The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Crystal Palace's Alan Pardew vs. Liverpool

Like all Palace’s goals that day Pardew’s was not a thing of beauty but it was a beautiful goal and remains the best goal I've ever seen us score...
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Like all Palace’s goals that day Pardew’s was not a thing of beauty but it was a beautiful goal and remains the best goal I've ever seen us score...

The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Crystal Palace's Alan Pardew vs. Liverpool

There are so many competing issues to weigh up when choosing your club’s greatest ever goal that it is a deliciously difficult and delicate task. For the sake of simplification, there are two polar opposites to the spectrum of this type of selection. In one corner, the aesthetes lounge around on red velvet chaise longues and, whilst popping grapes into the mouths of dusky nymphs, purr over a flowing move, involving most of the team, which ends up in a sweet strike into the roof of the net. Whereas in the blue corner the cold utilitarian view eschews the beauty bit entirely and goes straight for the practical significance surrounding the goal. As a Palace fan whose support spans over five decades, you can probably hazard a guess where the needle on my goal barometer is heading and it is most firmly planted in ‘the end justifies the mean’ camp. Considering some of the crap Italians who have played for us, one N. Machiavelli of Fiorentina, might have been a better choice.

It is safe to assume that not many football observers would have A. Pardew on their nominations list for greatest ever goal. As a player, his origins could have been described as humble. He had a couple of non-league clubs under his belt, including the small, insignificant and anonymous Surrey town of Whyteleafe where it all started for his football career and, by spooky serendipity, is where it literally all started for me, as I was born a couple of healthy hoofs from Whyteleafe’s Church Road ground. The feeling that Pardew was fated to be my Palace hero was reinforced by the fact that his main occupation when not turning out for the likes of Epsom & Ewell, was as a glazier.  I haven’t checked but he probably did some falconry in his spare time with buzzards and the odd eagle, just to complete the Full House of destiny.

He joined Palace in 1987 from Yeovil Town (a non-league team back then) for the princely sum of £7,500. His role in Steve Coppell’s emerging side was primarily to stop the opposition playing and he built his reputation on hard graft as opposed to any creative talent. Pardew fitted in well with his midfield colleagues, the forceful duo of Andy Gray and Geoff Thomas alongside the occasionally silky skills of Phil Barber. A well-balanced quartet they proved to be and provided the ammo for the potent Wright and Bright combination, which duly carried the club to promotion in 1989 via the Play-Offs.

After almost a decade out of the top flight, Palace were back in Division One and the first few tentative steps into the ‘big time’ had ended up in the trauma of a 9-0 mauling at the hands of Liverpool in early September. Over the next six months Palace bounced back with some vigour, recovering sufficient confidence and credibility to cobble together some league form and mount an FA Cup campaign which gave us some plum home ties against lower division opposition and a quarter final away to the mighty Cambridge United which we duly navigated through a Geoff Thomas goal. With enough league points to pretty much ensure safety by early April, Coppell’s men could concentrate on this our second FA Cup semi-final appearance.

Unfortunately, our luck of the draw ran out at the semi-final stage, as it is prone to do, and we faced our nemesis from Anfield who meanwhile were atop the Division, which they eventually won comfortably from Villa. A Liverpool team boasting the likes of Hansen, McMahon, Rush and Barnes were “magnificent”, according to Coppell, which could have been a neat piece of reverse psychology but going on the evidence, was just the plain old truth.

The eve of the match coincided with a big party at my flat and so I ended up driving up to Villa Park with a rotten hangover, at far too early an hour to get there for a midday kick-off. As Coppell was quoted as saying with his own brand of dour understatement “we are the underdogs, no doubt about that”. No s***, Sherlock, some might unkindly say. So as we gathered at the Holte End the fans’ attitude was one of realistic resignation but mixed with a sense of pride buoyed by the classic “it will be a great day out for the club and the fans” attitude as if it were a day-trip to the seaside. It was certainly hot enough to have been on the beach rather than in a sweaty throng deep in the heart of Middle England and this was most definitely not the best way of diluting a hangover that was still very much to the fore.

