Thrashing Santa, fearing the reaper: Crystal Palace’s Millennium Bug

Posted: July 12, 2015 in English Football
Tags: , , , ,

“Forget about the money and everything else. If we go up, we’ll face 10 months of misery”

Steve Coppell, 1997

 

How did you ring in the Millennium? Did you have a quiet one in with your loved ones, watching the fireworks smug in the knowledge that the end of a century was indeed nothing special? Did you raise a dignified glass to the next 1000 years? Or did you go hell for leather, embarking on a path of debauchery so depraved as to make the video for Smack My Bitch Up look like a Richard Curtis production? Crystal Palace started the party early. Three years early, in fact. Flame-haired talisman David Hopkin’s Play Off winner at Wembley in May 1997 sealed an unlikely return to the Premier League and set in motion an era of insanity. Determined to shake off their ‘yo-yo’ status, what followed was a whirlwind that swept into their midst bald eagles, chubby Swedes and Sasa Curcic; takeovers, five-year plans and El Tel; Chinese stars, anti-NATO protests and invisible Argentines. By the time the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1999, Palace were already long into the throes of a miserable hangover. And for them, it could easily have turned out to be the end of the world…

Hopkin himself wasn’t around to see the chaos his goal provoked, flogged to Leeds for £3.5m just a week after Palace’s pre-season tour to Finland, where they demolished FC Santa Claus 5-0, the club proving as generous as their namesake. Despite the sale of their star player, optimism was high. For once, there was money to spend, and the Eagles were making a list, and checking it twice. On 1st August 1997, after lengthy negotiations and a £1.6m transfer fee, Attilio Lombardo – the bald eagle himself – was a Crystal Palace player. Given the prominent role he’d played as a livewire winger in Scudetto successes for Sampdoria and Juventus, this represented nothing short of the coup of the summer, and Palace knew it. Chairman Ron Noades had to leave his car and take a taxi home from Biggin Hill Airport after the deal was concluded, staying behind to get absolutely trollied in celebration. Seven players were signed that summer as a new-look Palace kicked off at Goodison Park, and they couldn’t have dreamt of a better start. Constantly threatening on the counter attack, Lombardo shone, exchanging passes with fellow debutant Paul Warhurst before poking the ball past Neville Southall to open the scoring, then earning the winning penalty, converted by Bruce Dyer. Though a home defeat to fellow new boys Barnsley brought everyone down to earth a touch, Palace’s poor home form would be offset by superb away victories against Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Spurs, even winning ‘away’ at Selhurst Park with a Lombardo-inspired win over lodgers Wimbledon. The shiny-domed Italian was the spearhead, his intelligent passing and probing from midfield a joy to behold, and his stellar form garnered a shock recall to the Italy squad in November, with his club side giddy in ninth place.

Michele Padovano of Crystal Palace

 

Part 2: Wings clipped

“I will be earning more in three years at Palace than I’ve made in my entire career.”

Michele Padovano, 1997

 

Unfortunately, Lombardo’s return to international football would prove a turning point in Palace’s season. Their hairless hero managed to crock himself in training with the Azzurri and was out for weeks. In his absence, Palace started to plummet, and not even his return in the new year could stop the rot. They only won four more games all season. Lombardo was merely the highest profile casualty in a campaign beset by injury problems to key personnel. David Tuttle was a leader in the heart of defence – he broke his leg weeks into the season. Warhurst and top scorers Dyer and Neil Shipperley would also spend time on the sidelines, while the mid-season hospitalisation of coach Ray Lewington (a huge influence on the training ground) had further damaging consequences. This abundance of sicknotes was compounded by the fact that a significant percentage of the myriad new arrivals failed to settle. Michele Padovano arrived in December, another member of Juve’s title-winning side (their top scorer, no less). £1.7m seemed steep for a 31-year-old, but a goal against Leicester seemed to bode well. However, Padovano apparently decided this strike meant his work was done – it represented the sum total of his contribution to the cause.

