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Crystal Palace are on the up under Tony Pulis, and they head to Arsenal on Super Sunday with renewed belief. Back in October 1994, they won away to the Gunners as John Salako bagged both goals in a shock 2-1 success...
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 31/01/14 11:06am
The magical properties of the 40-point mark are often mentioned in the thick of the Premier League relegation scrap, and it's been over 10 years since a team reached that total and still went down.
Trevor Brooking's West Ham tumbled out of the top-flight with 42 points in May 2003, while Sunderland and Bolton both dropped to the second tier in the mid 90s despite amassing 40.
However, in the first three years of the Premiership, 22 clubs formed the elite of English football - and 40 points was nowhere near enough to guarantee safety. In 1992-93, all three clubs that went down matched or bettered that figure - and Crystal Palace were certainly the unluckiest, relegated on goal difference from Oldham even though they had accrued a whopping 49 points (enough for a top-eight finish last season).
A 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on the final day (with former Selhurst Park favourite Ian Wright scoring for the Gunners), coupled with Latics beating Southampton 4-3, confirmed the Eagles' descent, and Steve Coppell stepped aside for Alan Smith to take the reins. It proved to be a wise decision, as Palace swept all before them in Endsleigh League Division One and took the title by seven points from Nottingham Forest. Palace were back - but the opening day of the 1994-95 campaign was a stark reminder of the gap in quality.
"We'd actually beaten Arsenal at Highbury in Tony Adams' testimonial the week before the season started," recalls John Salako, talking to SkySports.com this week. "We were flying. Ray Wilkins (then aged 37) had come in as player-coach, we'd had a great pre-season, and then we went into a home game against Liverpool and they took us apart!"
The Reds won 6-1, with youngsters Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler doing the damage alongside the more experienced Jan Molby and Ian Rush. "It was an absolute shock! And we were quickly back to reality," adds Salako. It was the end of Wilkins in blue-and-red stripes too - a broken foot ensuring this would be his only first-team appearance for the club.
Palace knuckled down, and ground out four draws in their next six games, as well as suffering narrow home defeats to Leeds United and Chelsea. But by the time they returned to Highbury to face Arsenal competitively at the start of October, Smith's side were still winless.
"We used to laugh on the coach going to places like Highbury, Old Trafford and Anfield," admits Salako." We'd say stuff like 'we'll take 3-0' and think that as long as we didn't get humiliated, we'd be happy with that. But deep down, we were young lads wanting to make careers and reputations. And for me, I loved going to Arsenal - I'd been a Gunners fan since I was a boy, and it was my favourite ground.
"The first game I ever saw was Arsenal against Sunderland at Highbury, a game in which Alan Sunderland scored funnily enough. I've always had a special affiliation with the club, and Highbury in particular - the marble halls, the dressing rooms, the Clock End and particularly the pitch. It was the best surface I ever played on."
The stadium was significant to Salako, but so was the date - it was three years to the day since he had suffered a severe cruciate ligament injury, which put his burgeoning career on hiatus. The left winger had won five England caps in the preceding months, but would never get the chance to play international football again.
This would prove to be Salako's day, however. Palace weathered an early storm from the hosts and began to threaten on the counter-attack, with Chris Armstrong testing the sluggish Arsenal defence with his pace down the left channel. Shortly after one break, a 19th-minute mix-up between Paul Davis and Lee Dixon allowed Armstrong to race clear once more and this time he managed to toe-poke the ball past David Seaman. The ball came back off the post - but Salako was there to profit and put the visitors ahead.
Palace's policy of raids down the flanks bore fruit again 22 minutes later. Arsenal looked to be feeling the effects of having played a European Cup Winners' Cup tie against Omonia Nicosia less than 48 hours earlier, as Andy Linighan struggled to contain the dynamic duo of Armstrong and Salako, who tapped in number two.
"At the time, Chris was just in the zone," recalls Salako. "He was at the height of his powers; a phenomenal player.
"I remember Alan (Smith) saying to me, 'you're playing up front with Chrissy today' and I thought 'brilliant'. I'd played there when I was coming up through the Academy, and used to score lots of goals. After Wright and (Mark) Bright left, I got more opportunities as a striker. It was a dream game. To get a hat-trick would have been even better of course, but two goals at Highbury is certainly one of the major highlights of my career."
