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50 years on: Allison’s red and blue Eagles take flight


So strong today is our affinity with the ‘red and blue’ and ‘The Eagles’, it seems unfathomable such terms were not always associated with Crystal Palace Football Club.

But it is in fact this summer which marks 50 years – and today (25th August), exactly half-a-century ago, marks our first competitive fixture – since those associations came into being.

Over the years, Palace were known to have donned cardinal and blue, white, and, of course, the famous claret and light blue since our first professional seasons for clashes in south London.

Evidence suggests that links to these colours harked far back beyond Malcolm Allison's arrival; several signs point towards Palace wearing a version of red and blue long before the official switch.

The most prominent example was a seemingly one-off change before the Second World War. Club historian Ian King said: “For 1937/38, the press reported that the shirts would be red and blue vertical stripes, and this is borne out by the picture on the front of each programme... Also, the programme inside referred to red and blue.”

1937/38 squad photo, kindly coloured and shared by Don Pettingale
1937/38 squad photo, kindly coloured and shared by Don Pettingale

But it is well-documented that the revolutionary Allison's work in the 1970s paved way for a permanent shift in the club’s colours to the red and blue seen today – or, at least, a variant thereof.

Other brief cases of red and blue exist – but few with the staying power of the changes introduced this summer, 50 years ago.

Red and blue revolution

The background to this transition from claret and sky blue (and white) is well-known: Allison took charge in March 1973 and, characteristically, looked to make his mark.

A run of poor initial form saw Palace’s relegation from Division One confirmed with a 2-1 defeat away from home at Norwich City on the penultimate day of the season.

Undeterred, the manager quickly set about rebranding the club during the close season to boost its standing in the game, aiming to inspire an immediate return to the top-flight.

An early insight into the process appeared in the Croydon Advertiser on 22nd June 1973, with reports that: “Crystal Palace’s new image is taking shape…. And when the players trot out against Notts County for the opening Second Division game… it will be in a new strip.

“Palace want to make a final decision before releasing the details but I understand it will be of vertical stripes. Indeed, the new kit has already been registered with the Football League.”

Palace’s 68-year association with claret-and-blue kits was nearing its end, with Allison widely reputed to have sought inspiration from Spanish giants Barcelona for the new colours.

As for the crest, legend has it that Allison wanted to inspire his side to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the old Crystal Palace – a case which inspired further evolution.

A month later, the Croydon Advertiser reported: “Also breaking with tradition, the badge is to show a bird of prey perched on a football. It symbolises aggression and forward-thinking, say Palace.”

Replacing the nickname of ‘The Glaziers’, the nature of this bird was quickly clarified, as The Mirror reported four days later: “ALLISON’S EAGLES WILL FLY HIGH.”

Writer Jack Steggles noted that “an eagle crest will feature prominently on Crystal Palace’s new-style playing strip, in the latest act of the transformation that began with Allison’s arrival at Selhurst Park.

“Gone are the famous claret, white and blue colours that Palace fans are so familiar with. Palace will be seen next season in red and blue striped shirts – complete with eagle-blue shorts, and blue socks with red tops.”

Steggles goes on to quote Palace chairman Ray Bloye: “We are redesigning the playing strip and introducing a distinctive badge to give this club an image which it has lacked in the past.

“Another advantage with our new strip is that it will cut down the number of times we have to avoid clashing with other clubs’ colours. We clashed so often last season that it seemed we were wearing our second colours every time we played away.”

The new identity's debut

New nickname confirmed, new badge adopted, and new colours and kits ready to be displayed, Allison and his players pressed on with their first season back in Division Two.

Palace’s 1973/74 pre-season tour comprised four fixtures in Scandinavia and three against domestic sides, including Brighton.

All were played away from home – in a white strip – due to sand injections into, and the widening of, Selhurst Park’s playing surface.

As a result, the first evidence of the ‘new red and blue’ – or ‘scarlet & royal blue’, as it was described on the matchday programme – arrived on this day exactly half-a-century ago (Saturday, 25th August 1973).

Programme reproduced with thanks to Ian King
Programme reproduced with thanks to Ian King

Ever-enterprising, Allison’s innovations continued right up until the day, the manager assigning each player a ‘nickname’ which were worn on tracksuits before kick-off, and printed onto the matchday programme.

A mix of word-play and in-jokes formed the alternative titles; one can only hazard a guess as to what led to Dave Swindlehurst being known as ‘The Problem’, Don Rogers adopting the moniker ‘Troublemaker’ – or what made Alan Whittle ‘The Hustler’, among others.

Palace began the season as joint-favourites with Sunderland for the Second Division title, so it was little surprise to see them dominate the opening exchanges against County in front of 25,000 spectators.

But although a powerful finish from Rogers gave Palace a deserved lead after 24 minutes, County would equalise with their first attack on 37 minutes, Brian Stubbs heading home from a free-kick after a mistake by Palace goalkeeper Paul Hammond – and as Allison would later admit, his side lost belief.

The momentum of the contest shifted entirely when County substitute Mick Vinter was introduced shortly after half-time. Within seven minutes, Vinter had scored one goal and set another up for Kevin Randall – both efforts from close range.

Randall’s second goal late on added further gloss to a 4-1 win for his side and, as you can perhaps imagine, Allison’s player nicknames lasted just one more match before being dropped altogether from discourse.

The Sunday Mirror proclaimed “ALLI-OOP! FLOP GO THE PALACE” – Allison admitted, more frankly: “We have problems.”

Sadly, the match was to prove a microcosm of the season to come. A run of 15 games without a win at the start of the season put Palace in a disastrous position and – despite recovering to win nine of their last 18 – the Eagles suffered a second successive relegation.

Paving the way

A modern-day Palace supporter may query, then, why Allison’s name holds such legendary status around Selhurst Park.

Yet as every supporter today now bears witness to the fruits of, the true genius of Allison’s Eagles was yet to come.

Tactical innovations – including the now-popular use of wing-backs and a flexible back five – were complimented by a shift towards a more youth-focused recruitment policy.

Crystal Palace F.C. History | Episode 2  THE MALCOLM ALLISON ERA

Club legends such as Billy Gilbert, Kenny Sansom, Vince Hilaire, Peter Nicholas and Ian Walsh formed the bedrock of a brighter future, with a number of them becoming cornerstones of our famous ‘Team of the Eighties’.

And while Allison’s own attempts to earn promotion back to Division Two ultimately fell short, his transformation of Palace’s infrastructure led to consecutive FA Youth Cup wins at the end of the ‘70s and – under Terry Venables – the club’s return to the top-flight.

As club-record appearance hold Jim Cannon – a debutant under Allison – would later explain: "Malcolm Allison put Palace on the map.

“No other man could single-handedly take a club from the First Division to the Third Division and still become an instant hero."

Now in our eleventh consecutive season of Premier League football – our longest-ever stretch in the top-flight – Crystal Palace’s identity is testament to the groundwork Allison laid.

Flying high as the Eagles, clad in red and blue, among England’s finest.

Just as Allison imagined it, all those decades ago.

Article produced with our thanks to Ian King and Tony Bowden.