In an exclusive interview for the latest 'Down Memory Lane' in support of the FA's Heads Up campaign, Crystal Palace trio Nigel Martyn, John Salako and John Humphrey look back on the 1990-91 season that culminated in triumph at Wembley in the Zenith Data Systems Cup.
Despite reaching the FA Cup final in 1990, there was no sign at the beginning of the 1990-91 season of the success that was to come.
“We’d struggled in the league that season although we got to the FA Cup final,” remembers Martyn. “It was the players that came in and took the first-team places – like John [Humphrey] and Eric [Young] – that strengthened our team.
“It was the real emergence of [Ian] Wright and [Mark] Bright, and then Geoff [Thomas] and [Andy] Gray and [John] Salako were the powerhouses in midfield that created so much attacking flair for us.
“It was an exciting time. We finished third that year, and it showed how much improvement we’d had.”
For Humphrey, Palace’s offer left him with very little thinking time – his career options were, literally, up in the air.
“I was travelling back from Australia on a pre-season tour when I was told that Palace were signing me, and that the club had an accepted an offer,” he recalls. “So I had the flight back from Australia to think things over.
Steve Coppell reflects on Crystal Palace v Everton Zenith Data Systems Cup final9 April 2021
“I wanted to play at the highest level I could because I was 30 at the time. On landing, I met the representative from Palace and, looking at the squad with Wrighty and Brighty up front, you’re always going to score goals. Then with Nigel in goal you’re not going to concede many.
“They were very welcoming. It’s always difficult when you’re coming from somewhere like Charlton, but they were very welcoming. We had some strong players – the vast majority went on to become internationals.”
For Salako, it was the character of the group that stood out alongside their obvious talent.
“It was such a strong group,” he says. “There was such a brilliant team spirit. Everyone got on brilliantly.
“It was just the camaraderie: the team believed in themselves and believed in each other. It was such an incredible unit on and off the pitch.”
While the team gelled perfectly, there was no shortage of competitive instincts within the squad. Salako remembers infuriating Palace’s irrepressible strike partnership on the final day of the season – a famous 3-0 victory over Manchester United.
“It was a funny one really,” he explains. “I needed a couple of goals in that last game against Man Utd to get my goal bonus, but with Wrighty and Brighty you weren’t allowed to shoot – it was all about them!
“That last game, I went into it with the mentality that I was going to get a couple of goals and get my bonus, and right from the off Brighty was just moaning. He wasn’t happy and nor was Ian either.
“I ended up getting my two goals and I think Wrighty came up to me and apologised after, but I think Brighty didn’t speak to me for about three weeks…”
The most important day that season, of course, was the final of the Full Members’ Cup – or the Zenith Data Systems Cup as it was better known.
“In its early stages, you just take each game,” says Martyn, “but the further into the competition we got, the more we wanted to win it. Then once you get to Wembley it was a great day for the fans and the players alike, and we were determined to win.”
Against a strong Everton side, Palace were taken to extra time – but as their hard work on the training ground that season began to pay off.
“We were fit, we were strong,” remembers Salako. “The team trained so hard and so well, and we were prepared. Wembley’s such a big pitch, it’s leg sapping. When you think of the great players Everton had in the side, and we finished third where they finished ninth.
“We seemed to find that extra gear to drive down the pitch. There was such confidence and such belief in that side. Going into extra time, we always knew we were solid.
“Andy Gray was probably one of the few people where I can’t remember him putting too much in in training, but he could turn it on and off. Whereas Geoff was just a machine, a proper number eight. He was so fit.”
Martyn remembers the painful training sessions that season.
“The boys will remember going to Farthing Downs and running up and down those hills and absolutely killing, but when you look back it is kind of worth it when you see how we did play in extra time.”
It paid off, and at full-time Palace were celebrating a Wembley victory. But the celebrations themselves were, in the words of Steve Coppell, “amateur hour”.
“I can’t remember what we did,” laughs Salako. “Did we go somewhere? Thorny would probably have just taken us to his local pub!”
Martyn can only recall one aspect.
“It was just a few pints of ruddles at the time!”
To hear more about the ZDS Cup final and the 1990-91 season, watch the full chat on Palace TV here.