Also in the Palace vanguard at Highbury was George Ndah, then just 19. "George had wonderful balance and poise, and a great left foot. He had tricks and he could go past players. The three of us just clicked and we had a great day there. You have to ride your luck whenever you go to the big grounds, but this was a great memory."
The Eagles were certainly indebted to their goalkeeper Nigel Martyn after the break. Gunners boss George Graham threw on Kevin Campbell in place of Davis for the second half and an Arsenal onslaught commenced - but England shot-stopper Martyn was equal to just about everything. He did concede on 72 minutes - Wright plundering his 100th Arsenal goal - but his athletic display ensured the three points went to Palace.
"Nigel was the best goalkeeper I every played with," says Salako. "You had to play with him to appreciate just how good he was. In training, you had to do something special to beat him. He was very quiet for a keeper, but so commanding in his box. You would hardly hear him talk or say too much - he just went quietly about his business. Maybe he could have been more vocal but for me, Nigel was one of the very best of his generation."
After that shock success, Palace suffered defeats to West Ham and Newcastle but then reeled off four league wins which took them up to 10th spot (Salako scoring in the victories over Coventry and Manchester City). However, a dearth of goals - they managed only 34 in the league all season - would ultimately prove to be their undoing. A Selhurst stalemate with Southampton at the end of November highlighted their lack of cutting edge up front, and they failed to find the net in nine consecutive games between then and the turn of the year - even if their defensive capabilities were underlined by battling 0-0 draws at Liverpool and Tottenham.
Progress to the semi-finals of both cup competitions kept the mood buoyant as Palace slid down the table, and safety was still in sight when new signing Iain Dowie grabbed the only goal away to QPR on Easter Monday. Yet in the final six games of the league season, the Eagles lost five of them and with the bottom four relegated due to the new streamlining of the top-flight to 20 clubs, 45 points was not enough to secure survival.
Smith was sacked (with Coppell returning to the hotseat) and the squad soon broke up, with Salako sold to Coventry for £1.5million as Richard Shaw, Gareth Southgate and Armstrong also moved on.
Salako says: "We were a tight bunch, and we were absolutely devastated to go down, particularly having reached the semi-finals of both cup competitions that season as well.
"We could not believe they decided to axe an extra club. We had a wonderful side - young and vibrant - but after the previous relegation too, we felt like the unluckiest team ever."
As for the current Palace side, they appear to be making their own luck as discipline and organisation have characterised the first two months under Tony Pulis. Salako was sad to see Ian Holloway leave after the play-off success of last season, but can't deny the Eagles are soaring towards potential safety under their new manager.
"I didn't think we would be able to get in someone of Tony Pulis' stature, experience and knowledge," admits Salako.
"It's timing sometimes. He was available and when they first enquired and he looked at the job, he wasn't really sure. In all honesty, I think Tony would have preferred to get a bigger club and a better job. Palace probably wouldn't have been one he was looking at. He'd have been thinking, 'are they going to spend money? Will I end up back in the Championship?'
"But he's come in and it's been going better than anyone could have expected. With the clean sheets and the points he's put on the board, Palace have got an unbelievable chance now of staying in the Premier League.
"We've touched on when we went down in 1993 and 1995 with well over 40 points, which felt like a travesty at the time, but staying in the league has just got harder and harder. It's all about investment, and getting the right manager and players."
And Salako believes there is enough about the Eagles to suggest they can secure Premier League survival at the fifth time of asking - in the squad, but particularly in the dug-out.
"Look at Marouane Chamakh - he's a striker that can be absolute quality," explains Salako. "Jason Puncheon's always had the ability and players are beginning to shine in that squad. It's a shame we couldn't get Wilfried Zaha back, but Palace still have a real chance and it will be wonderful if we can do it. Other squads may look better on paper - but we've got Tony Pulis."
Watch Arsenal v Crystal Palace live on Sky Sports 1HD on Sunday, with coverage underway from 3.30pm.