Skip navigation
Crystal palace

      Sands of time: Palace's forgotten heroes


      On this day 24 years ago (Friday 26th February), Ashley Cole and Mikael Forssell – yes, then-Arsenal defender Ashley Cole and Chelsea striker Mikael Forssell - made their Crystal Palace debuts on loan. The result? A 1-0 defeat against Grimsby at Bundell Park.

      Some players you simply forget, after all. Maybe they didn’t play much, or they signed without fanfare and left similarly under the radar. But some are footballing household names who once graced the Selhurst turf in red and blue – and many of us have no recollection of it. It's time to look back on some of the best...

      Ashley Cole

      Begin to construct an all-time Crystal Palace XI, and you may have already made your mind up on a left-back – but a three-time Premier League winner and seasoned England international is lurking. Admittedly, his best days may not have come at Selhurst Park, but as one of the greatest to play the game the discussion is worth having.

      As well as his trio of league titles, Ashley Cole can look back on seven FA Cup winners medals, a League Cup, Europa League and Champions League triumph and 107 caps for the national side – still sixth in the all-time list. He is a four-time member of the Premier League Team of the Season, a two-time member of the UEFA Team of the Year and – somewhat more surprisingly – winner of Chelsea’s Goal of the Season award in 2010.

      But it all started in SE25. Well, sort of. Joining local side Arsenal as a youngster, he began to climb up the ranks at the club he had supported as a child. He made his first-team debut at just 18-years-old in 1999, and signed a professional deal at the club – but a regular first-team spot was still some way away.

      Then an opportunity presented itself. Down in south London, there was a club in dire need of hungry young footballers with an abundance of talent and a desire to prove themselves on the big stage. Crystal Palace were in trouble, and the fight against relegation to the third tier was on. Constantly in or near administration, financially desperate and with pitifully small resources, the Eagles were relying on the inspirational leadership of Steve Coppell to survive. Transfer targets had to be imaginative.

      Terry Phelan had arrived from Everton earlier in the season, but his impressive performances had seen him recalled to Merseyside soon after and Palace were scrabbling around once again. In came Forssell from Chelsea and a fiery youngster from north London, who had been impressing for Arsenal’s youth sides as a left-winger and – occasionally – as a left-back.

      Ashley Cole made his debut away at Grimsby and stood out in defeat; it was clear that Palace had a serious talent on their hands. His form on the left-hand side proved crucial as the Eagles inched towards safety. A goal-line clearance against Charlton Athletic was vital, but he standout was a moment of inspiration to keep Palace in the second tier.

      Selhurst Park was bubbling with tension as Blackburn Rovers arrived in town, with the thousands in attendance aware that three points would secure Division One status for another season. It was a stage set for heroes, and the teenage Ashley Cole stepped up and was counted.

      Picking up the ball on the edge of the box, he dropped his shoulder to spin and swerve away from two defenders before looking up and picking out the top corner. Celebrations were not kept to a minimum. At full-time, Coppell punched the air and Palace were safe; Ashley Cole had matured as a player and would return to north London a hero.

      Even accounting for his impressive performances in south London, no one who saw Cole’s finish that day could possibly go on to predict the sheer scale of his successes to come. The defender featured at three World Cups, two European Championships and was a feature in the national set-up for more than a decade, winning Player of the Year in 2010.

      Following his retirement, he has worked as a coach under former teammate Frank Lampard at Derby County, Chelsea and Everton – and has returned to Stamford Bridge for the remainder of the season.

      Palace left-back Tyrick Mitchell has revealed his own admiration for Cole in the matchday programme, naming him first in his list of heroes in the position: “Ashley Cole, David Alaba, Marcelo, Dani Alves. They’re the best full-backs for me, from what I’ve seen of them.” Some company.

      Ray Wilkins

      The late, great Ray Wilkins had the most distinguished of careers. Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain. Spells at Queens Park Rangers and Glasgow Rangers. But there is one club almost always left off that list: Crystal Palace.

      The England legend learned his trade in the capital, playing Sunday League football for Senrab, a team with such success in producing players for Chelsea that Ray Lewington – later Palace Assistant Manager – gave them the nickname ‘Chelsea Juniors’.

      Their role of honour is something to be reckoned with: Sol Campbell, John Terry, Jermain Defoe, Ledley King, and more. But in the early 1970s, two youngsters were catching the eye. Crystal Palace managed to swoop for one of them. The other got away.

      The first was Vince Hilaire. His ability was recognised by Terry Venables and he was handed his first-team debut at 17-years-old, and would go on to be named the club’s Player of the Year in 1979.

      The second was Ray Wilkins. Chelsea was his boyhood club, and his ultimate destination. He, too, would make his debut as a 17-year-old novice – and his impact was instant. Following the club’s relegation in 1975, he was handed the captaincy aged just 18 over long-time skipper John Hollins. He kept the armband for four years.

      In 1979, Chelsea were relegated again, and Manchester United swooped. His leadership qualities were evident once again, and he regularly captained the side. Palace fans may remember fondly his long-range screamer in the 1983 FA Cup final against Brighton & Hove Albion – the Red Devils went on to win the replay.

      Before the supremacy of the Premier League, Serie A was the pinnacle of European football. Soon Wilkins’ performances – which had earned him Man Utd’s Player of the Year award in 1984 – had attracted the attention of AC Milan, who signed him for a hefty fee. He was unlucky to play at the San Siro during a barren period for the club, and after a short-lived spell with PSG he returned to the United Kingdom with Rangers and QPR.

