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We Were There: The inside story of the 1990 FA Cup semi-final

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Ask a certain generation of Crystal Palace fans their greatest moment supporting the club, and the same answer will come back time and again: Villa Park, 1990. In the first of a new ‘We Were There’ series, the Official Crystal Palace Podcast spoke to players, journalists and fans to hear first hand what made is such a special afternoon.

For Carl Davies, Villa Park was just one step too far. It was Liverpool they were facing after all, and after witnessing the 9-0 defeat at Anfield earlier in the season it was hardly likely he would see an upset that afternoon.

“It was the Happy Mondays playing at Wembley, something that had tickets bought and planned for ages,” he remembers. “We were very into that ‘Madchester’ scene at the time, and we had an unbelievably big Saturday night.

“It was supposed to be home by midnight but it was home at 4am, with my father waking me up on Sunday morning saying: ‘It’s Villa Park, it’s our day’.

“I said: ‘Go without me, I’m just too much in pieces’ and my father said: ‘You’ll be missing our big day!’

“So I nearly did miss one of the greatest days in our history…”

At Selhurst Park, Jeff Perkins was waiting for his supporters coach to take him to the game. The minutes passed, and no sign of any transport.

“A guy said: ‘Don’t worry lads, I know where there’s a coach, it’s somewhere down in Epsom,’” Perkins remembers. “We thought this was ridiculous.

“This guy gets into a Range Rover, and as soon as he leaves all we’re thinking is that he’s straight up the M1, he’s going to the game. But true to his word, he did – he’d been down to Epsom and came back with a coach!

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The coach will only go into third gear. It’s now an episode of Only Fools and Horses!

Jeff Perkins

“But then it becomes apparent that this coach isn’t going very fast…the coach will only go into third gear. It’s now an episode of Only Fools and Horses!

“We were running so late that we turned on the radio. By the time we got to the ground, we had already heard that Liverpool had scored.”

Ian Rush had put Liverpool ahead early on, and it seemed everything was going to plan. But Palace knew they were never out of the game.

“[Steve Coppell] believed if we were still in the game after 45 minutes, we still had a chance,” says Geoff Thomas, who captained the Palace side that day. “Some of their players were getting a little long in the tooth. Lets go out and attack them.

“That’s where we found ourselves – although I don’t think anybody envisaged John Pemberton doing what he did straight from the whistle!

We Were There: The inside story of the 1990 FA Cup semi-final

“That really kicked things off.”

Sure enough, Pemberton took the game into his own hands. Picking up the ball in his own half, he raced past a bemused Coppell and Alan Smith on the touchline and took on the Liverpool defence, crossing for Mark Bright to eventually bundle home.

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I don’t think anybody envisaged John Pemberton doing what he did straight from the whistle!

Geoff Thomas

“I have celebrated a lot of Palace goals in my time,” laughs football writer and journalist Richard Foster. “That was one of the best.

“We just went absolutely crazy. The Holte End was split half-and-half, the heat was baring down on our heads and we just went mad.

“We had scored against Liverpool: ‘Wow, this is it! This is the height of what we are going to do. We are drawing with Liverpool!’”

Palace went ahead shortly after through Gary O’Reilly, and it seemed as if the dream was on.

“It just felt an inevitability that it was going to be our time,” says Davies. “But then football does what football does, and it rips your heart apart.”

A dizzying three-minute spell saw Liverpool score twice to turn the game on its head, and leave the Eagles reeling. Chants of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ rang around the ground.

“You could sense it from the Liverpool supporters,” remembers former Liverpool defender Gary Gillespie. “Getting the lead at that late stage, it was very unlike Liverpool to not see the game through, at 83 minutes being 3-2 up in a semi-final.

“It was very unlike Liverpool not to manage the game and get the result. But sometimes in the FA Cup, what’s for you won’t go by you.

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There are plenty of stories of players ending up in the bushes to be violently sick, because it was so tough.

Geoff Thomas

“Palace certainly, it was their day and their time to shine.”

Sure enough, Andy Gray rose highest to head home a late equaliser, and extra-time beckoned. Against the best side in England, this was when Steve Coppell’s secret weapon came into play.

“He kept the foot on the pedal with our fitness,” remembers Thomas. “A lot of teams were winding down for the summer, but we were just going full pelt and I think that helped.

“Farthing Downs is like a steep grass ski slope, and he just used to have us running up and down there. There are plenty of stories of players ending up in the bushes to be violently sick, because it was so tough, so hard. Andy Gray ended up in the bushes a few times.

“But it stood us in good stead for the game.”

Not so much in the stands, however.

“It was pure exhaustion,” remembers Mark Williams, stood on the Holte End that day. “I had never experienced a game like that, and I'm not sure how many around me had.

“Everyone was just shattered. People around me were on their haunches, there were grown men crying – I've never seen that before. People were shattered, and then we thought: ‘What’s happening now?’

“We’ve never seen this before, we’ve got extra time. How’s this going to play out?”

Sure enough, the dream came true: Alan Pardew netted the winner in extra time. Beaming behind his camera was Palace fan and Guardian photographer Tom Jenkins.

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I picked up my bag and cameras and just ran on the pitch. I think I was a bit delirious...

Tom Jenkins

“I picked up my bag and cameras and just ran on the pitch,” he remembers as the final whistle blew. “I think I was a bit delirious to be honest with you. I was just like a headless chicken.

“Part of me is thinking: ‘Oh my god, Palace have just beaten Liverpool and are in the FA Cup final. Part of me was thinking: ‘I have to take some pictures here and try and be professional’.

“Wherever the palace players went I just ran with them, partly in joy and partly just to take some pictures. It was crazy.”

“There was an old lady next to me with one of those red and blue hats that only the old ladies have, the tea cosy ones,” Perkins recalls. “She was crying her eyes out.

“A policeman came up and said: ‘You’ve got to go home now’, and she said: ‘I'm going absolutely nowhere young man, I'm staying here’.

“I presume to this day she’s at the front of the Holte End. She’d waited a lot longer than I had for that sort of moment!”

Thomas still wishes he had stayed on the pitch for longer, soaking up the atmosphere around Villa Park.

“Those moments don’t happen many times in your career,” he says. “I remember coming off the pitch and our kitman Spike, a lifelong Palace fan, was in tears on the kit box.

“It meant an awful lot to the players. Getting to Wembley was special, very special.”

Jenkins’ career went from strength to strength after that game, but it’s a match he still holds on a par with anything else he has witnessed.

“I've been to every world cup since 1994, five Olympic Games – I've been incredibly lucky,” he admits. “I just look back and think what a privilege it was to be there.

“I've done some amazing games…but that game at Villa Park is right up there at the top.

“Probably because I have an emotional investment in it, but also it was just the most incredible game of football.”

To hear these stories in detail and many more, download the Official Crystal Palace Podcast by clicking HERE.