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      Crystal Palace’s non-league heroes


      To celebrate non-league day, which falls this Saturday (23rd March), we look back on some Palace heroes who cut their teeth at non-league level, and went on to achieve some marvellous things…

      Dean Henderson

      Henderson spent a few months on loan with National League Stockport County in 2016, making his debut against Nuneaton Town and going on to play nine times for the club, keeping three clean sheets.

      He has been glowing about his experience out on loan and the impact it had on his development as a player.

      “I was 18 getting chucked into men’s dressing rooms and seeing all sorts going on,” he remembered. “I really enjoyed it. I thought it made me into a man early. It helped me find my feet, find my confidence and progress my game from a game management point of view.

      “I was really delighted to go out on loan early. It was something I fought for when I was a young kid and I think it set me in good stead. When you’re a young kid, you constantly want to build a name for yourself and prove yourself."

      Alan Pardew and Andy Gray

      Born in Wimbledon, Pardew began his playing career at Whyteleafe, before moving on to non-league side Corinthian-Casuals, who trace their heritage back to the legendary Corinthian of the early 1900s.

      The ‘Chocolate and Pink’, as they are affectionately known, boasted another promising midfielder in their ranks: one Andy Gray. Gray had been released from Palace’s youth system but was making the Eagles realise their mistake, and shortly after a move to Dulwich Hamlet he was resigned and returned to SE25.

      “Alan Pardew played for us; Andy Gray played for us,” Brian Vandervilt, Chairman of Corinthian-Casuals recalls. “We’ve got quite a history of past players achieving great things having been with us – and good for them!”

      In his first full season, Gray was the top scorer at the club with 11 goals, but moved into midfield after arrival of Ian Wright (more on that later).

      Meanwhile, Pardew had made it to Yeovil Town in the Isthmian League and was spotted by Palace, signing to replace Gray after he left for Aston Villa in 1987. However, the two were soon reunited and played a part in one of the club’s greatest hours, reaching the FA Cup final in 1990.

      Pardew scored the winning goal at Villa Park that day, and Gray was hoisted upon the shoulders of the players and raised his fist to the fans.

      “Back in those days we were allowed to run on the pitch. I picked up my bags and cameras and ran on,” remembers Tom Jenkins, photographer for the Guardian that afternoon.

      “I was a bit delirious to be honest – I was like a headless chicken. I hadn’t been in that situation before. Part of me was thinking: ‘Oh my god, Palace are in the FA Cup final!’ But another part of me was thinking: ‘I have actually got to be professional and try to take some pictures here…’

      “Wherever the Palace players ran, I just ran with them – partly in joy and partly to take pictures. It was crazy. Andy Gray was probably my favourite player in that team, he was just fantastic. He was going over to the Palace fans, standing right in front of them.

      “He’s got his fist in the air, and there is just this sea of Palace faces – like my face – which are delirious with joy.” Jenkins clicked, and the moment was captured forever. “That is my favourite picture of the day that I took.”

      Ian Wright

      Wright’s early years were spent in south London – Woolwich to be specific. His path was a tumultuous one, and despite trials with Southend and Brighton & Hove Albion (gulp) he failed to earn a professional contract. A spell in Chelmsford Prison followed, and while reprimanded he vowed to turn his life around.

      An inspiring story like that can only be inspirational if the protagonist succeeds, and boy did Wright succeed. After signing for semi-professional Greenwich Borough, he was spotted by Crystal Palace after a tip-off from Dulwich Hamlet manager Billy Smith, and came to a trial at Selhurst Park. Steve Coppell took one look at the plucky centre-forward and signed the 21-year-old there and then.

      Thus began one of Palace’s most enduring strike partnerships. Wright impressed in his first season, scoring nine times, and was joined by Bright a year later.

      “I went there [Palace] in November [1986] and from then until the end of the season I scored seven and Wrighty scored eight – and we said: ‘That’s not good enough. If we think we’re elite players and we think we can play in the First Division, we have to work hard and try to get our partnership together working’,” Bright later explained.

