BY ALESSANDRO SCHIAVONE
John Salako is adamant Crystal Palace would have beaten Manchester United to clinch their first-ever FA Cup in 1990 had the final been decided by penalties straightaway following the hard-fought 3-3 draw at Wembley.
Eventual runners-up Crystal Palace were in the driving seat to win the cup before they relinquished a 3-2 lead in extra-time following Mark Hughes’ late equaliser. Manager Steve Coppell’s men then went on to lose the replay 1-0 five days later.
Salako’s conviction that nothing would have stood between Palace and the coveted trophy is based on the assumption that ‘world-class’ goalkeeper Nigel Martyn would have saved a couple of spot-kicks in a potential penalty shootout on that Saturday 12 May, 1990.
He said: “I just wished we could have ended on the Saturday and I think we would have gone to win it on penalties. Coming back on that Thursday it was surreal and we just couldn’t lift ourselves on the same level of performance.
“We had a massive advantage with Nigel Martyn in goal. Jim Leighton was a very, very good goalkeeper – but he wasn’t anywhere near Nigel’s level.
“Nigel was just incredible, he was world-class and would have won on penalties. We were so fired up I am sure we would have been clinical because it was our destiny to win. Manchester United would have got nervous because the magnitude of that game for them was huge and the pressure was on them. It was the beginning of Sir Alex Ferguson’s era and if they had lost that game, he probably would have been sacked.”
Thirty years on, Salako is still haunted by the manner of that defeat, to the point that he turns over the channel whenever the game appears on television.
“I have never watched the game or the highlights of that final. It’s just so disappointing to know that we are gonna lose.
“I watched back Saturday’s game but the Thursday replay one…I have never watched it and I probably never will.
“At the time I was devastated because we wanted to win and we had a chance to win. We were the better side on that Saturday. Ian Wright was devastating when he came and scored two goals and that should have won the game for us.
“In the end, walking past that cup was so heartbreaking. If we had won the game we would have been in Europe.
“When you are 21 you think it’s gonna happen to you every year and I was confident that we can have a lot more success but as it turned out we played in another semi-final in 1994 and again lost to Man United at Villa Park.”
Football matches are often decided by fine margins and the 51-year old former winger thinks that Ferguson’s decision to drop Leighton in favour of Les Sealey had a psychological impact on his side.
“Sealey played well, didn’t he? It was a masterstroke by Sir Alex to take Jim out and bring in Les Sealey. who did well and it had an impact on us. But it wasn’t Jim’s fault, looking back at that cross that I put in for Ian Wright for the second goal, it was unfortunate for him.”
A year later, in 1991, Palace finished third in the league behind Arsenal and Liverpool. It was a feat they had never achieved previously and haven’t repeated since, as Salako looks back in agony.
“It was a shame because I remember Liverpool got banned in Europe after Heysel and we should have gone into Europe that year but they let Liverpool back in, so again there’s a lot of stupid things that happened, a bit like two or three years later, when they made the league smaller, we went down on 47 or 48 points. It was crazy”.
That summer Ian Wright joined Arsenal and Salako, who formed a telepathic understanding on and off the pitch with the striker, believes that Palace never really recovered from that blow.
“Ian leaving devastated us and a year after he left we went down. He was our talisman and brought everything together. When you got someone in your side who has that ability and such a big character that you can rely on…that leaves such a big hole. His departure was pivotal.
Salako had a front-row seat at Wright’s rise from an anonymous former Sunday League footballer to Premier League winner and England international. He told an anecdote about his former team-mate and friend, with whom he occasionally shares a golf course these days.
“For me Ian was incredible. I was always desperate to learn and move forward and Ian just really took that to another level. He came into training and after seeing something on the telly that Romario had done he would be out there practicing like a kid to master it. We always stayed behind after training and practiced free-kicks and our finishing right foot, left foot.
“We just couldn’t get enough of it. We dragged each other a lot but Ian’s passion, raw pace, work rate and enthusiasm was just so infectious. He was just so desperate to make it and a joy to work with.
“He and Mark Bright were fantastic. My job was to get the ball in and I knew they would get on the end of it. Under Steve everything was simple, organised and regimented.
“Before long Ian started scoring goals and of course the strikers get the headlines and the plaudits. When he went to Arsenal he then went to another level.”
Salako revealed that he could have followed Wright to Highbury Stadium in the summer of 1991 but Palace refused to sanction the move. A couple of months later a serious knee injury scuppered his hopes of a move to Italy.
“Man United, Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal wanted to take me.
“I have always loved Arsenal Football Club. They had a really special ground, I loved just everything about that club and I would have loved to play there – but Palace did not let me go.
“Then in October of the same year, I was going to go to Bari. I had spoken to agent Johnny Mack, who sorted the deal out for me to move to Serie A.
“I was going to talk to Bari the day after that Leeds game, but then my knee exploded in the game. I had already started learning Italian, I wanted to experience a cultural change and play in Italy.
“I was in the England side and going to Bari would have been monumental because David Platt was there and Bari were doing well in Serie A. I saw Bari as a stepping stone and if I went there and did well, I would have the chance to come back to England with Arsenal or Man United. In 1995 I then went to Coventry with Ron Atkinson after my transfer to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle fell through.”
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