Born Glasgow; October 2, 1953
Jim Cannon – Crystal Palace footballer.
For Crystal Palace Football Club the fifteen or so years from 1973 onwards provided the club with perhaps the most turbulent spell in its’ entire history. At the start of that period The Eagles were in the first division only to then suffer successive relegations and fall into Division Three. From there the club was able to recover and when they reclaimed a place in the top flight they did so being labelled in some quarters the Team of the 1980’s. This prophecy proved completely mistaken as Palace suffered an emphatic relegation to Division Two where four seasons of struggle were followed by three knocking on the door of the first division again.
During that time the club came under the control of such diverse characters as Malcolm Allison, Terry Venables, Alan Mullery and Steve Coppell and could call on extravagant talents such as Don Rogers, Peter Taylor, Kenny Sansom, Vince Hilaire, Clive Allen and Ian Wright.
These were, variously, wildly exciting, frustrating, depressing, optimistic and forlorn times with seldom a dull moment. Throughout this time, however, there was one constant at Selhurst Park, one reassuring pillar of consistency and reliability. The constant was Jim Cannon.
Cannon was not a rare specimen in football at that time. Most teams had a defensive leader who laid down the required benchmarks of commitment and passion for his colleagues to follow and who would quickly let them know about it if they fell short in these areas. Men who would turn up year after year in the same colours driving their team on and providing the major obstacle for opponents looking to get one over on them.
A quick look around the capital will give you an idea of the type; Arsenal had Peter Simpson, Tottenham had Steve Perryman. Chelsea could call upon the talismanic Ron “Chopper” Haris while West Ham’s warrior in chief was Billy Bonds. Across at Millwall the role was in the process of being handed over from Harry Cripps to Barry Kitchener.
In 1973 there was a vacancy for the role at Crystal Palace but a young man had just arrived at the club who would go on to fill it with distinction for over a decade.
Jim Cannon was spotted by Palace’s Scottish scout in the late 1960’s while playing for Glasgow Amateurs and invited down for a trial. The club immediately liked what they saw and the young defender was signed as an apprentice early in 1970. Cannon impressed for the Palace youth team and signed professional terms in May 1971.
Palace had just won promotion to the first division when Cannon joined the club but they immediately found life in the top flight a struggle. Bert Head, the then manager, was given plenty of backing in the transfer market and Palace became one of the biggest spending clubs in the country. In the main, however, the club could only attract ageing stars or players who were simply mediocre and for three seasons they struggled to stay clear of the relegation zone.
As the 1972-73 season reached the home straight Palace’s plight was more serious than ever and it was at this time that Cannon started knocking on the first team door. He was included in an Anglo-Italian Cup tie against Verona which Palace won 4-1 but Head was reluctant to throw the youngster into the heat of a full blown relegation battle.
With time running out for Palace to save themselves, however, the club decided to part company with their manager and replaced him with Malcolm Allison. It was typical of Allison that he should immediately shake things up and when the team to play Chelsea the day after his arrival was announced the name of Jim Cannon was included in it.
This promised to be a baptism of fire. Not only was it a game Palace desperately needed to win it was a London derby in front of one of the biggest crowds of the season and the London Weekend television cameras. Confronting Cannon and his centre half partner Mel Blyth would be the raw target man Bill Garner and the mercurial international forward Peter Osgood.
As debuts go this one was undoubtedly in the “dream” category. The aerial threat of Garner was completely nullified while Osgood’s more subtle menace was diligently monitored and subdued. Then, after Palace had taken a first half lead, Cannon headed home the clinching second goal after half time from a Don Rogers centre to guarantee the points.
This was a dream start but reality soon took over for both Cannon and Palace. The youngster kept his place for the next two games, away at Sheffield United and Manchester United, but after these had both been lost he sat out the remainder of the season as Palace slipped to relegation.
