Looking Back At: Crystal Palace & League Cup Heartbreak 1994

This is following on in our series of matches from the past chosen by patrons of the site. As a starter for ten, if you wish to be a patron from as little as £2 a month, it would help with the site’s upkeep. I appreciate everyone who is currently a patron; thank you. 

I have a small issue – with several email accounts and different mediums, I can’t actually recall who requested this game! However, if it was you, thank you for your selection. It evoked a few memories for me of a big time in my life. The 1994/95 season saw me turn 16, and that’s a pretty important time in any young person’s life, going from a boy to, umm, well, not quite a man, but I did get a National Insurance card, which was pretty big for me at the time!

In 1994, Sam Ellis was in charge, and the Imps drew Chester City in the first round of the Coca-Cola Cup. It was the third year in a row we’d got through the first round, and the third year in a row we’d got a big draw. In 1992/93, we got Crystal Palace, and a year later, after beating Port Vale, we drew Everton. After a 2-0 win at home against Chester (Carbon, Schofield) and a 3-2 win at the Deva Stadium (Schofield, West and David Johnson), we were in the hat again, and out came Palace. Again.

It hadn’t been a great start for the Imps – after an opening-day win against Exeter City (2-0), four defeats followed in the league against Torquay (2-1) at home and on our travels to Walsall (2-1), Preston (4-0) and Rochdale (1-0). That left the Imps 19th buy buoyed by the cup excitement.

I remember the first leg well. Neil Matthews, the Imps striker who hadn’t had much football under Ellis, lived in Wragby, and one night my Dad told him in the pub I was a fan., He got me two tickets for the game, St Andrew’s Stand, and I had to knock on his door for them. Even though I was 15, I was terrified and barely said thank you. It still haunts me how rude I must have come across to this day.

Johnson nets v Palace in the first leg

Palace, who were second bottom in the Premier League at the time, had a decent squad; Nigel Martyn, Chris Coleman, Chris Armstrong, and John Salako were all in the team, as well as future England manager Gareth Southgate. Crowds at the Bank were around the 3,000 mark, and Palace wasn’t a big draw apparently; only 4,310 turned up, although without the Sincil Bank side of the ground (under development), it felt very loud and busy. They missed a treat; with Steve Foley, Trevor Hebberd, Nicky Platnauer and Colin Greenall in the squad, the Imps grabbed a 1-0 win. That was September 20th, which meant a huge night in London on Tuesday, October 4th.

The result clearly gave City a shot in the arm; Greenall, Dean West and David Puttnam all bagged four days later as we won at Hartlepool for the first time in 21 years, three goals to nil. We remained unbeaten heading into the game, drawing 2-2 with Northampton before the trip to Selhurst Park.

Ahead of the second leg, Sam Ellis was in a confident mood. “I think a lot of it will boil down to how we approach the match in our attitude,” he said. “It should be an intriguing tie, but if we have the self-belief to have a real go, who knows what might happen.” The injury news wasn’t promising; Tony Daws was absent after picking up an injury in the opening-day win against Exeter, and cup hero Johnson was also ruled out. Steve Foley picked up a knock against Northampton and faced a late fitness test, which he failed.  Palace were lifted by a win at Highbury the Saturday before, John Salako hitting a brace, which they hoped might kickstart a bit of a run.

The Imps lined up Andy Leaning, John Schofield, Nicky Platnauer, Trevor Hebberd, Colin Greenall, Grant Brown, Dean West, Udo Onwere, Gary Bannister, David Puttnam and Alan Johnson, with Paul Smith and Phil Daley on the bench. It was going to be an uphill struggle against Palace, with a strong side out, including Dean Gordon, who would become crucial later on. Finally, and unusually for a fixture like this, there’s not a single Lincoln City fan who can’t name the match referee. His name was Gary Willard, and he later officiated two League Cup semi-finals and found himself chased off the field by Barnsley fans.

The game began exactly as you’d expect in front of a bumper crowd, with Gareth Southgate having a first-minute effort go over the bar. I wasn’t in the 700-strong travelling Imps; it was a school night, and I was banished to my bedroom with some sort of early A-level test the following morning. My Dad did go, as did a collection of my friends who had gone off to college or work rather than stay in the sixth form. I’m convinced my decision to leave school four months later was partly fuelled by missing the game. Well, I wasn’t at all until I put this article together, now I am.

