League despite finishing fourth from bottom, and consigning their first visit to Hong Kong as an “I was there” moment for the 8,000 in attendance that blazing hot April afternoon.