ONE OF the abiding memories of the mid-1970s is the image of a big man in a sheepskin coat wearing a velour, wide-brimmed hat. The man in question was Malcolm Allison, manager of Crystal Palace and every bit a larger-than-life character. The hat, a fedora was a gimmick, but it worked, for Allison was pictured time after time during Crystal Palace’s memorable FA Cup run of 1975-76.
Palace were a third division club at the time and 1975-76 was their second season at that level. Allison had been appointed as manager of the club in March 1973 and a couplke of months later, Palace the first of two relegations, the second of which landed them in the third division. Most managers would have been sacked at that point, but Palace liked what Allison brought to Selhurst Park – profile, publicity and some inventive, and often bizarre, tactics. Furthermore, his number two, the equally innovative Terry Venables, another progressive coach who liked to win friends and influence people.
Palace’s team had moved on from the 1973 relegation season and a period when Selhurst Park had a revolving door on its changing rooms. From 1969-70 to 1972-73, Palace seemed to churn their team almost weekly, manager Bert Head forever bringing in reinforcements. In their first three seasons in division one, Palace avoided relegation by one, eight and four points. When Allison was hired by the club’s chairman, Ray Bloye to take over from Head and save them from relegation, he was reputed to be earning a wage of £ 13,000. Allison had literally just left Manchester City where he had been manager since October 1971.
Allison’s first game saw Palace beat Chelsea 2-0, their first London derby victory in 32 games. But they still went down and Allison inspired a rebranding of the club, changing their nickname to the “Eagles” and also introducing a new red and blue diagonal shirt as Palace discarded their old claret and blue strip. There was a lot of hype around the club and they were favourites to win promotion at the first attempt, but another relegation was the outcome of 1973-74.
Palace missed out on promotion by four points in 1974-75 but they were still considered as promotion contenders in the summer of 1975. In all but name, the club was of a higher status than the third division, enjoying crowds of 17,000 in 1974-75. In 1975-76, the team was largely built around a group of young players who had graduated through the youth system, with a few seasoned professionals who had learned the trade elsewhere. Alan Whittle, for example, was still only 25 but had won a Football League Championship medal at Everton in 1970. Stewart Jump had joined the club from Stoke City and Peter Taylor, a skilful 22 year-old, was signed from Southend for £ 110,000.
Palace started the season impressively, winning their first five games and were unbeaten until September 23 when they were beaten 1-0 at home by Brighton in front of 25,000 people. They were still top, but the pack was closely behind them. Their second defeat was just before Christmas in a local derby with Millwall, but their 12-game unbeaten run had given them a five point lead over second-placed Bury.
While most people expected Palace to concentrate on promotion, the FA Cup provided a glorious interlude, one that eventually cost the club their league form.
As a third division club, Allison’s side had to start in the first round proper, where they beat Walton & Hersham 1-0 at Selhurst. The draw couldn’t have been tougher as it paired Palace with Millwall. The first meeting, at the Den, ended 1-1 but goals from David Kemp and Peter Taylor earned Palace a 2-1 win in the replay and a third round tie at Scarborough.
Either side of Christmas, Palace’s league form collapsed and they lost four games in a row, all by a single goal margin. The last of those came just a couple of days after Scarborough had been beaten 2-1 in the FA Cup, a 1-0 loss at home to Walsall, whose defence was ably marshalled by former Palace centre half Roger Hynd.
Leeds were the opponents in round four and few gave Allison’s team any chance at Elland Road. But Allison was now in full flow, donning his hat and smoking huge, cynlidrical cigars, predicting that Palace would go all the way in the competition. At Leeds, Allison and Venables won the tactical battle, thwarting the threat of Peter Lorimer, Duncan McKenzie and Allan Clarke by adopting an unusual 5-3-2 formation. David Swindlehurst headed the only goal and Peter Taylor sparkled on the flank. Leeds, the cup favourites, were beaten and Palace were drawn to meet Chelsea in round five. Allison’s response was typically cocky: “Chelsea? a nice little team, but we’ll enjoy going to Wembley.”