      In 1987/88, Wright scored 23 times – Bright scored 26. You can see where this is going: there was now a real competition to be Palace’s top scorer. In 1988/89 Bright scored 25 – but this time Wright netted 33. Palace had a strike force to be reckoned with, and it had fired them to the play-off places.

      More fantastic memories were to follow. Wright scored 118 for Palace, while Bright netted 114 of his own. Their remarkably comparable records only further emphasises their synchronicity. They remain two of just eight men to reach three figures for the club, and the two highest scorers of the post-war period.

      Stan Collymore

      Playing his football at non-league level after his release from Wolverhampton Wanderers’ academy, Collymore joined Stafford Rangers and impressed in his one season in the then-Conference.

      Still just 19-years-old, he was spotted by Crystal Palace and signed by the First Division side, making his debut against his future employers Liverpool a few months later.

      Behind Ian Wright and Mark Bright in the pecking order, he was forced to depart to find regular first-team action, but went on to achieve magnificent things with Liverpool, scoring arguably one of the Premier League’s most iconic goals with the winner against Newcastle United in April, 1996.

      Carlo Nash

      In the beginning, Nash was no different than any other promising youngster. Spotted first in his Sunday league side and then representing Bolton, he was asked to join Manchester United’s centre of excellence. So far so good.

      Then everything changed. “We were stuck in the car, with my mum and my sister,” Nash remembers. We couldn’t get out. There was fuel leaking and everything – it was quite a traumatic experience for a 14-year-old. My Mum had a nervous breakdown because of it.

      “That experience really hit my confidence. It’s obviously a massive part of that position [goalkeeper], so my game starting to suffer. I ended up quitting football at 14, after being let go by United. I lost interest in football because of what happened.”

      Nash’s career in the game was all but over. He took up tennis and continued to work towards his GCSEs and A-Levels, finishing school and gaining work as a screen printer. But his life was about to change again, and this time for the better.

      After being encouraged to play pub football by a colleague, his talent shone through once again and he signed for non-league side Clitheroe; in his first season, they reached the promised land. “We ended up going on an FA Vase run that saw us playing in the final at Wembley,” he says. “To go from not playing at all, to playing at non-league standard, to doing that is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff, really.”

      Things were about to get better still. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “I was sat at my desk the week after the final, and the Chairman of Clitheroe rang and said: ‘Crystal Palace have offered £35,000 for you. Do you want to go and speak to them?’

      “I was like: ‘Is this a joke or something?’ It was surreal. I was so excited to get the opportunity to play for a professional club.”

      Call it fate, luck or sheer hard work, but Nash was heading for his second date with destiny at Wembley Stadium – this time in an entirely different hemisphere of significance.

      “[The play-off final] was amazing to play in. You came out from behind the goal, not on the side or by the halfway line, so it was a long walk to line up. The atmosphere was absolutely amazing.”

      Such was the cacophony of sights and sounds, such was the assault on the senses, that Nash remembers very little of the game. What it did do was serve a stark reminder of how much he had achieved. “It’s such a massive occasion,” he says. “To go in a year from playing the FA Vase final in front of 7,000 fans, to playing in a Championship play-off final in front of 90,000 – it’s unheard of really.

      “When Hoppy [David Hopkin] scored, I ran half the length of the pitch to jump on his back. I can remember leaving the pitch in just my sloggis, because I had thrown everything else into the crowd. Other than that it’s a bit of a haze to be honest with you.”

      If the match was a haze, the celebrations were more of a chaotic blur. “The dressing room was crazy,” Nash says, laughing at the memory. “Everyone was drowning in champagne. We were all in the baths together at Wembley drinking.

      “I know it went on later into the evening because I remember getting chucked into Ron Noades pool at about three o’clock in the morning! It was massive.”