The only thread of silver lining we could find in amongst the fear and trepidation of another spanking was that Liverpool were due to wear their second strip which was officially described as ‘all silver’ aka speckled grey s***. Anyway this desperate clutching of straws lasted less than a quarter of an hour as Pardew gave the ball away in midfield with a loose pass which within a trice allowed McMahon to release Rush who scored with the casual ease of a man posting a letter on a Saturday morning. The game was going according to everybody’s expectations as Liverpool strolled in the midday sunshine after taking that early lead and almost through boredom with their total dominance did not over-extend themselves so it remained 1-0 at the break. At half-time the talk amongst Palace fans was not of getting back on terms but more the gallows humour in hoping that Liverpool would not be able to notch eight in the second half thus avoiding a repetition of the September massacre. As we were on a hiding to nothing at least we were keeping our side of the bargain.

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In the BBC TV studio Bob Wilson and Ray ‘very much so’ Wilkins were busy burying any chance of a Palace revival, confidently predicting a comfortable victory for the Reds until they were interrupted from their safe, glib analysis as the cameras homed in on the one and only Malcolm Allison who was down in the tunnel. Big Mal was bullish about a recovery noticing that “Palace were physically stronger whilst Liverpool were technically better” and he urged the Eagles “have got to gamble a bit more and get forward”.

No sooner had the second half kicked off than John Pemberton decided to follow Allison’s advice to a tee and bombed down the right touchline as if being pursued by an aggressive bear and he skinned the Liverpool left with an extraordinary burst of pace. His subsequent cross pinged around the penalty area, which resembled an oversized pinball game, until a it came to Mark Bright who gleefully and incredulously smashed the ball past Grobbelaar. We went insanely beserk, it may have only been an equaliser but it felt as though this was a massive moment. The hangover was now in remission and it was time to party like it was 1990.

Unbelievably after another bout of pinball in the Red Men’s area, Gary O’Reilly of all people, put us 2-1 up. O’Reilly was a man of quality not quantity, he scored precisely two goals in his two year spell at Selhurst, this one and one a few months later in the FA Cup Final, a sure case of lightning striking twice. When O’Reilly scored there were gasps of astonishment and the giddy feeling I put down to the night before, was now more linked to affairs on the pitch. But inevitably as the possibility of a major upset began to come close and with only ten minutes left Liverpool struck twice in the space of a few minutes to restore order and sanity. “Plucky effort from gallant losers” was a phrase I imagined would be the headlines of many papers the next day but with just a minute to go and following another melee in the Liverpool box a third session of pinball ensued culminating in Andy Gray popping up to nod home. So Wallop had followed its close cousins, Crash and Bang, as the Holte End exploded for a third time.

Extra time was a bit of a blur and most Palace fans had gleefully accepted the prospect of a honourable draw and replay. In the dying minutes, Thorn flicked on a corner at the near post and Pardew powered /bundled it home from less than three yards. Scruffy and unglamorous it may have been but it sparked the sort of delirium that makes your head hurt, I was convinced whilst watching endless replays of that winner that I saw one of the Palace fans upside down as the Holte End re-ignited for a fourth and final time, it was fitting that every Palace goal was scored at that end allowing the intimacy of celebrations to be joy unbound.

Pardew, the man who had sloppily conceded possession for the first Liverpool goal, was now the man standing in front of us as the new messiah. He almost looked embarrassed by the adulation and that humility endeared him even more in our eyes. From humble glazier to The Eagle Redeemer. Dalglish meanwhile was doing a passable impression of fellow Scot Colin Montgomerie in perfecting the look of “a bulldog licking its own piss off a nettle”. On our joyous journey back down the M6 I was determined to write Pardew’s biography, “From Whyteleafe to Wembley”.

Like all Palace’s goals that day Pardew’s was not a thing of beauty but it was a beautiful goal. This was the goal that expunged all those demons from September’s annihilation at Anfield, established the club in the public’s minds as a team of resilience and was the platform for the most successful period in the club’s history. The following season Palace finished third in the old First Division, above the likes of both Manchester clubs, Spurs and Chelsea who finished a mediocre 10th. If it had not been for the European ban imposed after the Heysel disaster, the Eagles would have been flying into Europe.

To commemorate this life-changing moment in the club’s history the fans dedicated a song to the man who scored that goal. A song as unglamorous and prosaic as the man himself and as the goal itself:

‘Who put the ball in the Scousers’ net?
Al, Al.
Who put the ball in the Scousers’ net?
Super Alan Pardew.
Al, super Al. Al super Al, Al super Al, super Alan Pardew.”