The late 1980s through to the late ‘90s were a turbulent time for Crystal Palace, as the club were either promoted or relegated a total of six times in ten seasons.
One highlight that sat almost exactly in the middle of that yo-yo decade was winning the Division One title for the 1993/94 season by seven points. It meant that Palace were promoted at the first time of asking following relegation from the inaugural Premier League campaign in 1992/93.
The title was claimed by victory away to Middlesbrough as Palace played confident football to win 3-2 at Ayresome Park. Goals came from Gareth Southgate, David Whyte and Chris Armstrong and led to Palace celebrating both promotion and the Division One title on a sunny May afternoon.
Ahead of Wednesday’s League Cup round of 16 game away to Boro, we spoke with two men who experienced it all: manager Alan Smith and stalwart defender Richard Shaw.
Shaw, who made 207 league appearances for Crystal Palace, began to explain just what made that ‘94 squad so special.
“[Alan Smith] knew all of us guys: myself, John Salako, Gareth Southgate, Simon Rodger, Simon Osborne. Chris Coleman was there from a young age [and] we all sort of grew up together. Alan had a lot of faith in us very much like Gareth has now with the England squad.
“What we had that year was a real work ethic, a real team spirit. People talk about team spirit but I think team spirit is worth 10 points a year. When the guys get on, you work hard for each other and run that extra mile for your teammate.
“It was just a real close knit group of players who stay in touch now. For pre-season, we all went to Portugal and I think we really bonded there. We started winning games and before you know it we’re on a roll.”
Smith concurred and, from a former development side manager’s perspective, saw a lot of Palace’s success as deriving from its foundation on youth.
“It was such a young team. It didn’t have any fear, it had loads of enthusiasm, [and] loads of pace in the team. Obviously, [Palace had] Gareth Southgate captaining the team. He was only 22-years-old. So many of that team had come through the youth team, people like Dean Gordon, Simon Osborne, Bobby Bowry and it was nicely tempered with Nigel Martyn in goal.
“I was talking to Gareth Southgate about it the other week, and a lot of the things he’s now done with the England team he says are a lot of things that really went back to that Palace team.”
That unity and strong grounding in a tight, young group helped Palace to lead the pack at the top of the league all season and Smith continued by recalling his side’s unrelenting dominance.
“I can’t remember any times - I don’t think there were any - that we dropped out of the top six. And we didn’t have any injuries. I think again that was down to the players being really fit; we trained really hard. I know most managers say that but we trained really hard. If we lost a game, we tended to be back in the next day working on it.”
The effort paid off eventually and, following the victory at Boro, Palace had something to show for their drive that season. And, according to those who were there, winning was thoroughly enjoyed.
“We had a great journey back on the train, you know, with the fans. In those days, everybody mixed together,” Smith recounted.
“We certainly had a few on the train going back and the lads had one or two haunts in Croydon that they used to know. It was very much a group together. In those days everybody could go out in the evening and a lot of the boys were from south London or certainly that area so they knew the area, they knew the people and that made it a much more tangible achievement.”
Shaw added to his former manager’s description of the year’s celebrations, “We probably did it the wrong way, we went out and had a few beers. I think we all went out and then lost the Watford game. But who cares? There was that togetherness [...] and the relationships were forged for a long, long time.”
Sadly, however, those relationships weren’t enough to keep Palace in the Premier League the following season and, despite reaching the League and FA Cup semi-finals, the Eagles were relegated as fourth-from-bottom on 45 points.
“We finished in the bottom four of everything. We got to the semi-final of the FA Cup, [but] lost to Manchester United at Villa Park after a replay. We got to the semi-finals of the League Cup and lost to Liverpool over two legs. We got to the final four of the bloody relegation battle and came fourth from bottom.”
For Alan Smith, however, going down was a painful, lasting experience that has remained with him to this day.
“To get relegated with four going down and almost a record number of points was just unbelievable. I think it still scars me today to think about it. It’s one of those things that could have been, might have been, but wasn’t. It was a bitter pill to swallow and I’m not sure, if I’m really honest with myself, if I ever really got over it. All these years later, it left a bitter scar on something that could have been very special to us as a club.”
But, he said, “I’ll always look at the Middlesbrough season as an unbelievable pleasure.”