In November 1997 an aspiring journalist arrived at Selhurst Park on a work internship. No sooner had Dominic Fifield started than things changed. “Originally I was only meant to be there for a month as the editor went on a four-week trip to Australia, but I was kept on as his assistant after he returned.”And so it was that the intern was thrust into deep end by being put in charge of the programme alongside the Publications manager, the late Pete King.
Unfortunately for Fifield, it was not the happiest of times for Palace, especially at home as Steve Coppell’s side struggled, following promotion via the Play-Offs in May. “It was pretty grim,” Fifield says. “Our performances at Selhurst were in stark contrast to our away form.” Indeed Palace had collected 16 points from their first eight away games including victories at Everton, Leeds and Wimbledon, who ironically were ground-sharing at the time in what proved to be the only league win at Selhurst until April. Attilio Lombardo, who had been lured to South London that summer, scored in all three of those fixtures but unfortunately the former Juventus star was injured in and that led to a disastrous dip in the club’s fortunes.
After 14 games Palace were tenth and comfortably mid-table. “We had just beaten Tottenham away and were on a high,” Fifield recalls. “So the home game against Newcastle was a bit of a wake-up call. They absolutely schooled us with 34-year-old John Barnes controlling the game from central midfield. To add to our woes, the Newcastle defender Alessandro Pistone wiped out Bruce Dyer who was forced off early on.”
“The one and only highlight of the game was when Itzak Zohar replaced Andy Roberts early in the second half. He made the running, kept the ball really well and looked a player. Suffice to say, that was as good as it got for the Israeli and a month later, there was that penalty against Southampton, which was the catastrophic bookend to his Palace career.”
The game ended in a 2-1 win for the visitors and Palace embarked on a 14-game winless run and by the time of the return fixture at St. James’ Park things had moved on.
Firstly, Mark Goldberg who had reached an agreement with Ron Noades to take over in February and was in the process of raising the necessary funds (which he ultimately failed to do). Steve Coppell was moved ‘upstairs’ to a director of football role and then Goldberg took a massive gamble on appointing Lombardo as manager despite him lacking both any managerial experience or any grasp of the English language. In fact the Italian’s English was so weak that Tomas Brolin became his interpreter after the initial role was fulfilled by Dario Magri, whose sole qualification was that he ran a local Italian restaurant.
“Lombardo’s reign as manager did not start well,” Fifield says. “His first game in charge was at Villa where we were awful and were 3-0 down before half time. He then responded by fielding a ridiculously attacking line-up for the Newcastle game with himself, Matt Jansen, Marcus Bent and Brolin all playing, leaving poor old Simon Rodger and Jamie Fullarton as the only defensively minded midfielders and open to being completely overrun.”
“Somehow we took a two-goal lead including another away goal for Lombardo before Shearer hit one of the hardest free-kicks I have ever seen, but somehow we hung on. After four months of abject misery there was a glimmer of hope that we might have a chance.” But any chink of light was extinguished when losing four of the next five games and relegation was confirmed by yet another home defeat, this time to Manchester United.
“The whole season was a shambles,” Fifield says. “As illustrated by the fact that 35 different players were used over the course of the season. There was a never-ending round of speculation about who we were going to buy and we even reached the point where we had the ‘Is Gazza en route to the Eagles?’ headline. The club had become a circus and it reached a point where the Premier League were grateful that we were soon going to be off their radar.”
Palace duly obliged by staying off that Premier League radar for fifteen years, bar one brief sortie in 2004/05. The madness of the brief, and not so glorious, Goldberg era ended in financial implosion, entering administration in January 1999. Wages had to be cut and Lombardo returned to Italy, joining Lazio, none the wiser after his 18 months in South London. In May 1999, Lazio won the Cup Winners Cup at Villa Park where Lombardo had started his ill-fated managerial career just over a year before. Within a year Lazio had won the double of Serie A title and Coppa Italia plus a European Super Cup and the Selhurst Park Portakabins became a distant memory for the Bald Eagle.