The following season was a disaster for the club as the previous failings in the transfer market really came home to roost. Palace, confident of promotion at the start of the season, ended the campaign relegated again after an appalling start in which only four points were gained in the opening fifteen games.
Cannon featured regularly during this torrid opening but was then, no doubt wisely, put back into the reserves to continue learning his trade. After relegation to Division Three, however, Cannon had no difficulty stepping back into the side and was now more than capable of making a place in the Palace first team his own.
Falling from the first division to the third division in successive seasons had seemed catastrophic for Palace at the time but, as it turned out, this was not the case. Although it took the club three seasons to climb back out of the third tier attendances remained good. Palace were now at the right end of a division and the fact that they were involved in promotion battles with teams like Charlton Athletic, Millwall and Brighton & Hove Albion ensured that local interest remained high.
This period also allowed the club to shift its’ focus away from the high profile signings that had contributed to their downfall and start rebuilding from within. Joining Cannon in the first team squad were other former members of the clubs’ excellent youth team such as goalkeeper Paul Hammond, the Hinshelwood brothers, Kenny Sansom, Nicky Chatterton and Dave Swindlehurst.
All these players would be established first teamers by the time Palace returned to the second division and, as the clubs’ youth policy continued to thrive, another batch of talent had emerged to challenge for places.
Another bonus was the fact that when Palace lost their one undoubted transfer success, as Don Rogers moved across London to Queens Park Rangers, they were able to more than adequately replace him with the capture of Peter Taylor from Southend United.
Therefore the club was able to transform itself from a tired collection of struggling misfits into a young, vibrant team with a clear sense of togetherness.
Jim Cannon was one of the chief beneficiaries of this revolution. Cannon immediately became a first team regular as Palace started life in Division Three. Now in his early twenties the rapidly developing defender was much better equipped physically for first team football and the third division helped to really toughen him up for the rigours of professional football.
Initially Cannon forced his way into the team at left back but his qualities were better suited to the centre half position and this is where he would eventually establish himself. The emergence of Sansom in the full back position ensured that Cannon would have to move somewhere and it was certainly to his and the clubs’ benefit when new manager Terry Venables switched him into the centre alongside Ian Evans to replace Derek Jeffries. Having taken possession of one of the centre half slots Cannon would keep it his own for the next twelve seasons.
Palace did well to challenge strongly for promotion as their new look team began to take shape during the 1974-75 season before ultimately falling away during the run in and the following season saw a similar story. On the second occasion the collapse was even more spectacular, Palace looked odds on to go up at the end of March, but this time there was a more obvious reason for the faltering finish.
The 1975-76 season saw Palace challenging not only for promotion but also a place in the FA Cup final. The cup run distracted some attention away from the league campaign and, more significantly, left the young side apparently shattered when it abruptly ended at the semi final stage.
Despite his high profile and highly successful debut against Chelsea some three years earlier it was this cup run that gave Cannon his first prolonged spell in the limelight as he and the club became the focus of national attention. At first the interest was purely parochial as Palace squeezed past non league Walton & Hersham before edging out fierce rivals Millwall after a replay.
No-one else was taking too much notice in the third round either as Palace went away to another non league side, Scarborough, and returned with a 2-1 win.
The fourth round would be different, however. Few people gave Palace a chance as they were drawn away from home against Leeds United. Less than a year earlier Leeds had contested the European Cup final and were now one of the favourites for the cup. Against a resolute and superbly organised Palace outfit, however, they fell victim to a real cup giant killing.
Leeds contained the talents of Allan Clarke, Duncan McKenzie and Eddie Gray in their line up but none of these were able to make real headway against a diligent and committed Palace defence. Cannon’s personal challenge was to contain the man with the hardest shot in British football, Peter Lorimer. The defenders’ unceasing attention ensured that Paul Hammond’s fingers weren’t stinging too much by full time and with the Leeds attack having hit a brick wall Dave Swindlehurst’s first half goal was enough to ensure a famous victory.
