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Steve Kember reflects on career in programme exclusive

6 November 2019

In the official programme last season, Terry Byfield spoke with Steve Kember about the Palace legend's life and career and, before the Eagles face Chelsea this weekend at Stamford Bridge, you can read what Kember had to say below.

It is quite easy in football to create iconic moments. What isn't so easy is becoming an icon. And what is nigh on impossible is becoming a club legend across two different decades and playing a key part in two of the proudest and most important achievements of one club.

That is of course unless your name is Steve Kember; a name that still carries a lot of affection in the terraces almost 54 years since the midfielder signed his first professional contract with his boyhood club on the 8th December 1965.

For Kember, the south Londoners were a big part of his childhood, and he fondly recalls the journey every young Palace-going supporter dreams of: from fan to player. "I started with Palace at the age of 14 and this was amazing considering Palace were the side I would watch with my dad from five years old," the former captain recalls.

"To actually start to play for the juniors and then get my first pro contract when I was 17, it was a dream come true."

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Although the beautiful game may well be unrecognisable to the one Kember was involved with from the early '60s, the fear of losing players to the perceived big clubs was a reality then as it is now. 

Thankfully for followers of the south Londoners, Kember's affinity with the Eagles could not be bought: "I had offers to go to Chelsea, Tottenham, West Ham and QPR," he says. "Obviously Palace were my club and I felt I had a good opportunity of getting into the first-team rather than at some of those other bigger clubs."

Looking back on the first promotion campaign that the midfielder was involved in, the belief that the squad, under the management of Bert Head, could achieve something special was bubbling under the surface right from the very first ball of the campaign.

"I think we always thought we had a chance, but when you're young you don't really know. That year we had all the snow over the Christmas period and we basically didn't play for four weeks. We’d been on a good run and everyone was saying: 'you've lost your good run now, what's going to happen?'

"We played Derby County and then Birmingham City; played Derby midweek who went on and won the league, beat them 1-0 up at the Baseball Ground and then we played Birmingham on the Saturday and beat them 1-0 again. I think I scored actually to win the game.

"Another important game was when we played Middlesbrough on Easter Monday. We beat them 1-0 and everyone thought: 'we are going to do it.'"

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Kember's contribution to that memorable season was huge, with moments such as scoring one of the goals against Fulham that sealed Palace's debut in the First Division for the next season.

Of course, though, this was a team effort built on solid foundations and Kember was quick to praise the defence behind him. In particular, Kember found praise for the central defensive pairing of John McCormick and Mel Blyth, with the former having won the first ever Player of the Year award for Palace in the 1971/72 season.

"McCormick was your big rough, tough, centre-half and Mel, to be fair, was a gifted player who could play in midfield but went back to play with John and they were a formidable pair.

"We were lucky that the back four played almost every game and that sort of basis was the main reason why we went up; those two were brilliant. The Fulham game, going in 2-0 down and thinking: 'We aren't going to cock it up last minute, are we?' 

"The manager was always saying to us 'you've got to keep playing your football, keep knocking it about, get your crosses and shots in' and I was lucky enough to get myself on a free run and knock it past the 'keeper.

"The scenes after beating Fulham 3-2 were second to none, finally we had got into the First Division to play with the big boys."

Like all football seasons, it wasn't always plain sailing for Head's charges as dropped points, marginal offsides and player injuries all curtailed the promotion momentum. 

But how a team reacts in the face of adversity tells you a lot about them, and when Bobby Woodruff was lost to injury, the questions of how Palace would cope began to rise: "Bobby was a really good player, not only a good player with his feet but also his hands with his long throw. 

"He scored loads of important goals for us in that period before he got injured and it was a massive blow to us. However, we had enough strength in depth to get by and with team spirit."

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In 1971, having represented England at Under-23 level, Kember would move west to Chelsea, with whom he made an instant and lasting impression. With Chelsea suffering relegation to the Second Division in '75, Kember would then depart London for Leicester.

After two seasons, though, the lure of Selhurst Park - just as it had been when Kember signed his first professional contract in '65 - was too much to resist when Terry Venables discussed a return to Crystal Palace during the 1978/79 season.

"I got a phone call from a Daily Mirror reporter saying: 'I think Terry is going to come in for you, he wants you to go back there.' And after doing so well for Leicester after a season or two, the whole thing was falling apart.

'It was a dream come true to come back to Palace and when Terry spoke to me he said: 'I'm looking for you to slot into midfield and be the old head and nurture the young, skilful players.' I came back in and apart from a spell where I got banned, I virtually played in every game."

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With Kember returning full of memories and lessons from the club's first ever promotion to the top flight, this was always going to prove invaluable to a young, exciting team looking to replicate the feat Kember & Co had orchestrated a decade earlier.

"The thing about those boys of '78/79 is that they just got into the habit of winning. They starting with winning the FA Youth Cup twice in a row. There were so many talented players: Billy (Gilbert), Jimmy Cannon, Dave Swindlehurst, (Ian) Walshy, (Vince) Hilaire, just loads of talented players. They didn't take a lot of talking to because they were such good players."

SEE ALSO: Remembering Palace's 'Team of the Eighties'

So, as everything changes, it all stays the same, and much like the 1968/69 team, 10 years later the foundations of success for the 78/79 promotion were built on defensive solidity with just four defeats in the whole campaign.

"Jimmy Cannon was a great player," Kember says. "Not only a good defender but he was good on the ball and we had an understanding that if he came forward with the ball that I would drop in at centre-half for him.

"We didn’t give a lot of goals away. Same as the '69 side, if your spine is ok: your goalkeeper, two central defenders, two centre-midfielders and your strikers, you've got half a chance."

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The memories remain as fresh as they did on the day for Kember and none more so than the night of that Burnley clash in front of a 51,000 crowd; the game that ensured Kember's return to club coincided with a return to First Division.

"The night against Burnley took us an hour to drive down South Norwood hill to the Queen's Hotel; it was just a phenomenal evening.

"Getting promotion again and the actual atmosphere around the place was just incredible. When you keep winning football matches there is no greater place to be and when you keep losing them it's the other way round!

"The football we played, and the way we played, that was one of the other great things about it - not only were we winning games but we were winning them in style."

You can support the Eagles in style this weekend with one of our iconic retro shirts. You can don the 1970 claret and blue stripes like Kember, a ‘78 sash or one of our other classic shirts. Buy yours here!

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