It was somewhat fitting that Ms Dynamite performed in Brighton the evening after the cities football club had been on the end of an explosive and damaging defeat.
Palace’s 5-0 win that day was described by the BBC as humiliating, the Guardian as a hammering and the Argus as a nightmare. All Albion fans that remember it will know that it was all these things and more.
For Albion it was a season that had started with optimism after two consecutive championship winning promotions that had seen the club rise from near oblivion to the second tier in the space of just five years. But one that quickly descended into misery. A run of 10 straight defeats had seen manager Martin Hinshelwood quickly demoted back to the youth team coaching role he’d previously held and former Palace manage Steve Coppell appointed in his place to do a job of firefighting.
In Coppell first game in charge, despite plenty of promise, the same fallibilities and bad luck were again shown as Albion lost a dramatic game 4-2 at home to Sheffield United, which made it 11 straight defeats. So the last thing Albion needed at the time was an away game with its arch rivals and Coppell’s former club Crystal Palace, but that’s exactly what they got.
This was the first league match between the sides for 13 years and their first meeting since a 1991 Zenith Data Systems cup match, when Steve Coppell was managing Palace, and so was highly anticipated.
For some that anticipation boiled over into violence. The Guardian’s report from that day said: “By lunchtime, there was heavy fighting around Thornton Heath train station and elsewhere. The kick-off was delayed for 15 minutes, helicopters buzzed overhead and riot police marched alongside mounted colleagues. There will be a few children who made their first and last trips to football yesterday.”
In contrast to their hosts, this was an Albion team well out of its depth in Division One. Bobby Zamora’s goals had propelled the team from a mid-table Third Division side into the First Division in the space of just two seasons, but his injury in the first of the eleven straight defeats that had preceded this match had exposed Albion’s over reliance on their star striker.
Despite Zamora having since returned from injury, this would be a day where the oppositions main marksman would star as Andy Johnson scored twice from corners either side of Zamora spurning a half chance to equalise for Brighton.
But a two-nil deficit at half time for Albion would get much worse in the second half as they continued to gift their opposition sloppy goals, something that had defined their season so far. And just like in Coppell’s first game in charge, it was also the second match in succession in which they gave away two second-half penalties.
Albion captain Danny Cullip brought down Johnson for the first, before Brooker was sent off for bringing him down as the last man for the second. Both penalties were dispatched, the first by Freedman and the second by Johnson for his hat-trick, before Julian Gray capitalised on the home sides numerical advantage to score Palace’s fifth goal and a third in six minutes, cementing the home sides victory.
This result ensured that Albion’s run of now 12 straight defeats equalled the run of defeats they had suffered under Pat Saward in the 1972-73 season. Coincidentally, that season the club also went on to be relegated after winning promotion to the second tier the previous season. After this defeat it was clear to even the most optimistic of supporters that Albion would go onto replicate that feat this season.
Steve Coppell did manage to go on to improve things remarkably, particularly defensively. Additions like defender Dean Blackwell, who made his Albion debut that day and went onto play 20 of the remaining 32 league games, certainly helped. Along with Coppell’s intricate attention to detail, which saw long-term players like Kerry Mayo play some of the best football of their career during his tenure.
Moreover, the result was a necessary wake up call for the team that season. After picking up 4 point from their first 14 games, Coppell led a revival that saw them win 41 from the remaining 32 games to keep the fight for survival going until the final day of the season against the odds, but the damage had already been done. Crystal Palace ultimately finished 14 points and 9 places higher in the table and were promoted back to the topflight the following season via the playoffs.
At the time of writing 19 years on, the sides are separated in the topflight by just three points and one position, sitting in the same league positions and separated by just one more point than they were at the end of the previous season. By contrast back in 2002 the 5-0 result was exemplary of the huge gulf between the sides.
In the thirteen years that the sides had not played each other in a league match, Palace had been to an FA cup final and three other cup semi-finals whilst yoyo-ing between toe First Division and the topflight. Meanwhile Albion had plummeted down the Football League and almost out of it entirely. All while fighting off a succession of winding up orders, directors intent on pulling the club to pieces for their own gain and the threat to the entire existence of the club.
Despite the much needed stability brought in by Dick Knight’s subsequent chairmanship and the club’s move back to the Withdean Stadium in Brighton, it was still far from ideal circumstances. The instability of the club’s ongoing search for a permanent stadium and the financial restrictions which that brought with it, limited the club’s ambitions on the pitch. Something that would last for a number of years to come.