£1.2m signing Itzik Zohar had a reputation as a classy creative midfielder, who’d scored Israel’s first-ever world cup qualifying goals and was a free kick specialist. What fans saw was a player slower than a milkfloat at Le Mans, who looked bewildered at the pace of the English game even in reserve fixtures. That didn’t stop him making his mark, however, lord no…

On Boxing Day, Zohar wrote himself into Crystal Palace infamy. With the score at 1-1, the award of a late penalty to the Eagles presented a golden opportunity for that elusive first home win. Zohar, who’d hardly made an auspicious first impression as it was, snatched the ball from regular taker Dyer and placed it on the spot himself…only to fart a penalty with all the velocity and direction of a snail trail into the grateful, disbelieving arms of Paul Jones. In the aftermath, Zohar proceeded to fly home without permission to play in a friendly for Haifa Tel Aviv…in which he missed another penalty.

Young, highly rated French centre back Valerien Ismael was signed for a club record £2.75m to plug one of the most porous defences in the division. Fitness and difficulties in adjusting to the English game (he was schooled by Wimbledon’s lumbering Carl Leaburn, unable to cope with the long ball) saw him play just 13 times.

USA ’94 star turned fat ex-Leeds punchline Tomas Brolin arrived on trial, impressed sufficiently to earn a contract, then, like Padovano, pretty much downed tools. That delightful spinny, jumpy, ankle-threatening celebration remained in mothballs.

Delicious mothballs.

 

It was not only the foreign imports who flopped. £1.5m ‘keeper Kevin ‘Fat Kev’ Miller is not remembered with any fondness by Holmesdale regulars, while the £2m spent on boyhood Brighton fan and ex-Millwall defender Neil Emblen appeared to be some kind of perverse practical joke the club was playing on itself. He was back at Wolves before the season was out.

This string of transfer misfires might not have been such an issue had Palace not moved on so many of the heroes and stalwarts of their promotion campaign. Over the course of the season Kevin Muscat, Dougie Freedman, George Ndah, Carl Veart and Andy Roberts all followed Hopkin out of the door, and the heart of the team went with them. By the new year, Palace were well and truly in the relegation mix. When 1998 began with eight straight defeats, they seemed pretty much doomed.

 

Part 3: Turning to Goldberg

“I must be the biggest mug in the world to buy this club for £23m.”

Mark Goldberg, 1998

 

Where there was hope to cling to, it came in the form of lifelong Palace fan made good Mark Goldberg. Appointed to the board at the start of the season, Goldberg had amassed a £35m fortune in IT recruitment by the age of 30, and it transpired that he had been the driving force behind the summer’s decidedly un-Noades-like recruitment drive. Before long he was making excitable noises about buying the club, and the owner was encouraging his overtures. Noades however, was demanding £30m, an extortionate price for a club that had every chance of being relegated in May, and his insistence that Goldberg demonstrate his ability to stump up the readies mid-season turned negotiations into a saga. Undeterred, Goldberg pressed on, first seeking to further exploit links with Juventus (which had helped bring Lombardo and Padovano to the club) with talk of a 30% stake for the Turin giants. When that didn’t come off, his next scheme involved a consortium, but that only managed to raise £23m, and £5m of that consisted of investor promises that failed to materialise – so Noades changed the deal, removing Selhurst Park from the equation and loaning Goldberg the £5m shortfall himself. Astonishingly, Goldberg went for this, and a deal was agreed in principle, with contracts exchanged in late February 1998. It would not actually go through until June, not that such details stopped the giddy Goldberg from letting his inner fanboy run wild. He outlined his grand ambition of a five-year plan to turn the Eagles into a European force by 2003; then, with English football still high on the fumes of Euro ’96, he went public on his intention to sign Paul Gascoigne and install Terry Venables as manager.

