There have been numerous times when I have questioned the sanity of following my football club. Like the vast majority of supporters, the mixture of good and bad has leaned towards the latter. But one thing that has been an almost continuous source of joy with very few disappointments along the way has been our kit. There are not many clubs that can boast such a strong, consistent lineage across the last six decades and that is something that keeps me going when things are taking a turn for the worse. While our trophy cabinet might be a little bare, the history of our kits is bursting at the seams.
Starting with my first game at Selhurst in October 1969, just one look at those glorious claret shirts with the subtle pin stripe and the rather ornate yellow writing spelling out Crystal Palace was enough to hook me. I can scarcely remember any details about the match itself and had to remind myself of the score (1-1 with Leeds) but those shirts made a huge impression on me. Even though as a nine-year old I was not particularly fashion-conscious (and some would argue that this has not changed throughout my lifetime), there was something so alluring about that kit that there was no turning back. I can still remember the visceral thrill of being given a Subbuteo set in those colours soon afterwards.
To this day that kit remains a personal favourite despite the dizzying array of almost two hundred variations since. There was nothing fancy or complicated about it and as Oscar Wilde once said: “Simplicity is beauty and beauty is simplicity, nothing more, nothing less.” The advent of synthetic shirts in the 1980s gave designers the freedom to run amok with splashes of colour and pattern and that often led to over-complicated and garish combinations. One only has to mention Norwich City’s 1992/93 bird shit ensemble.
Then there are the kits that can provide a distraction from what happens on the pitch. Take 12 September 1989, no please do take it, as far away as possible. At Anfield Palace were on the very sharp end of a proper trouncing. Any redeemable features from losing 9-0 are few and far between but the reintroduction of the red and blue sash, with a rather fetching matching trim adorning the shirts and shorts was something to cling on to as Aldridge, Beardsley et al. filled their boots. Bringing back a classic kit is one way of allowing the supporters to lose themselves in reverie while the current team get royally pumped.
That sash kit brings back memories of a famous FA Cup run that propelled a Third Division side into the limelight, led by the ebullient fedora-wearing, cigar-smoking Malcolm Allison. If knocking out higher division clubs in Leeds, Chelsea and Sunderland was not enough, these victories were all secured away from home. This notable hat-trick of scalps was an extraordinary achievement and one that was very much exacerbated by the kit. The red and blue sash was characteristic of the dashing, daring team that beat the odds and went all the way to the semi-finals. Peter Taylor’s memorable brace at Stamford Bridge will always be associated with that kit.
Allison had arrived in 1973 and brought about a revolution in the club’s image, including changing the nickname from the rather dowdy Glaziers to the altogether sharper image of The Eagles. The kit also went though a transformation as a bolder combination of red and blue stripes, with a distant nod to Barcelona’s kit, replacing the traditional claret and light blue before the diagonal sash made its mark specifically for the 1975/76 FA Cup. The sash had precedence as it was worn by Allison’s previous club Manchester City and it has made several returns since its mid-1970s baptism and it is always most welcome.
Talking of FA Cup runs, the one in 1990 which took Palace all the way to the Final included that momentous, giddy semi-final at Villa Park where the sweetest of revenges was wrought by Steve Coppell’s men. The bright red and blue stripes were one of those rare kits that was actually enhanced by the sponsor Fly Virgin as this relatively new airline in a way symbolised these upstarts who were tweaking the tail of the mighty Liverpool.
After the Final with Manchester United ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw there followed one of the few blots on Palace’s kit landscape. As superstition often plays a part in such football decisions, the choice of yellow and black stripes for the replay was down to the captain Geoff Thomas who told Five Year Plan podcast in a 2020 interview about its derivation – “It was my idea to play in black and yellow. Steve Coppell was looking for a kit that we had played in and not lost, sadly we didn’t have one that fulfilled that requirement. So I told Steve that I played in a youth side that never lost in black and yellow and then a couple of days later this kit turned up. If we had won in it I’m sure it would have become a keepsake but after what happened I can’t see many people having it on their walls.”
The yellow and black combination just didn’t sit well amidst the mass of red and blue balloons that filled the air at Wembley that night. A dismal 1-0 loss was rendered even more so by this aberration of a strip. It was a one-off, thank goodness. Every time I see a glimpse of it a cold shiver runs down my back. The horror, the horror, the horror. It is very much the exception that proves the rule and as a Palace fan I can still luxuriate in the rich history of splendid kits going all the way back to that glorious introduction in 1969.