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Thomas and Salako share story of last time a Palace trio started for England


The bitter chill gripping every corner of the Athletic Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand, 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 for the first time.

Much as at Wembley on Saturday night when Switzerland faced a national side with three Palace players in its ranks, no club provided more England players than Crystal Palace that afternoon.

Salako, Geoff Thomas and Ian Wright started for the Three Lions on their trip to Australasia in 1991, and after the Eagles’s triumphant season it was no surprise: the previous year’s FA Cup finalists had returned to Wembley to win the Zenith Data Systems Cup, before securing a third-place finish in the league.

But their thoughts weren’t on sealing a call-up.

“I don’t think any of us were thinking we were on the verge [of England],” 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 confirmed 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 United, and I needed two goals to get my bonus. It was hilarious – I was shooting from everywhere, cutting inside... I look back and think I should have done more!

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Wrighty and Brighty were going absolutely nuts... I managed two goals, but Brighty took a lot of calming down!

John Salako

“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 at home when he got the news, getting a phone call from Taylor and 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 could be.

“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.”

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.

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Walking into the hotel reception and seeing faces you had played against... it was quite daunting.

Geoff Thomas

“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.

“After we lost the FA Cup final we went to the Caribbean for three weeks, and that was a three-week jolly-up. [But] 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 Palace captain  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.”

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When you’re playing international football, you are just so proud. To have your teammates around you... it was a special time for sure.

Geoff Thomas

Now, for the first time in three decades, three Palace players are representing England once again. For Salako, Tyrick Mitchell, Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher represent what this new generation of England players is all about.

“Conor is just a breath of fresh air,” he says. “He’s such a fabulous player and a great lad. He epitomises everything a young footballer should be: he works hard, he plays with a smile on his face and he’s an intelligent, bright boy.

“You can see that he just loves going out there and giving everything for the shirt. Playing for England he will be the same. It’s really bright for Gareth Southgate – it must be a joy to call those lads up.

“Guéhi will fit right into that, and Tyrick will fit right into that. They have both been sensational. They deserve the call-ups, and hopefully it will just take them onto another level.

“Everything they have been doing has taken them in the right direction, and they are just going to keep working harder.”

Now 30 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 Southgate – they can see flickers of that same Crystal Palace impact on the national side.

It’s clear throughout our conversations how dearly they hold their recollections of summer 1991, and all the hard work leading up to that cold, blustery New Zealand afternoon. Tyrick Mitchell, Conor Gallagher and Marc Guéhi 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.”