 

With the backroom staff rounded out by Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds…

 

Goldberg’s mouth created problems. Blabbing about the Gascoigne negotiations caused his advisors to pull out, and if that was a blessing in disguise, the Venables chatter had more damaging consequences. Goldberg’s declaration that he wanted Tel in post by the start of the following season served to make a lame duck of Coppell just as he was trying to rally his beleaguered troops for the last push for survival. Feeling compromised, he elected to step aside and move back upstairs to his Director of Football role. Here’s where things started to get weird…

Coppell’s brainwave was that the man to succeed him should be none other than the man everyone looked up to on the field – Attillio Lombardo. After a quick chat, the 30-year-old was appointed player manager on 13th March, and stunned journalists descended en masse to meet the no-less shellshocked new gaffer. He described the feeling as “like being crushed by a hotel”, and talked of seeking advice from his friend Gianluca Vialli, who’d recently taken over across the city at Chelsea in rather different circumstances. “He is in an F1 car, I am in a sinking ship,” was his not exactly Churchillian (but nevertheless accurate) assessment. Perhaps even more bizarrely, Brolin was appointed second in command and interpreter.

Palace were probably doomed anyway, but the appointment was nevertheless a disastrous one. It served not only to distract their one top-class player (who took to naming himself on the bench), but at the same time placed in the dugout – in the midst of a dogfight – a novice whose grasp of English, by his own admission, largely extended to the expletives Tuttle had taught him.

The Eagles conceded eight goals in their next three fixtures, replying just twice and taking zero points. The misery wasn’t all-encompassing – there had been some shrewd mid-season acquisitions amid the dross. Matt Jansen had been one of the most hotly tipped prospects in the Football League and turned down Manchester United to join Palace from Carlisle in a £1m deal. He was soon bagging wondergoals, with a 25-yard volley against Aston Villa and a tremendous solo goal in a shock win at Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle. Young Marcus Bent signed from Brentford and hit five goals in 16 appearances, including goals at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. Then there was the enigma that was Sasa Curcic.

A titanic, expensive flop at Villa, where he was more renowned for going AWOL to have a nose job and buying his own double-decker ‘party bus’ than anything he did on the pitch, his form returned in SE25. The peroxide-bearded Serb emerged from a fog of sex and drugs to add some rock n’ roll flourishes to Palace’s forward play, orchestrating their long-awaited first home win with a wonderful display against Derby. Sadly, that win merely provided a stay of execution. Nine days later, the wounded animal that was outgoing champions Manchester United came to town. Lombardo, in his wisdom, selected the less than industrious midfield pairing of Brolin and Curcic. The massacre that followed confirmed Palace’s relegation with three games to spare. Now Lombardo stood down, itching to enjoy his football again, and Noades took the reigns. With the pressure off, another home win was secured on the last day, but Palace finished bottom, seven points adrift, their summer dreams of consolidation ridden with bullet holes. Relegation could not eradicate that optimism entirely however. There was a new owner on his way, and an old hero riding to the rescue. The only way was up. Right?

Part Four: Party like it’s 1998-99

“Terry saw me coming.”

Mark Goldberg, 2000

 

Alas, Crystal Palace’s first year back in the second tier resembled less a George Lucas-directed, star-gazing ‘New Hope’, and more a Phillip K Dick adaptation – grey, bleak and weird. The Goldberg takeover was finally completed on 10th June 1998. However, there was no clean slate. Aside from not having the asset of Selhurst Park as part of the deal, he inherited debts of £9m, and the club still owed transfer fees and wages to players who’d long-since moved on, like Padovano and Ismael. Goldberg set about merrily adding to them. New staff were hired in virtually every department, with seemingly frivolous positions also created – ‘Head of Videos’ being the most notorious. Cannonballing into this thickening financial stew came Terence Frederick Venables.

Securing his number one choice of manager had not proven as easy as Goldberg might have imagined. Venables was reportedly paid £135,000 just to enter into talks about the role, and the eventual deal saw him given a salary of 750,000 per year (paid in advance), a new Mercedes, a £650,000 house (with Venables retaining the equity interest), a 6% royalty on use of his image, and other perks – including, reportedly, a clause that stated that only Tel himself could terminate the contract. One might have imagined such riches would have stirred the returning hero into immediate action; but when Palace’s season kicked off early, with a first-ever foray into Europe via the Intertoto Cup, Venables wasn’t there, claiming to need a rest after his world cup commitments…as an ITV pundit. He missed both legs of the club’s 4-0 aggregate shellacking by Samsunspor of Turkey. Once he did rouse himself to the task at hand, Venables brought 15 players onto Palace’s creaking wage bill. There were Australians he knew from his Socceroos days like Craig Moore and Nick Rizzo; Chinese stars Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai were signed with an eye to cracking oriental markets, and there was still room for a good, old-fashioned expensive flop in £1.5m Lee Bradbury. Argentine trio Pablo Rodriguez, Cristian Ledesma and Walter Del Rio (who arrived on crutches) were signed but made just two appearances between them (both Del Rio) – yet still cost the club nearly £500,000 in agent’s fees

