Skip navigation

Steve Kember reveals remarkable stories from becoming a Palace icon

Features

Steve Kember started life at Palace in 1963. In 2001, he was promised a ‘job for life’ as an iconic former player and fire-fighting manager. In some ways, that promise has been met, with the midfielder still working for the club today. But it’s been quite the journey, and now, in his own words, the man himself has revealed all from four eventful decades.

Crystal Palace was my first love. After graduating from the Academy as a Croydon boy and having two spells in the first-team, I only spent eight years away from south London in my entire career, which spanned 16 years as a professional player and almost 40 in other roles.

When Palace invited me to coach in the youth team after a season in Canada, I knew my playing days were over and I’d opened another chapter at my boyhood club. That chapter began in 1981. Some time in November, results weren’t going too well and Palace were in the bottom three, facing consecutive relegations. I got a call from Ron Noades, who said he wanted me to take over on a caretaker basis. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the first of four times a Palace Chairman would ask me that.

We did quite well: getting ourselves out of the relegation battle, finishing halfway up the league and enjoying a good run in the FA Cup. QPR’s poxy plastic pitch undid us in the quarter-finals, but I fancied us for the semis if we’d made it through.

Ron gave me a full manager’s contract near the end of the season, but I made the mistake of not signing it immediately. I was ‘Trustworthy Steve’ in those days and there were a couple of things I wanted to address first. I went to Greece on holiday with Alan Birchenall, and spent the time convincing him to come and be my assistant manager, assuming my contract would be waiting when I came back.

By the end of the holiday, Birch said he’d join as my assistant: two former players leading the club from the dugout. On the last night in Greece, my phone went off at one in the morning and it was my ex- brother-in-law, Jimmy. The news was in the Evening Standard: I’d been sacked.

The next morning, I turned to Birch and said: ‘You know that job you had? Well, you haven’t got one - I’ve been sacked!’

I flew back that night, landed around three in the morning and went in as normal to see Ron the following day. I knew what had happened but I acted a little dumb, asking: ‘What’s going on?’ Ron said: ‘I’ve made Alan Mullery the manager. He might want to keep you on, so go and have a chat with him.’ I said: ‘Why would Alan Mullery want to keep me on? He’s got his own guys. But, okay, where is he?’ Ron said: ‘Oh, he’s in your old office...’

I can laugh looking back now, but that was the one and only time I felt really deflated about everything: Crystal Palace had been my love since I was five-years-old and I was heartbroken I’d been sacked.

That was the end of my first stint coaching at Palace and so I began a job teaching at Cumnor House, the primary school in South Croydon. As it happened, Ron’s son Ross was a pupil of mine and so Ron and I stayed in touch. In 1993, he appointed Alan Smith as manager, and my almost inevitable return to Palace became just another phone call away.

Ron said: ‘Would you come back to coach in the Academy and be a scout for us?’ I’d been on holiday with Alan Smith and our wives before, so I phoned him up two or three times on his mobile. No reply. I phoned his home number. No reply.

I left him a message saying: ‘Look, Alan, I need to know what’s going on because at the moment I’m coaching at the school and I’d rather come back and coach full- time at Palace. I need to know.’ He phoned me back and, from then on, I was at the club I’ve loved from a really early age for a good 20 years. It was good to be back.

A lot of time passed before I started coaching with the first-team again and I led the youth sides, managed the Reserves and scouted for various levels as the club changed owners and swapped between managers. Then, one Saturday evening in 2001, I was having a drink at The Stag pub in South Croydon with Dave Garland, the Academy coach who owned the bar, when Simon Jordan called me. He said: ‘I need to speak to you.’

Simon and I and spoke for about three minutes. He said: ‘I’ve sacked Alan, and I want you to take over with Terry Bullivant for the last two games. See what you can do.’ That was it. Just like that, I was back managing Palace after almost 20 years.

I met Bully the next morning, knowing we needed to attack the final two games against Portsmouth and Stockport County. We had to win both to be in with a chance of survival, so I wrote down the list of players we had available and said: ‘I don’t know what you think, Bully, but I think we should play three upfront, not 4-4-2 like normal.’

We had a few lads missing from the back and we had three decent frontmen in Micky Forssell, Clinton Morrison and Dougie Freedman. So we played with two upfront, rotating with one in the hole, and completely murdered Portsmouth on the Wednesday night.

On Sunday, we had to beat Stockport to achieve the impossible.

I was taken aback when Stockport played as well as they did because, although they never really looked like scoring, they worked hard, were organised and looked like they wanted to send us down.

Dougie came in at half-time and he was frustrated about the way the game had gone. I said: ‘Look, Dougie, you’ve got to keep getting in goalscoring situations. You know in the end they’re going to go in. Get your head up, let’s keep going.’ Luckily he did keep going. When he broke away in the 87th-minute, I thought: ‘This is it. Doug’s got the chance.’

He obviously put it in the top corner and it was game over. At full-time, the whistle blew and we’d won 1-0. I ran onto the pitch, but I didn’t actually know if we were safe or not. Halfway out I realised what I was doing, stopped myself, turned around and walked back again! Then there was the wait.