The fifth round brought another away game, this time across London at Chelsea, and another memorable day for Palace fans was capped by two Peter Taylor goals in a pulsating 3-2 victory.
Palace were drawn away again in the sixth round but by this time they had little reason to fear a trip to second division Sunderland, especially with extrovert manager Allison beginning to really revel in the attention his sides’ cup run was generating. Another victory followed after a sound defensive performance was backed up by a solitary Alan Whittle goal.
When Palace then avoided Manchester United and Derby County in the semi finals and drew second division Southampton the prospect of them becoming the first side from Division Three to reach the FA Cup final suddenly became very real indeed. After their exploits this far many people probably rated Palace as favourites to defeat the Saints but it was not to be.
Perhaps the attention became too much at this point. It is certain that Palace could manage only a tepid performance at Stamford Bridge and they eventually bowed out to two second half goals.
The hangover from this cup exit was a severe one and Palace then missed out on promotion as well after winning just one of their last seven games. To compound their misery the team coming up on the rails to benefit at their expense was Millwall.
The following season saw Palace finally return to the second division when it was their turn to take advantage of a rival faltering badly as the finishing line approached. With the finishing line approaching it looked odds on that Wrexham would be joining Mansfield Town and Brighton in the promotion places but when the Welsh side then took only two points from three games Palace remained in the hunt.
Palace had to visit Wrexham for their last game and needed a win to overtake their rivals. Two goals in the closing minutes gave Palace the win they needed but Wrexham would still go up at their expense if they could win their final game at home to Mansfield. The Stags scored the only goal to clinch the divisional championship and Palace had made it by the skin of their teeth, promoted on goal difference ahead of Rotherham with Wrexham a place further back shaking their heads and wondering what had happened.
This was also the season in which Cannon was switched permanently to centre half, as Venables took over from Allison, and he immediately looked at home in the position. He had an ideal partner in Ian Evans whose aerial prowess was well complemented by Cannon’s mobility and sharp tackling.
Cannon was by no means deficient in the air, at six foot he was capable of taking on the most adept target men around, but he operated at his best when somebody else was attacking the high balls while he mopped up behind and looked after the poachers who were hoping to sniff out chances. Cannon’s defensive qualities were all sound and he backed up his ability with a ferocious will to win.
He was a fearless defender who would put his body on the line without hesitation in order to deny the opposition a chance. Not only did an opposing forward need to have the ability to get the better of Cannon he also needed the bottle. Cannon was one of those defenders who would not think twice about launching himself into a challenge or a melee if he thought it might save a goal for his side. As Palace headed back towards the second division Cannon was emerging as an imposing figure to their opponents and an inspirational one to his teammates and fans.
One game during this promotion season suggested that Palace were more than ready for football of a higher standard and provided Cannon and Evans with the stage to produce one of the finest displays of defending perhaps ever given by a third tier pairing.
In the 3rd round of the FA Cup Palace were drawn away at Liverpool and, despite their heroics of the previous year, nobody really gave them much chance against the reigning league champions who were looking even stronger this time around.
In front of a packed Anfield Cannon and Evans were outstanding as Palace earned a goalless draw, keeping Kevin Keegan, at his peak, and David Johnson remarkably quiet.
Although Palace then lost the replay 3-2 it was obvious that this was a club heading in the right direction again and their development continued when they returned to the second division.
It is likely that the club would have finished higher than 9th had it not been for a terrible injury suffered early on in the campaign by Ian Evans. Palace had made a highly encouraging start to life back in the second division but when they entertained Fulham at the start of October Evans had his leg broken in a tackle with George Best and he would never play for the club again.
This threw an unexpected spanner into a Palace defence that had been functioning superbly ever since Sansom had come in at left back and Cannon moved inside to partner Evans.