Nevertheless, on the pitch, thing started promisingly. Palace enjoyed a brief spell atop the division, they’d retained a number of their star players, and a 5-1 demolition of Norwich in August, with goals from Jansen, Lombardo and Rizzo, showed what they were capable of. The Chinese venture also yielded interest. Zhiyi’s debut was beamed back to a Chinese audience of £100m, and a tour of the country was set up.

When the financial problems deepened however, the wheels fell off, and for a second straight season Palace plunged towards the relegation zone. In January the first set of administrators came in and the family silver began to be sold off. Jansen went to Blackburn, Bent to Port Vale, Warhurst to Bolton, Lombardo to Lazio. Venables went that same week, the club no longer able to pay him. The Chinese tour attracted 30,000 people, but as journalist and Palace fan Dominic Fifield noted, most of the proceeds went on money owed for players. Things got so bad that even the training ground tractor became a bone of financial contention.

Goldberg was in denial about the extent of the crisis and railed against the administrators, telling Fifield they were “people to go in after the war is over and bayonet the wounded”. Yet by March a second set of administrators had been called in and the severity of the situation was undeniable. If Steve Coppell, parachuted in for a third time to steady the ship, was under any illusions about the scale of the challenge, deadline day punctured them: “it got to five o clock and I thought I’d lost two or three players,” he said. “Then I phoned the chairman and he said I’d lost five.”

Coppell had much to contend with, and with his playing staff already dwindling, he was forced to remove Curcic and Petric from consideration when the NATO bombing raids on Serbia began. Like many of his sporting countrymen, Curcic protested against the air strikes, going as far as to picket Downing Street and parade around the Selhurst Park pitch with a placard. The duo did return however, and Coppell was able to work a minor miracle in steering a ragtag group of leftovers and talented youngsters (Hadyn Mullins, Clinton Morrison, among others) away from danger to a 14th-placed finish. In the background, the fans’ backlash against Goldberg was in full swing, with the owner deciding against meeting the leaders of a fancy dress ‘grim reaper march’ demanding the end of his stewardship.

This odd, sad tale ended with Crystal Palace being sold to Singapore businessman Jerry Lim, who would in turn sell up to another brash, gobby, millionaire supporter, Simon Jordan. It wouldn’t be the club’s last dalliance with financial oblivion, but somehow they always seem to come back stronger.

* Mark Goldberg was declared bankrupt on a Spanish golf course in 2000. He lost his fortune, his house, his car and his marriage. He has since managed to rebuild his life and now manages Bromley FC.

* Steve Coppell would leave Palace forever in 2000.

* Matt Jansen now plays for Chorley, 12 years after the near-fatal moped accident that ended his top-level career.

* Valerien Ismael won two Bundesliga titles and played Champions League football for Bayern Munich.

* Marcus Bent would move clubs a further 14 times in his career.

* Michele Padovano was jailed for hash smuggling.

* Itzik Zohar became a beach footballer and now hosts Israel’s version of Match of the Day.

* Sasa Curcic retired at 30, lamenting that he couldn’t be paid in women. In 2008 he won Serbian Big Brother.

* Tomas Brolin retired after his stint at Palace, and after a brief sojourn into the exciting world of vacuum cleaner innovations, divides his time between owning a restaurant, trying to claim 19-year-old goals and making naked snow angels.

* Terry Venables remains a very wealthy man and was last seen using the word ‘woofter’ on Goals on Sunday.

* Crystal Palace appear to have finally put their yo-yo days behind them.

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