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Inside the Generation Cup: How Alan Smith inspired legends to victory

Features

Dawn breaks over Crystal Palace’s training ground, and Alan Smith emerges from the dressing room in full tracksuit kit, alongside Mark Bright. The duo look focused. Those present would be forgiven for assuming they had fallen into some sort of blissful south London time warp – and in some ways they had.

Palace legends from years gone were assembling for the Generation Cup. Celebrating Palace’s participation in the first ever FA Cup campaign in 1871, the Eagles set off for a double-header against Hitchin and Maidenhead United. First though, to the pre-match meeting point in Knebworth, and a chance for Smith to greet the players.

Thirty years of Palace excellence were assembled – legends, captains, goalscorers and scorers of great goals. Julian Speroni, Mile Jedinak, Andrew Johnson, Darren Ambrose: the squad list made some reading.

After a catch-up over scrambled eggs and bacon – while Smith, Bright and Assistant Manager for the day Danny Young poured over the tactics board – it was time for the manager to gather the players.

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“No pressure today,” he said, jokingly. “The Academy opened on Thursday, the lads won yesterday at Man City and the Under-18s beat Arsenal in the morning.

“I’ve totted it up, and it’s not filled me with confidence, but since I was the manager and we won the championship in 1994 we’ve had another 28 managers, and none of them would come and do this thing!

“Brighty, you must have been ringing them up and asking?!”

For all the joviality of the day, these are still sportsmen who played at the highest level, and that competitiveness has shown no sign of dwindling.

“It’s great to see all of you,” said Smith, “but we’re a professional team. The bottom line is: this is what we’ve done for a living. I’m 74 – this could be my last game for many reasons. I don’t want to end it on a defeat. So let’s take that into today.

“We don’t want to be too serious about it, because it’s a bit of fun today, but I think for all of us this is a special club. That’s why we’re here today.”

Serious business done, the attention turned to Bright, who Smith announced had “appointed himself my Director of Football”. The squad, informed of the rule requiring three over-50s to play at all times, had some crucial questions.

“Can we get a heads up on who their 50-year-olds are?” queried Johnson. “I can just stick on them all game…”

Technically an away game, the arrival at Hitchin was anything but hostile. Children and adults alike held out programmes to be autographed as players posed for selfies, each supporter regaling the squad with their own personal story of their significance.

Then, it was time for business. Palace did not get off to the best of starts – 2-0 down early on as the players got used to their teammates once again. Jobi McAnuff’s excellent finish brought Palace back into the game, but at half-time Alan Smith was not happy.

“I know it’s only a friendly game, but you want to be a bit lively with that flag, son,” bemoaned the manager at the linesman, demonstrating the same intense competitiveness from his earlier career. “That second goal was about 20-yards offside!”

Mile Jedinak had set the tone with a crunching tackle, and Palace worked their way back into the game. Bright – until then Director of Football but called upon as super sub – created the equaliser with an inventive dummy, before sending a diving header over the crossbar in the final minute.

“Thank God,” remarked Ambrose. “We’d never have heard the end of that.”

Going in to the second fixture, Palace knew a win would take them through – but a draw would lead to a crossbar challenge as a decider.

“I’m not suggesting we go mental here,” Smith told his players on the touchline, “but we don’t want to lose this one.”

Palace meant business, and were quickly two goals to the good after an excellent solo strike from McAnuff. “Get to the back stick, and I’ll sit it up,” he told James Scowcroft at half-time. “All I want you to do for a start is to beat the first man,” came the sarcastic reply.

Palace sauntered to victory, and thus into the finals. The final whistle brought more adulation: photographs, high-fives and congratulations, as those in attendance caught up with their heroes for a final time.

The coach drew away, and back at Knebworth there was a final drink between the players before going their separate ways. “See you later, boys,” said Johnson as he left. “Now we’ve all got six months to lose eight stone!”

Back at Copers Cope Road, Smith and Danny Young reflected on a successful day. “Remember Danny,” said Smith, “when the players come in tomorrow full of it because of the win at Man City, you just tell them what we produced today.

“That will bring them down a peg or two…”