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Simon Osborn talks Crystal Palace Academy, Steve Coppell and Alan Smith


Simon Osborn’s time at Crystal Palace reflected on the club’s stutteringly successful 1990s.

In the first 10 years of Osborn’s career Palace experienced three promotions and three relegations, reached two tournament finals and played in three unsuccessful semi-finals.

But that success was tempered with being denied a European place in 1991, cup defeats and, perhaps most painfully of all, relegation on 49 points in 92/93.

Osborn’s highs were similarly caveated: he broke through in 1990 but missed the cup final as a youngster. Then, after his then-most successful personal season, Osborn dislocated his shoulder at the start of 93/94 and played just seven times as Palace won the First Division title.

“I probably played 80 games for Palace but they were in spells of 10,” Osborn says. “I’d pick up a niggle, dislocate my shoulder and so on and so forth.”

At the start of 1993/94, with his former youth coach Alan Smith in charge in the second-tier, Osborn saw an opportunity to firmly establish himself in a soon-to-be title winning team. But it wasn’t to be, and in 1994 he joined Reading.

Osborn’s Palace story starts much earlier, as a product of a hugely successful youth system.

In the years above and below Osborn Palace crafted the likes of Richard Shaw, Gareth Southgate, John Salako and Chris Powell. He, like many, credits the school of hard knocks.

“It was educational. I think it was character building – I’m not going to use it as a typical cliché, character building, but I loved it. I came out of school at 16, 10-stone wringing wet, left in the end of May and by July I’m an apprentice on a YTS [Youth Training Scheme].

“It was picking up kit, cleaning boots, balls, all that stuff. You had to grow up quickly, and you did.

“You start joining training because the first-team need a couple of bodies. That’s where you have to go over and earn your spurs. Strong characters: Andy Gray, Mark Bright, Ian [Wright], Geoff [Thomas], Alan Pardew. All of these guys. You have to earn their respect. You only earn their respect by being on the football pitch.

“I still speak to them now and am indebted to them for helping me in my progression as a footballer.

“The more you train with them and the more you get called over – not every now and then on a Thursday – the more you try to impress them and take your game on, and work with some of the pros after training because they want to do extra and you want to help out.”

Palace’s youth system in the late 1980s and early 90s under Smith was famously testing. The players often recall playing youth football in the morning and reserve football in the afternoon, clambering aboard a battered old minivan between matches and subsequently taking a heavy loss.

“All of those things happened, it’s not made up stuff,” says Osborn. “You came back from Bristol Rovers getting beaten in the day with the youth team, and the manager makes you stick the kit back on and run around the pitch a few times!”

Osborn soon moved into Palace’s first-team squad and enjoyed his best season in 1992/93, playing 31 games in the inaugural Premier League. He was 21 when Palace were relegated on 49 points, ending their most successful few seasons to date.

“It was numbing,” he recalls. “We lost to Arsenal 3-0 on the last day of the season and I was on the bench. You’re sitting there and there are radios at that time, so you’re getting a nudge from someone to say Oldham are winning. Nah, no chance. They can’t surpass us. You’re hearing that, and some of the Palace fans [hear it] and that kills the vibe.

“You’re sitting there on the bench when the final whistle goes waiting, and then you’ve been relegated. It’s the most numbing, strange feeling ever.

“After the game was almost a deathly silence. They [Smith and manager Steve Coppell] would have come in, said a few things about the game, but my underlying memory is no one could say anything. It was silence.”

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Coppell ended his first spell in charge following relegation. He’d managed the club for almost a decade, and handed over to his assistant Smith for the promotion push to follow.

“He did my first professional contract, helped me no end, put me in the team, gave me my debut,” Osborn remembers. “I was a bit shocked and stunned that he’d gone.

“I still speak to him now and still call him gaffer. He was a young man who came into the job at a very early age and I think… with England and everything else, that was the first sort of real major disappointment in his football career apart from his injury. It was a really difficult pill for him to swallow.

“All of a sudden it’s: ‘Who’s coming in? Who’s going to be manager?’ It becomes a selfish thing as a football. You’ve lost a manager who’s gone, caused by some bad luck and some poor results – you’re part of that. Then it’s, all of a sudden, a selfish point: ‘Is the new manager going to like me? Am I going to be able to get into the team?’

“Some like you, some don’t, some want to get rid of you and some think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.”

For Osborn however relegation provided an opportunity: for the many players who chose to stay there was a campaign to unite behind, and minutes to be played under a new boss.

The midfielder saw 93/94 as his best chance to consolidate his status as a first-team player, and come the first game of the season, so too did Smith.

“It was the last year of my contract as well, so I wanted to break into the team and really establish myself, make a name for myself. That was my thoughts going into pre-season.”

Best laid plans. Osborn dislocated his shoulder on the opening day and hardly featured throughout the title-winning season.

“For me on a personal level,” he says, “it was a very, very disappointing season.”

But Osborn isn’t bitter about his cruelly interrupted final season in south London. He amassed 72 appearances after graduating and forged a career that took him to Reading, Queens Park Rangers, Wolverhampton Wanderers and beyond.

So, he says, he wouldn’t change a thing – stop-start or otherwise.

“It’s a ruthless, tough industry. It’s not an easy one to get into and not an easy one to stay in… to make it as a professional football for me was a real honour. To continue doing that was even better.

“I enjoyed my time immensely, it was a great grounding for me. I didn’t play as many games as I’d have liked but the memories – I would not change one single thing in my career.

“I was fortunate to play and get paid for a hobby, what I consider the best sport in the world, for a numerous amount of years. Yes, you get injuries. Yes, my knee now struggles. But would I change it? Hell no.”