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      Palace's international trio: Thomas and Salako on heady England days


      The bitter chill gripping every corner of the Athletic Stadium in Wellington could not dampen the spirits of the side waiting to emerge. Gale-force winds outside rattled empty seats and frayed the edges of the tunnel, but as John Salako looked around him he felt only excitement. He was an England player – and what’s more, he had two of his Crystal Palace teammates alongside him.

      In the same week that former Palace captain Gareth Southgate has announced four Palace players will are in his European Championships squad, it is the anniversary of when three Eagles last played for England in the same team – on this day (8th June), in 1991.

      Salako, Geoff Thomas and Ian Wright started for the national side on their trip to Australasia in 1991, with Nigel Martyn also in the squad – the last time, before recent times, that Palace had four England players in the same squad.

      After the season the Eagles had had, it was no surprise that in 1991 there was national recognition: the previous year’s FA Cup finalists had returned to Wembley to win the ZDS Cup, before sealing a third-place finish in the league.

      But for Salako, Thomas and Wright, thoughts weren’t on sealing a call-up.

      “I don’t think any of us were thinking we were on the verge,” recalls Thomas. “We were battling away enjoying what we were doing on the pitch for Palace at the time. We were riding really high and feeling like we weren’t going to get beaten in any game.”

      For Salako, it may have been a quirk of fate that sealed his inclusion in Graham Taylor’s squad.

      “Now with social media and the coverage of the Premier League, everyone is tipping players to be in – that didn’t really happen back then,” he says.

      “The last game of the season we were playing Man Utd, and I needed two goals to get my bonus. It was hilarious – I was shooting from everywhere, cutting inside, doing all the things I look back and think I should have done more.

      “I remember Wrighty and [Mark] Brighty were going absolutely nuts, because they were like: ‘No, you provide for us!’ I managed two goals, but Brighty took a lot of calming down.

      “I think it was that game that cemented Graham Taylor’s mind.”

      Salako was mowing the lawn when he got the news, racing inside to watch the updates on Teletext as the full list was revealed – including his teammates. It made for an abrupt change of summer plans.

      “Nuts, it was crazy,” he laughs. “You think you’re going on holiday and chilling out, getting some rest, and the next thing you know you’re joining up with the England team, flying off halfway around the world and running out at the Olympic Stadium in Australia to make your England debut. You just think: ‘Phew, OK!’

      “Having Wrighty and Geoff there was amazing. It does help. Looking at Teletext, you see the names… it was nice.”

      Thomas had made his England debut earlier that month, in a European qualifier in Turkey. He knew from recent experience how daunting that first introduction to the squad could be.

      “Just walking into the hotel reception and seeing faces you had played against,” he remembers. “There weren’t many that I knew personally, so it was quite daunting to be honest.

      “I used to try and mingle around, but [it’s great when] you’ve got your teammates there as well. Wrighty – well, everybody knows Wrighty! He’s just a character, and so he bounces off everybody.

      “But there was a number of Arsenal players, a number of Nottingham Forest players – they kept together a bit.”

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      You think you’re going on holiday and chilling out, and the next thing you know you’re joining up with the England team, flying off halfway around the world and running out at the Olympic Stadium in Australia to make your England debut.

      John Salako

      After coming on as a substitute against Australia in the opening game of the tour, Salako had sufficiently impressed Taylor to earn a starting berth in the double-header against New Zealand. Having his Palace teammates alongside him made it all the more memorable an experience.

      “It just felt so comfortable and so special,” he says. “When you were in training and going out for a walk before the game, looking forward to it, or eating before, it just made you feel more relaxed and more comfortable.

      “It was great because we had shared success together at club level, so it just felt very relaxed to do that again at international level.

      “It was amazing for me. I was just a young lad looking to make my way. I couldn’t believe it. Touring with England with all these massive stars. The lads were fantastic – if we had any down time you could go out for a couple of beers back then. It was very relaxed.

      “[But] after we lost the FA Cup final we went to the Caribbean for three weeks, and that was a three week jolly-up. This was trying to make your way, trying to get a foothold in the England squad.

      “It was relaxed, but it was intense training and you had to make sure you made a good impression.”

      Gary Lineker captained the national side, but as club captain at Palace Thomas still felt some responsibility in his role as a leader, particularly for a young Salako.

      “I always felt that once you were in there, your personality has to come out otherwise you won’t show anything,” Thomas says. “I just did exactly the same thing that I did when I was at Palace.

      “I didn’t have the armband on but I still felt like I had an opinion! The dressing room was probably a lot more vocal back then.

      “You just try and grasp it with both hands. When you’re playing international football, you are just so proud. To have your teammates around you, it’s the more the merrier. It makes the job that little bit easier.

      “It was a special time for sure.”

      Now, three decades later, Palace players are regulars in the England squad again. For Salako, the current quartet represent what this new generation of England players is all about.

      Now 33 years on, Salako and Thomas know those special memories of lining up alongside their teammates for England are just that: memories.

      But in the current squad – led by another former colleague in Gareth Southgate – they can see flickers of that same Crystal Palace impact on the national side emerging.

      It’s clear throughout our conversation how dearly they hold their recollections of the summer of 1991, and all the hard work leading up to that cold, blustery New Zealand afternoon. Another Palace trio are now experiencing the same emotions.

      Thomas concludes, with the matter-of-factness of a man who has been there and done it all: “It’s an experience they won’t forget, but it will be an easier experience sharing it with their teammates.

      “Every footballer dreams of playing for these days.”