The game at Stamford Bridge attracted a 54,000 crowd and although Chelsea were a division above Palace, they were really the underdogs. They had struggled in their first post-relegation season and didn’t have the brashness of Palace. Allison was confident of victory, walking across to the Chelsea Shed end before the game, holding his fingers up in front of the home fans to forecast a 3-1 win for Palace.
Palace were more assured than Chelsea, but their danger man, Taylor, had a quiet start. The game came to life suddenly in the 37th minute with the winger in possession on the flank. He went past Steve Wicks and Ron Harris, switched to his right foot and sent over a cross-come-shot that hit the underside of the crossbar. As Chelsea’s defence floundered, Nick Chatterton was on hand to control the ball and shoot home. Four minutes later, Taylor added a second goal, playing a neat one-two with Chatterton before shooting past Peter Bonetti with a low curling effort. The goal not only prompted Allison to raise his headgear in salute, but also sparked-off crowd trouble at the north end of Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea staged a dramatic comeback in the second half, drawing level in the 71st minute after goals from Ray Wilkins and Wicks. But Taylor struck again a few minutes later, chipping Bonetti with a sublime free kick. Chelsea didn’t have the heart or the resources to respond and Palace won 3-2 in what was a riveting cup tie. “There was no way we were ever going to lose…we were always the better side,” said Allison after the game.
Meanwhile, the third division promotion race was turning a little sour for Palace and just a few days after their win at Chelsea, they were beaten at Peterborough and were now trailing leaders Hereford United by three points. They were beaten again at fellow contenders Brighton, even though Peter Taylor returned from a two-game suspension. They had now dropped to fifth and had not won in seven league games.
The FA Cup sixth round draw gave Palace another tough away tie, at second division promotion candidates Sunderland. Taylor was on song again and created the only goal of the game, scored by Whittle inside the six-yard box. They were now in the semi-final, just one game away from fulfilling Allison’s bold promise.
Norman Fox of the Times painted a bizarre picture of Crystal Palace, suggesting that the club defied logic. “They act more like champions of Europe than a club hoping, even in their very moment of cup glory, that Shrewsbury had lost to help keep them in third place in the third division.” In many ways, this comment summed-up Palace under Allison.
But the walls were closing in on them as rivals were more consistent at the top. By the time they met Southampton in the FA Cup semi-final on April 3 at Stamford Bridge, they were hanging on to third place in the table.
Back at the scene of their fifth round triumph, Palace were far from impressive against Southampton, who were also very average on the day, despite having the likes of Mick Channon and Peter Osgood in their line-up. Palace, according to Geoffrey Green, “were firmly of the third division” and seldom looked capable of scoring. Southampton won 2-0 with second goals from Paul Gilchrist and David Peach (a penalty). The first part of Allison’s “double” dream was over.
The second part was also soon over – they were beaten twice in the week following their FA Cup exit, at Sheffield Wednesday and at home by Cardiff, and that was followed by a 1-1 draw with Halifax at Selhurst when Taylor missed his second penalty in a matter of days. Palace were now fifth, but just a point behind third-placed Brighton.
But in their final home game, on April 28 against Chesterfield, Palace’s stuttering form virtually wrote-off their promotion hopes. The 0-0 draw meant they had dropped 20 points at home and with Hereford and Millwall both promoted, only one spot remained and Cardiff were better placed to secure it. Palace’s final game at Chester was lost, so Cardiff went up.
Taylor, who had been capped by England, was sold to Tottenham at the start of 1976-77 for £ 200,000. Malcolm Allison resigned at the end of 1975-76 and Terry Venables took over. Palace won promotion in 1977 and returned to the first division in 1979 with a vibrant team of home-grown players. The 1975-76 campaign was a roller-coaster ride for the club’s fans, a team too big for the third division, but clearly unable to focus on run-of-the-mill games. It was mostly all about Malcolm Allison and his inventive and some might say eccentric ways. Was he ahead of his time? Maybe, but he was very much of his time.