The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. This time out we’re looking at the 1997/98 season, and a bald eagle is nesting at Selhurst Park.
Crystal Palace’s return to the Premier League in 1997 had been engineered over two seasons under the rotating stewardship of Dave Bassett and Steve Coppell. Following relegation at the end of the 94/95 season, Alan Smith was relieved of his managerial duties at Selhurst Park, and Coppell arrived for his second spell in charge of the Eagles having overseen promotion to Division One and an FA Cup final appearance in his first spell. Halfway through the 95/96 season, and with Palace sliding towards Division Two, Bassett was brought in to steady the ship for his own second spell. An incredible run in the second half of the season saw Palace rise to third in the table and qualify for the play-offs, only to be beaten in the final by a last-gasp Steve Claridge goal for Leicester City. The 96/97 season followed a similar pattern, and after an ill-fated 33 day spell in charge at Manchester City, Coppell was appointed for his third spell following Bassett’s resignation. A strong finish to the season saw Palace sneak into the play-offs, and a David Hopkin goal against Sheffield United at Wembley confirmed their return to the top flight.
Heading into the 97/98 season Palace were among the favourites for relegation, alongside fellow promoted sides Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers. In order to give themselves a fighting chance, Coppell delved into the transfer market bringing in seven new faces including Premier League stalwarts Paul Warhurst and Andy Linighan, while the newfound interest in the Premier League from players in Serie A was capitalised on as Juventus were sensationally raided for winger Attillio Lombardo.
Now 31, Lombardo joined Palace off the back of a successful two-year spell in Turin, winning a Champions League medal and adding another Serie A winners medal to the two he had earned at Sampdoria. The speedy winger had become a mainstay of the Samp team in the early ‘90s, and his signing was seen by many as a statement of intent at Selhurst Park. A debut goal away at Everton on the opening day gave Eagles fans hope for the new season as a creditable three points were earned in a 2-1 win at Goodison. Lombardo followed this with a goal in Palace’s next away game at Leeds, earning another impressive victory that sandwiched a home defeat to Barnsley. The South-Londoners continued to show good form despite struggling to win at home, and a 1-0 victory against Tottenham at White Hart Lane on 24th November saw them sitting in tenth place after 14 games, and six points clear of the bottom three.
By this time Lombardo had suffered an injury whilst on international duty with Italy and the inspiration provided by the ‘Bald Eagle’ was soon missed as Palace’s form took a dramatic dive. A run of 14 games without a win, collecting only four points, left Palace stranded at the foot of the table, seven points from safety. The ineffectual Michele Padovano had been brought in from Juventus in an attempt to address the team’s lack of goals, while bloated Graham Taylor tormentor Tomas Brolin had also signed for the club on a free, having left Leeds under a cloud the previous summer. During this run the club was subject to a takeover as fan Mark Goldberg looked to purchase Ron Noades holding stake in the club and, after a 6-2 loss away at Chelsea, the decision was taken for manager Coppell to step back into a Director of Football role. The question on the lips of the Selhurst Park faithful was ‘who the hell is going to take this job on?’
The answer, it turned out, was sitting in the treatment room. On 13th March 1998, Atillio Lombardo was appointed player-manager of Crystal Palace until the end of the season. He chose Brolin as his assistant, though neither player had any managerial experience. His first game, away at Aston Villa the following day, ended in defeat, but a markedly better performance suggested shoots of recovery. Lombardo returned to playing action four days later and scored as Palace beat a struggling Newcastle 2-1 at St James’ Park, their first win in nearly four months. The renaissance under Lombardo was short-lived, however, and three defeats on the bounce left Palace with a mountain to climb as they headed into the final five games of the season. A 3-1 victory over Derby County at Selhurst Park – their first win at home all season – left them eight points behind Tottenham in 17th, and knowing that, short of a miracle, they’d be playing Division One football the following season. A 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United the following week confirmed their relegation, though fans could cheer a final day home victory against Sheffield Wednesday. Lombardo ended the season with the unique feat of not having lost a game in which he’d scored. He found the net five times that season.
With Goldberg installed as the supremo at Selhurst Park, he was quick to secure the signature of ex-England manager Terry Venables to takeover first team duties the following season, a season which started with Palace in Europe, having been the only English side to register for the Intertoto Cup. A 4-0 aggregate defeat to Samsunspor in the third round ended hopes of UEFA Cup football in south London, and the tone for the season was set. A fire-sale in the summer saw many of the clubs biggest assets depart, with Dean Gordon, Marc Edworthy, Neil Shipperley and Andy Roberts all moving on for Premier League football, and it became apparent that Goldberg did not have the financial clout to run a professional football club. After a patchy run of form in the winter of ’98 Venables stood down, and Steve Coppell stepped into the breach for his fourth spell as manager of Crystal Palace, saving them from relegation. Lombardo remained at Palace for the first half of the season, but due to financial constraints he was sold to Lazio in January ’99.
The Italian went on to win a fourth Serie A title in 99/00, as well as the Coppa Italia, and wound down his career with a second spell at Sampdoria. After retiring, Lombardo was appointed youth coach at the Luigi Ferraris and had spells as manager in the lower leagues of Italy and Switzerland. He joined up with former team-mate Roberto Mancini at Manchester City in 2010, following him to Galatasary to work as assistant manager. He’s now assistant to Sinisa Mihajlovic at Torino.
Crystal Palace ended the 98/99 season in administration, and it was another decade before they got out of it. A desperation to compete, flights of fancy over big foreign names and a cripplingly ill-advised takeover had set the Eagles back ten years and despite a brief return to the Premier League in 2004, it would take until 2013 for them to establish themselves as top-flight regulars again.
As it happens, the bookies were right at the start of the 97/98 season, with Palace, Barnsley and Bolton all dropping back into Division One after a single campaign at the top table. However their decision to pay out at the start of March for bets on Manchester United to win the Premier League left them red-faced. Arsenal quickly cut the champions’ 9 points lead, capitalising on a stuttering United to go top with five games left. They wouldn’t relinquish their position, and went on to seal their first league trophy in seven years. Arsene Wenger became the first non-British manager to win the top flight title, but it was certain he wouldn’t be the last. Though it seemed unlikely Attillio Lombardo would be coming close any time soon.