The kit man, Brian Rogers, had his phone on as we waited for the other results to come in and, after five minutes or so, he said: ‘Steve, Steve, Steve, Huddersfield got beat! We’ve stayed up, we’ve stayed up!’ It was unbelievable. Obviously all of our fans were up there and the scenes afterwards were just phenomenal.

We had a great trip back and, to Simon Jordan’s credit, he handed us some money and we stopped at the nearest off-licence and drove all the way back to High Wycombe. All the boys then came back to South Croydon and we went into a pub on Southbridge Road, The Star.

We all had a few drinks and a singsong to celebrate, but I left the lads to it. The next day, I was back in the office: sorting out who was going and who was staying.

The end to that season kick-started my time yo-yo-ing from coach to caretaker manager. First, it was Dario Gradi back in ‘81. Then it went: Alan Smith, Steve Bruce, Trevor Francis, all in relatively quick succession. Every time it happened I thought: ‘Here we go again.’ But I was quite happy because it was Crystal Palace. I’d played at Chelsea and played at Leicester City, which are both good clubs, but Palace was my first love. My role was to steady the ship when called upon.

Management isn’t easy, though, caretaker or otherwise, and the job could take a real toll. I remember when Trevor was fired, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so relieved. Trevor was a really good player and he had management experience, too. But when his time came to an end, he said: ‘Come on, let’s go and have a drink. Where’s the nearest pub to Selhurst Park?’

Trevor wasn’t too popular with our supporters by that point, and I thought I’d better not take him around Selhurst because they’re all Palace pubs. So we went to a Fuller’s in Streatham instead.

Trevor used to drink wine and would normally have a glass when we had a meal on a Friday night. But that evening he started on pints of lager. I thought: ‘Bloody hell, Trevor, I can’t believe it!’ He was relieved, and I knew Terry Bullivant and I would be filling his shoes the next morning.

But this time was different. Because I’d been caretaker three times by then, I felt: ‘Well, I think it’s my turn now.’ After Stockport in 2001, Simon had said I’d have a ‘job for life’ at Palace, and when he offered me the manager’s role on a permanent basis after covering Trevor’s departure, I thought: ‘Let’s give it a go.’ This was 2003/04. We started off really well by winning the first three league games and a League Cup match.

Things then took a turn for the worse when we played Sheffield United at home. Matt Clarke, the goalkeeper, got injured. He didn’t play again after that game. We’d lost Tony Popovic, injured. He was out for three or four months. Darren Powell was injured. Dougie Freedman went off injured after half an hour. We missed a penalty, conceded twice and finally gave ourselves a lifeline by going 1-2 in the 76th-minute.

But then United’s centre-half, a boy called Chris Morgan, smashed Neil Shipperley up in the air. He went off injured and we were down to 10 men. I’d lost five players from my starting XI.

We lost momentum after that game and picked up just two points from seven matches. After losing 2-1 away to Norwich City in September, Simon decided to make his post-match views known to me on the pitch. How can I put it? Simon thought he knew everything about football at that time: how to treat players, agents and anyone else. I was on the pitch for a good 15 minutes but I can’t remember what he said. Then again, my mind may have been on other matters.

The next month, Simon sold Hayden Mullins to West Ham. In the summer, he’d said to me: ‘Whatever happens, if I sell any of your players, I’ll let you replace them.’ I never got a replacement. Unfortunately in football, you’re either going to get the backing of the Chairman all the way or you’re not. And I don’t think I got a lot of backing.

When we lost away to Gillingham in late October, I could tell the writing was on the wall by Simon’s attitude in the coach going back. After a spirit-lifting League Cup win over Blackpool midweek, I would then manage my final game for Crystal Palace.

We were facing Wigan Athletic away in a televised 12:30 kick-off. Bags packed, we left Beckenham at half-past-12 the day before and didn’t get to Wigan until half-past-nine that night. You can’t blame anybody for that, but we had to keep calling to get dinner delayed and, after such a tiring journey up, the boys had an early start the next day.

We looked dreadful and went 2-0 down within 30 minutes. I knew then it was over. I looked up to the Directors’ Box and could see Simon on the phone. On Monday morning, it was: See you later.

The job for life didn’t last very long.

In all honesty, I was a little bit relieved. Like I said, the job takes its toll. When Palace went to Cardiff for the play-off final that same season, I went to watch the game, and I was over the moon that we’d gone up again. Different class. That side was the side I’d got together; I’d brought Shipperley back to south London. I was proud, and I was happy for the club.

The thing is, when you’re the main man, it all stops with you. When you’re coaching, being an assistant, taking the youths, the Reserves, the pressure is nowhere near what it is when you’re the manager. And even when you’ve been the manager, you think: ‘I don’t know how I did that.’

Part of it is going out on the pitch, watching the match, the highs and lows of the game; the lows of when you lose, the highs of when you win, and then you’re off again: off to the next game. It becomes ingrained in you. If you’re not doing that on a Saturday afternoon, you don’t know what to do.

I went back to Palace as Chief Scout under George Burley in 2010, so I started back with the club and I’m still scouting now. It’s about going out on a Saturday afternoon, whether you’re playing, managing, whatever: it’s part of your blood.

It’s part of you and you can’t take that away. Crystal Palace was my first love and, over 65 bumpy years later, it still has my heart.