Fans at Selhurst Park

Palace had much of the play and more of the ball, with six corners in the first 15 minutes, but the Imps were tactically spot on. Greenall, Brown and Schofield were solid, with Johnson playing in an unfamiliar left-midfield position with a remit of silencing England hopeful Salako, which he did magnificently. When Salako got through, Schofield blocked two of his shots quickly. Ricky Newman was trying to pull the strings in midfield, but ahead of him, Chris Armstrong was struggling to get a foothold in the tie.

He wasn’t alone – City were just happy to soak up pressure in the first 45, and the only effort of note was a free-kick from 40 yards, delivered by Grant Brown, which went wide of the post. Still, despite Palace being in control, they couldn’t get that crucial goal. Willard blew for half time, and City were still 1-0 up on aggregate and had one foot in the Third Round.

After the break, the home side upped the ante, and on 54 minutes, defender Darren Patterson came off for forward Bruce Dyer. He immediately played a ball to Bobby Bowry, whose flick-on was stabbed at goal by Armstrong. Leaning stood firm. The future Spurs striker headed a Southgate cross wide of the goal, whilst Newman tested Leaning from range with a stinging drive which was deflected over the bar. Leaning’s performance was sensational; he saved Armstrong’s header from point-blank range, then managed to step a follow-up effort from Newman just outside the area.

City never looked like scoring, we didn’t have a single shot on target, but that mattered little; 90 minutes came, and it was still 0-0. The Imps had put in the perfect away performance, dogged and resilient, and they’d done so fairly; the physio had been on the field just once. In those days, no board went up, the clock ticked over, and you didn’t know how long you had left. A minute went by, then another and another. City fans thought the game should be over – there were no rules around subs and goals, but even if there had been, it could only have been two minutes (two subs, no goals). A fourth minute passed by, and we entered the fifth. This might not seem long now, but it was unheard of in the nineties – it felt as though Gary Willard’s watch was broken.

A broken watch led to a broken heart. As it seemed we might play all night, Nigel Martyn came out to the halfway line to smash a last desperate ball forward. Dyer brought it down with his hand and laid it out wide to Salako. In a moment of quality, he landed a cross on the head of Dean Gordon, who finally broke the Imps’ resistance. Palace were level, and not long after, Willard blew his whistle, having carved his name into Imps history in just five long, painful minutes.

Nobody was quite sure which hurt more at the time, the handball or the injury time. History has lived to prove it as being the injury time.

Extra time was, of course, a formality for the Premiership team. Armstrong got his goal; Dyer added a third, and Palace progressed. 700 Imps had seen 90 brave minutes from a team of heroes (not something the likes of Hebberd or Platnauer get called in the context of City), and yet we went home empty-handed. In his programme notes for the following game, Ellis wasn’t happy. “I would like to start by saying that 94 minutes and 14 seconds was the official time given by Crystal Palace for their first goal on Tuesday night- and what a sad end that was to a marvellous performance.” Cautiously, he added, “having said that, it was not my intention to have a go at a group of people who can’t be criticised, by decree, and who never make mistakes (or admit to them)”. Ouch.

John Schofield was equally as gutted, adding, “Everybody who was at the game knows what happened on Tuesday. Naturally, all the players are disappointed because we had gone out with a game plan and it had worked perfectly for 94 minutes or so. To come so close to glory has left us feeling hard done by overall, but I hope we did the fans proud.” Well, John, we’re talking about it almost 30 years later, so you didn’t do badly at all.

Geoff Davey mentioned the deliberate handball as well as the timing of the goal, and all around the club, there was a huge sense of injustice. That hung around for a while; we drew the next game against Carlisle (1-1, Bannister) before losing against Bury (2-0) and Doncaster in the FLT (1-0).

In the grand scheme of things, the result changed very little. We had a run in the FA Cup, beating Hull City and Huddersfield, and inevitably we were drawn away at Palace in the Third Round – they left us in no doubt as to the better side that afternoon, winning 5-1 with a Salako double and Dean Gordon hitting a penalty Gordon only scored four goals all season, two were against us. In the Auto Windscreens Sheild, we beat Hull and set up a tie with Huddersfield before losing on a golden goal. We finished 12th and seemed in decent shape, which would be proven not to be the case within weeks of the new season starting.

Palace did better in the cups; after beating us, they made the semi-finals of both, going out 2-0 on aggregate to Liverpool in the Coca-Cola Cup and taking Man Utd to a replay in the FA Cup, drawing 2-2 before losing the replay 2-0. It mattered not in terms of the league; they finished 19th and were relegated. If only they’d had Gary Willard referee a few more of their game,s things might have been different.

Thanks to Malcolm Johnson for his time in finding the cuttings