Crystal Palace's success at Old Trafford in 2019/20 instantly earned a place in Palace lore, sitting alongside Darren Ambrose's League Cup heroics and two FA Cup finals. But here, Richard Foster recalls another, equally iconic clash with the Red Devils.
Manchester United hold a special place in Palace history. Not only were they the club’s first opponents in the top-flight in August 1969 (a 2-2 draw), but they were also the opposition in Palace’s only two FA Cup Final appearances - 1990 and 2016.
All told, it’s safe to say United have held the upper hand over the last 50 years, with 23 league victories out of 36 games, seven draws and just six Palace wins, including last year’s memorable 2-1 triumph at Old Trafford, the first in the top-flight since 1989. But of those victories, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest as a cherished memory for many fans...
On 16th December, 1972, bottom-of-the-table Palace met a United side who were two points and two places above them in Division One. Palace had won just three of their 20 games, scoring a mere 16 goals in that time.
This lack of goals led manager Bert Head to bring in two new recruits to galvanise the team. Galloping winger Don Rogers joined from Swindon Town in November and live-wire Alan Whittle was making his debut after moving from Everton. Considering the quagmire-state of the Selhurst pitch, it was a surprise that such two nimble players could have any influence.
Even more surprising was the scorer of the game’s opening goal. As early as the ninth-minute Rogers played a delightful ball to full-back and captain Paddy Mulligan who finished adroitly at the far post, belying that this was his first goal for the club.
Incredibly, his second came just over half an hour later and was also set up by a Rogers pass. That was to be the Irishman’s last goal in his 57 appearances; clearly choosing the perfect moment to have his purple patch.
Mulligan later recalled how nonchalant the United players were: “I came back out [for the second-half] at the same time as Willie Morgan; we were leading 2-0 and Willie was smiling and laughing to me: ‘Ah no, don’t come out for the second-half’.
“‘It would be nice if you lot did,’ I was thinking to myself.”
But United didn’t and in fact it got much, much worse for the visitors as Whittle’s pass set the marauding Rogers in for a one-on-one against legendary goalkeeper Alex Stepney. Rogers nudged the ball towards goal and slotted past Tommy O’Neil’s despairing lunge on the line to secure Palace's third.
Whittle then got in on the scoring act when he curled a delicious shot inside the far post from the edge of the area before Rogers delivered the coup de grâce.
Again with just Stepney to beat, Rogers took it around his adversary and then prolonged United’s agony in taking his time to pick a spot before firing home. Iconic commentator Brian Moore described it so brilliantly on The Big Match: “And this will be their greatest afternoon. Here’s Rogers - will this be five? It’s going to be five. It IS five!”
That was Palace’s biggest win in the top-flight, a feat that has only been matched once when beating Leicester City in April 2018. Unsurprisingly, United manager Frank O’Farrell was replaced by Tommy Docherty three days later and United end the season in 18th place, safe from relegation.
Unfortunately the same could not be said for Palace as, even though Malcolm Allison came in for Bert Head at the end of March, the Glaziers still finished 21st. Worse was to follow with a second successive relegation to Division Three straightaway and the memory of that thrashing over United soon became a distant one.
- Richard Foster's latest book Premier League Nuggets is out now and is available in bookshops and online here.