      Then came Palace’s turn. By this point, Wilkins was more than a household name; he was something of a national hero. He had earned 84 caps for the national side – he is still 14th in the all-time list of appearances – and captained England on 10 occasions, featuring in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups in Spain and Mexico respectively.

      But by 1994, he was 38 years old and coming to the end of his coaching career. Palace manager Alan Smith was determined to add experience and winning know-how to his squad, and thought Wilkins the perfect fit, signing him as a player-coach to aid his transition from first-team regular to backroom staff.

      It did not go as planned. Wilkins broke his left foot on his Palace debut, and never played for the club again; the dream of the cultured midfielder and England legend lighting up south London was dead, and Smith headed back to the drawing board.

      Having only arrived over summer, Wilkins returned to QPR as player-manager in November of the same year, and bade goodbye to Palace for good. Sometimes a great player and a great club just don’t find themselves in sync.

      Wilkins’ reputation in football was already assured, but his coaching career enhanced his legacy further, as he returned to boyhood club Chelsea as Assistant Manager, winning a Premier League title and three FA Cups. Meanwhile, his media career made him a respected and well-loved pundit for fans up and down the land.

      Ray Wilkins suffered a cardiac arrest in 2018, and died a week later at the age of 61. “He was a true friend and a gentleman,” former Palace captain Gareth Southgate said in tribute. “Ray was a great ambassador for the game, a proud Englishman who loved playing for his country.

      "When he played with us you could immediately see that his technical ability to play the ball was phenomenal. In the modern game, those attributes would have been appreciated far more than they were at that time, so he really was a top player."

      A respected player on the field and a much-loved figure off it, the footballing world lost Ray Wilkins far too soon. It may have been brief, but Palace can count themselves lucky to have been a part of his journey.

      Matthew Upson

      England international, one-time Arsenal regular and Premier League winner. The one that got away.

      He’s a regular on TV and we’ve seen him at a World Cup, but most fans will be unable to picture him in red and blue.

      The then-18-year-old defender was a sought-after prospect in 1997, and soon became Arséne Wenger’s first English signing. Having made his professional debut with Luton Town at 17 and with England youth experience behind him, Upson cost Arsenal a justifiable £2 million. In time he would play 14 matches of a title-winning season and make almost 300 Premier League appearances, but life in north London started slowly.

      With icons Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown ahead of him, and Kolo Touré and Sol Campbell settling in, Upson played just 57 games across six seasons with the Gunners – one such time against Palace, playing behind a certain Patrick Vieira. So as he approached his 24th birthday Upson eventually signed for Birmingham City, and started to fulfil promising signs from the start of his career.

      But before then the defender didn’t spend his life waiting for Wenger, instead completing three loan spells in his final years.

      “I am not even getting a sniff,” he complained in February 2001. “I've got into the mould of not expecting to play, which might not be a good thing.

      “I don't feel I've had a consistent run of games to show that I'm good enough. You are going to make mistakes as Tony Adams did when he first came into the side.”

      With teammate Ashley Cole having thrived on loan at Selhurst in 1999/2000, Upson went south for minutes, and put pen to paper with the Eagles just days after criticising Arsenal’s approach.

      He wasn’t the only one going south. With tension behind the scenes under Simon Jordan’s new ownership, 93/94 First Division-winning manager Alan Smith was brought back to the club, and struggled to replicate his earlier success.

      The squad was crowded with egos, Smith later admitted, and there were big names aplenty: Neil Ruddock, Clinton Morrison, Chelsea loanee Mikael Forssell and Fan Zhiyi included. In fact this time produced some of the most fitting Sands of Time-type players, with Ruddock, Cole, Upson, Ricardo Fuller and Steve Staunton all featuring at the turn of the millennium.

      From the outside, then, Upson may have been moving to a club on the up: big names, new ownership and a popular, successful manager taking his team to the League Cup semi-final.

      But reality was harsher, and the defender joined at the start of a six-game losing run that later became one win – by a single goal – in 14 matches. This collapse in form sent Palace hurtling down the table. Famously, Steve Kember was appointed caretaker manager for the final two matches as Palace needed two wins and the right results elsewhere to stay up.

      You know the story: Kember’s Palace secured their second-tier status away to Stockport County on the final day.

      Upson didn’t make the squad that afternoon, but did feature on seven other occasions – perhaps not quite as much as he’d have hoped. He returned to Arsenal and enjoyed much more regular football thereafter, helping Vieira and co. claim the 2001/02 league title. Another loan followed, this time to Reading, before the defender left north London permanently.

      Upson went on to forge an impressive career mostly in the top-flight and collected 21 England caps. He played in the Europa League with Stoke City, represented West Ham and Leicester, and scored twice for the national team.

      But his games against Palace stand out for less triumphant reasons.

      He hit the headlines in 2005 for conceding two penalties on Birmingham’s behalf, causing a 2-0 Palace win over a Blues side also containing Clinton Morrison and Julian Gray.

      Later as he plied his trade in the Championship Upson was victim of a devastating, young Wilfried Zaha – as was Brighton’s entire backline on May 13th, 2013.

      His time at Palace may have been brief, but given Upson’s success elsewhere it’s easy to imagine him succeeding in south London at another time. Recently Smith, discussing fellow defender Gregg Berhalter, said of the club’s ability to support new players in the early noughties: “It was just a shame that we weren’t in the best position at the time – I don’t mean league position… [Players were] very unfortunate to be with us in that period.”

      In 2009 Wenger admitted he would have liked to re-sign Upson after his Arsenal departure, and cited his impatience to play for leaving. For Palace, that impatience enabled fielding a future England international – perhaps just in the wrong season.