This week was a particularly poignant time to catch up with Al Ryan, writer and director of the “Team of the Eighties” documentary that charts the many ups and downs of Crystal Palace Football Club from the early-1970s. The club went through a seismic transformation under the influence of flamboyant Malcolm Allison when he arrived in 1973. Palace’s stunning victory at the Etihad on Saturday added further piquancy as it came against the club that Allison left to join Palace. You can rest assured that Big Mal would be wearing his fedora in heaven over that result.
That stunning victory against the Premier League champions had been preceded a couple of days earlier by the official launch of the South London club’s impressive £20million Academy. Allison’s emphasis on youth resonates with The Eagles’ ambition to become a major attraction for the rich, fertile breeding ground that is South London. As current chairman Steve Parish said: “The new Academy will have a transformative effect on the future of the football club and the local community, not only enabling us to attract and retain the best players in one of England’s richest footballing areas but also to help scores of young people and local schools enjoy the facilities.”
These are heady times for Palace as they embark on their ninth consecutive season in the top flight, something that could only have been dreamed about in their chequered history. Their uncanny capacity to self-implode when things started to look up was never as true as when Allison and later Terry Venables transformed the image and fortunes of the club, leading to the prediction in 1979 that they would dominate English football in the new decade. What could possibly go wrong? Ryan takes up the story of how it all unravelled in classic Palace style.
“Originally the idea came to me as part of the centenary history DVD that I produced in 2005,” Ryan says. “The whole premise was that the centenary film would be about the team but told from the perspective of the supporters because I had watched lots of other documentaries about the historical successes of football teams and it was quite clear that Crystal Palace had won the square root of naff all.” Although some would point to the glorious Zenith Data Systems triumph of 1991, or the odd second tier title the trophy cabinet at Selhurst Park is not bursting at the seams. “Without any trophies or major honours to focus on,” Ryan continues. “The interesting story was about the people and the players and just how Palace put themselves on the map having been a small, almost incidental club for the first 70 years or so of its existence.”
Ryan’s infatuation with Palace began when his father brought home the programmes, which the young Al devoured ravenously. Having had his curiosity sparked, by the time he was six-years-old his dad started to take him to the matches, which was in the late 1970s/early eighties. Because of that romantic allure Ryan felt he could not do justice to that period within the confines of the centenary film. Lots of people who watched the DVD expressed how they were particularly fascinated by that era and were keen to learn more about Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables and their relationship between themselves and with the team.
“I mused on this for a few years,” Ryan says. “It was always ticking along in the back of my mind but I was busy on other projects. Then in 2010 my dad became ill and it became apparent that those wonderful stories I so enjoyed listening to were becoming a little more difficult for him to recall so I needed to capture them in full while he was well enough to be able to remember the period. I realised it’s a lovely story but it all ends in disaster. It’s the story of Crystal Palace Football Club, it’s not about Liverpool or Man United. How could I make this an interesting story for your average football fan, as opposed to your average Palace fan and that’s why I kept coming back to Malcolm Allison and his celebrity.”
Ryan points out that at the beginning of the 1970s Allison and Brian Clough* were arguably the most famous men in England let alone sports people. “Allison’s appearances on the ITV World Cup panel of 1970 was a pivotal moment in broadcast history as well as football history with colour television and Brazil and the late night matches, Pele and all of that. This all resonated and that was the start of my film.” *The irascible Clough joined the panel for the 1974 World Cup alongside Jack Charlton, which made for an even more combustible and dynamic group.
Once Ryan had decided that Malcolm Allison was the central character of the film he started to research what Allison did when he arrived at Palace, who he brought with him but more importantly how he gave debuts to a lot of the younger players. “As soon as I worked out he gave Jim Cannon his debut as a teenager [In March 1973 Cannon scored in a 2-0 win over Chelsea, which Steve Parish claims was the first Palace match that he attended] I started to think there’s so much there to begin to tell a story of generations that it’s too good a story to put down.”
Ryan spent the next three months digging into the story, conducting rigorous research into every aspect of it and he could then transfer his passion when suggesting that the story needed to be told. “By the time I was ready to take it to people not only did I know the story back-to-front and also I believed in it because that was always the key of selling an idea about a football club that had never won anything to someone who used to supporting a club who had won everything. And generally speaking, commissioners and people working in television support Chelsea.”
The second part of this exclusive interview, which covers the production of the documentary will be published next week.