“The club you start with is always special,” remarked Gareth Southgate of his development at Palace. Over 30 years later, the now-England manager will return to south London to open Palace's remarkable new Academy facilities.
“It was around 1986,” says Alan Smith, then-Palace youth-team manager and soon to be first-team boss. “I just remember this 16-year-old boy that had been released from Southampton. Peter Prentice who was our scout, and John Spark, said to me: ‘You know, this lad has got something.’
“But he was very quiet. He just came in, lived in Croydon with his mum and dad, who are lovely people. He just quietly got on. I think we were 50/50 whether we would take him or not.”
It was a sliding doors moment, and for Palace and Southgate, the timing was just right; the Eagles were beginning to invest in youth development as they looked to build for the future.
“It was a different era then – there were only four of us full-time,” remembers Academy boss Bob White of the early 1980s. “There was one physio – nowadays there are probably more medics and coaches than there are players when you look at the training ground.
“Gareth came in at a time when the club really changed. There was suddenly more investment in youth, and Alan came and had an incredible influence. I became full-time, and the structure of the Academy became more professional.”