You may be aware of Crystal Palace once labelled as ‘the Team of the Eighties’. It all began in the mid-seventies when Malcolm Allison was installed as manager. The 1976-77 season was where they started to make progress in the league.
For this piece we look at the Division Three promotion race.
The press focused on Crystal Palace and their young manager, Terry Venables, in his first season at the helm. He’d taken over at Selhurst Park at the start of the season when the flamboyant Malcolm Allison stepped down.
Allison had overseen a revolution at the South London club. He’d arrived with a big reputation earned as assistant to Joe Mercer in the successful Manchester City side of the late sixties. ‘Big Mal’ had made a point of developing a fine crop of youngsters at Palace and they reaped the rewards with back-to-back Youth Cup titles in this season and the next. During this season players such as Kenny Sansom, Jerry Murphy and Vince Hilaire broke through into the first team.
Palace had suffered relegation from Division Two in 1974. Allison was convinced they’d bounce straight back but instead they outperformed in the FA Cup reaching the Semi-Finals yet came up short in the league. They were within a whisker of being the first side from outside the top two divisions to reach an FA Cup Final.
For Allison, he couldn’t ignore the league form and eventually fell on his sword in May 1976.
But his legacy was for all to see, and Palace reaped the rewards for the next few years.
One of his most important captures was convincing Terry Venables to move into coaching after an injury had cut short his playing career. As a player, Venables was the first to represent England at all age levels. Allison had picked out his ability to read a game and players too.
After Allison stepped down, Venables took over the reigns. Now the club had one of the youngest managers in the country and a club full of kids. For the promotion push of 1976-77 they struggled to put together a consistent run. By Christmas, they’d drawn more than they’d won, and it wasn’t until mid-March when they were able to register consecutive wins. A 0-3 defeat at Northampton seem to be the spark they needed. Back in November, Venables had brought in some valuable experience to his young side when he signed George Graham from Portsmouth. Graham seemed to galvanise the team, running the game from midfield.
They beat Swindon 5-1 and Sheffield Wednesday 4-0, which propelled them into the top four for the first time in the season. But then, inexplicably their eight-match unbeaten run came crashing down with a 1-4 defeat at Port Vale.
Moving into the Easter period they were still fourth, but only on goal difference, five points from a promotion spot
Brighton were heading the table, as they had done all season. They were managed by another ex-England international, and former teammate of Venables at Tottenham, Alan Mullery.
Brighton had the astonishingly talented Peter Ward banging the goals in, closing in on 30 goals for the season.
Wrexham had also been in the top four all season, and had Graham Whittle scoring as prolifically as Ward was at The Goldstone Ground.
Mansfield were level on points with Wrexham and only one goal behind on goal difference. Neither Wrexham or Mansfield had ever reached as high as English football’s second tier.
Behind Palace were Rotherham and Bury. Rotherham were briefly top at Christmas, but three defeats during April had seen them drop back. Bury were now managed by former player, Bobby Smith. Smith had spent part of his career at Brighton and, at 29 was the youngest manager in the league.
Wrexham looked to have the toughest run-in, with games against Brighton and Mansfield to come as well as having to meet Palace twice.
During these days there were only two points for a win.
Saturday 30th April 1977
Wrexham and Brighton met at The Racecourse Ground. The two highest scorers in the division played out a goalless draw.
Mansfield travelled to Swindon and centre-back, Barry Foster scored the only goal of the game. Mansfield were now level with Brighton on goal difference.
Crystal Palace were at Chesterfield and won 2-0 with goals from Rachid Harkouk and Nicky Chatterton.
Rotherham beat Walsall, but Bury suffered defeat at Gillingham.
Tuesday 3rd May 1977
Three days later and another big game for Wrexham. They were at Selhurst Park to meet Palace. Goals from Dave Swindlehurst and a penalty from Paul Hinshelwood gave Palace a huge 2-1 win. Wrexham had now dropped three points against promotion rivals in a few days. If Palace were to go up they would need Wrexham to drop more points before the end of the season.
Brighton were at home to Sheffield Wednesday and had to come from behind to win 3-2. Peter Ward hit his 30th of the season.
Mansfield beat Portsmouth with goals from Kevin Randall and Colin Foster.
Rotherham lost at home to Reading and that was a real blow to their promotion hopes.
Brighton and Mansfield were now promoted. For Mansfield this was the first time they would compete in the Second Division in their 72-year history.
Saturday 7th May 1977
Palace’s final home game of the season was for the visit of Lincoln City. Paul Hinshelwood scored twice from the spot, and with further goals from Barry Silkman and Jeff Bourne they were comfortable 4-1 winners.
On the same night, Wrexham were at Oxford. Goals from Bobby Shinton and Billy Ashcroft earned a point despite Alan Dwyer putting through his own net.
Wrexham’s promotion hopes were now under threat. They’d picked up just two points from a possible six and with games against Palace and Mansfield to come, they looked like they’d blown it. But one win or two draws from those matches would be enough for them, and they had the added advantage of being at home for both.
Palace had hit form at the right time. Three straight wins, four in five and one defeat in their last 12. But they only had one game left. Against Wrexham.
