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Peter Manning: How one man changed the story of Palace history

Features

Historian Peter Manning discusses his role in unearthing the club’s legitimate claim to having been formed in 1861, therefore making Crystal Palace the world’s oldest professional football club.

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There has long been talk in Crystal Palace circles that the club is, in fact, one of the oldest in the world. It’s a story told hazily to fledgling fans and briefly frowned over in pre-match pub huddles.

Until Peter Manning began researching it, it was a loose and general tale based on misquoted parents and hearsay. Today, it is a factually supported claim endorsed by Crystal Palace F.C: the oldest professional club in world football.

“I was born in Croydon, raised in South Norwood,” Manning says, explaining how his connection with Palace began. “In my era, kids supported the local team and all the kids from my local school, South Norwood Junior, were Palace fans.

“I first got taken to a Palace match by a friend’s father; I don’t know which match it was but it would have been in the late ‘50s, in the old Fourth Division. So it goes way, way back and I gradually became more and more of an ardent fan and have been ever since.

“Players that really stood out for me were Johnny Byrne and Peter Taylor, who both played for England when Palace were in the Third Division. Kenny Sansom was the best left-back we and this country have ever had and I liked the mercurial Don Rogers, too.”

Manning’s name has been well-read by supporters in recent times, after he published the ground-breaking book, Palace at the Palace: A History of the Crystal Palace and its Football Club. The book outlines Palace’s claim to being founded in 1861, before turning professional as the same side in 1905.

In April 2020, the club officially endorsed this theory and publicised its newly documented heritage widely. Media across the continent published the story and Eagles fans were provided with a new, exciting history for their club.

But the grandiose claim has humble origins in Manning’s passion for history.

“I’ve always been interested in history,” he says, “and interested in the history of Crystal Palace and the football club, because obviously it’s my local team and area. I remember visiting Crystal Palace and seeing the dinosaurs in the park when I was a young kid.

“I became particularly interested in trying to acquire memorabilia of Crystal Palace’s time at the Crystal Palace, which was only 10 years… Very rarely something comes up from the Crystal Palace that relates to the football club’s time there and five or six years ago, a tankard came up for auction which was inscribed ‘Crystal Palace Football Club’ and dated 1873-1874.

“I thought it was a little bit odd because the club technically didn’t exist at that time, or at least it was only amateur ground staff.

“It made me want to inquire more about it, and about that time the British Library, which holds the national collection of historical newspapers, started digitising old papers and putting them online to enable people to search them… I started looking around in the digitised Victorian newspapers and a very different story emerged.

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“It was rather like an archaeological dig. You think you’ve found a Roman villa, and you keep digging and keep digging and a Roman town and city emerges.”

Manning’s pursuit of Palace’s true history allowed him to publish over 400 pages on both the Crystal Palace and the football club, and it didn’t take long until his team’s most senior figures began to take note.

“I was so convinced we had a valid claim that I sent complimentary copies [of the book] to a few people to see what they thought. The man who really followed it up was [former co-Chairman] Stephen Browett, who very kindly got me a meeting with Steve Parish before the Fulham game in 2018.

“He [Parish] was very enthusiastic. His bottom line was: ‘Okay, let’s make the claim.’ I then got introduced to [Palace TV presenter] Chris Grierson to talk about an interview with the club. I met him before a game and his view was that this would make a really good video and it grew from there.

“[In April], the club’s media team then pushed the story out and it appeared in the national press, the Guardian ran a big story on it, the Evening Standard, and it even appeared in the press in parts of Europe: Gazzetta Dello Sport from Italy.

“I was always aware of, if you like, the club ‘legend’ that there had been a team in 1861 but that it was not connected to today’s club. Now that we can show that it was, by virtue of it always having been the team of the Crystal Palace and its owners, the Crystal Palace Company, from 1861 onwards, we can claim to be the oldest professional league club in the world.”

With the claim spreading across football and even as high as the FA, Peter Manning has turned hazy stories to fledgling fans and pre-match pub huddles into a legitimate, history-changing theory.