Mansfield’s final home game of the season was a triumphant 3-0 win over Northampton. Brighton weren’t in action again till midweek, so Mansfield were top.
Rotherham’s Trevor Phillips scored his fourth in six games to give them victory over Gillingham and they were still in the hunt, just.
Tuesday 10th May 1977
Brighton travelled to Swindon having been knocked off the top of the table by Mansfield at the weekend. Peter Ward scored his 31st league goal of the season but they went down 1-2. Now having lead for so long, even a win in their last match might not enough for the title. Mansfield players and supporters were beginning to believe.
Wednesday 11th May 1977
All eyes were on the happenings at the Racecourse Ground for the midweek clash between Wrexham and Crystal Palace. Palace had won their last three, Wrexham hadn’t won any of their last three. Palace won the reverse fixture 2-1 just nine days earlier, and arrived knowing anything less than a win would resign them to another season in Division Three. Wrexham had the luxury of another match to go with Mansfield arriving at the weekend. If Palace could win by two clear goals it would mean even a draw against Mansfield would not be enough for Wrexham.
George Graham, so often an inspiration in their promotion push, was missing for this vital match. Ominously Wrexham were one of just two sides unbeaten at home all season.
In the first half the visitors took the lead when Kenny Sansom’s long throw deflected off a defender and Dave Swindlehurst fired it in. 1-0 to Palace.
Five minutes into the second half Sansom and Silkman combined for Steve Perrin to convert the cross. 2-0 to Palace, and now they were dreaming of promotion.
But the home side fought back. Graham Whittle scored his 28th league goal of the season and then John Lyons levelled things up. Suddenly the home fans were the ones in good voice.
Venables brought on Rachid Harkouk for Silkman. Born in Chelsea, Harkouk would later represent Algeria in the 1986 World Cup. He was top scorer during this season and with just minutes remaining he scored to put Palace back in front.
A win would still be good, but they really needed a two-goal advantage. Deep into injury time, Harkouk played a lovely through ball to find Jeff Bourne. Bourne, signed from Derby earlier in the season, took on the two Wrexham centre-backs before firing past Brian Lloyd.
Bourne had scored nine goals in just 15 matches and this one was probably the most important. Palace had won 4-2, an amazing game and now put the pressure right back on Wrexham. Anything other than a win would not be good enough for the North Wales side.
Venables later said of this match, “It’s the most memorable game for me out of all the clubs and memories I have”.
Elsewhere Rotherham went to Reading and a Trevor Phillips hat-trick gave them a 3-0 win. But with Palace winning, their only hope was to win their last match by six goals.
Saturday 14th May 1977
These were the days well before the concept of a ‘Final Day’ where all teams kicked off at the same time. Because many of the surfaces the players played on were of sub-standard, they often succumbed to bad weather. Consequently, fixtures backed up beyond the end of the scheduled finish to a season.
So while Crystal Palace sat out the final day, having completed their season, they were nervously listening to their transistor radios for the score from the Racecourse Ground.
Wrexham entertained Mansfield Town. Neither club had ever appeared higher than the third tier of the league. A win for Wrexham would mean both could enjoy such riches for the next season. A draw was not enough for the Welsh. But it was for Mansfield as they had the prize of a title. If they lost and Brighton beat Chesterfield, then their inferior goal difference would hand the title to Alan Mullery’s men. Mansfield had won the Fourth Division two years earlier, so hopes were high on the trip to North Wales
Much of The Stags success was down to the strike partnership of Kevin Randall and Ernie Moss. Moss had been signed earlier in the season from Chesterfield and had hit 12 goals in 22 appearances. Randall had netted 17 times. They’d won four of their last five and on the verge of unprecedented success.
A goalless first half saw the game decided on the two Mansfield strikers combining for Moss to score, what proved to be, the only goal of the game. Try as they might the home side just couldn’t break through with Ashcroft going closest.
A 1-0 win was joy for Mansfield as they celebrated their second title in three seasons.
Brighton won 1-0 at Chesterfield with Peter Ward netting his 32nd in the league and his 36th of a prolific season. But it wasn’t enough after the Mansfield result.
Rotherham travelled to Port Vale looking to win by at least six clear goals. Alan Crawford gave them a half-time lead. He scored his second of the game in the second period, his 23rd of the season. Richard Habbin and Trevor Phillips added to the score. Mike Cullerton got one back for the home side and in the end, Rotherham had left themselves too much to do.
So Palace fans could now celebrate a return to the Second Division after an absence of three years. Playing the kids throughout the season had been a brave, but ultimately inspired move by Venables. The youth system at Selhurst Park was further vindicated when they won the FA Youth Cup the same season.
For Mansfield this had been a remarkable season. They’d won their last four matches to take the title. Not bad when you consider in December they were embarrassed by Matlock Town. The Northern Premier side won 5-2 in the FA Cup Second Round. From there they won 20 of 29 matches in the league.
Palace now looked forward to a season in the Second Division.
In the end they finished ninth. Brighton missed out on a second successive promotion on goal difference to Tottenham. Mansfield dropped straight back down to the third, never to return.
The scene was then set for season 1978-79 where Palace started to earn an impressive reputation which had some label them the ‘Team of the Eighties’.
Join us in part two where we look at the promotion run-in for that season.