A new partner for Cannon was now required but the solution was not immediately obvious. Billy Gilbert, a youth team graduate, was given the first chance to stake his claim but was instantly left out after suffering a torrid debut at Blackpool against the quality strikeforce of Mickey Walsh and Bob Hatton.
The veterans Peter Wall and Mel Blyth, returning on loan, were then selected in turn but neither offered a viable long term solution to the problem and Terry Fenwick, who then appeared for a couple of games, was regarded more as a midfield prospect at this point and he also quickly disappeared back into the reserves.
It was at this point that Gilbert was given another opportunity alongside Cannon and this time he did enough to stay in the team. From an unlikely beginning this partnership would go on to flourish and serve Palace with distinction for the next six seasons.
Gilbert, smaller than Cannon, was not an obvious partner but the pair gelled together well. Cannon became more robust than ever as he took over the mantle of Palace’s defensive figurehead. Not only did the injury to Evans leave a vacancy at centre half it left Palace without a captain. A couple of months later Cannon was handed the armband and he revelled in the extra responsibility.
Cannon had only just turned 24 and had only established himself in the centre half position just over a year earlier. Now he was the team captain and the pivotal figure at the heart of the defence. He was more than ready to handle both challenges. With Gilbert growing in assurance by the game and the established full back pairing of Paul Hinshelwood and Kenny Sansom continuing to blossom Palace had a defensive unit they could truly rely on.
Behind them they had a sound, and occasionally inspired, goalkeeper in Paul Hammond but a new signing in this position towards the end of the 77-78 season helped transform this rearguard into one of the meanest the second division has ever known.
Venables went to Aston Villa to capture the slightly eccentric John Burridge who had lost his place at Villa Park to Jimmy Rimmer. Burridge was a voluble character who demanded a lot of himself and those in front of him. He would often appear eccentric but in reality he knew exactly what he was doing between the posts and also made sure his defenders knew exactly what he expected of them.
Even though the Palace back four already looked a more than capable unit they remained an inexperienced combination and the introduction of Burridge helped push them on to another level of consistency and excellence which would result in a truly magnificent defensive record the following season as Palace marched towards the second division championship which was eventually, narrowly, clinched on the final day of the season with a 2-0 home win over Burnley watched by over 51,000 fans.
In the 42 league games they played that season Palace conceded only 24 goals. They kept clean sheets in exactly half those games and only three teams, Preston, Burnley and Cardiff, managed to score two goals against them in a game. Not a bad foundation for a successful season.
Cannon and Gilbert missed only one game each while Burridge and Sansom were ever present. Hinshelwood would miss eleven games but Terry Fenwick proved himself a more than capable deputy.
Palace also showed themselves to be ready for the first division by beating top flight clubs in both the League and FA Cups and it took Aston Villa three games to knock them out of the League Cup while Wolves sneaked a 1-0 victory at Selhurst Park to end their involvement in the FA Cup.
With a young side already established and further competition being added from the latest batch of youngsters coming through the ranks many observers reckoned Palace were well equipped to establish themselves in the first division and then flourish during the 1980’s. The first part of this theory held true but the second, spectacularly, did not.
Palace made a sound start to life back in Division One and when they hammered Ipswich Town at the end of September they actually went top of the league.
This was one of those perfect days that will forever be etched on the memories of all Palace fans who were at Selhurst Park. On a glorious, sunny day Palace took on one of the finest footballing sides in the country and comprehensively outplayed them. Swindlehurst, Hinshelwood and Gerry Francis, from the penalty spot, scored the goals in an electrifying first half to give Palace a 3-1 lead and Cannon himself added the icing on the cake after the interval by storming forward to slam home an emphatic fourth.
Palace were unable to maintain their place at the summit but ended the season comfortably in mid table and the general confidence regarding their future prospects seemed well founded.
Cannon, himself, was now playing to such a standard that his performances were basically taken for granted. Not only was he an ultra reliable defender but he was always willing to step out of defence to launch attacks and his ability on, and with, the ball set him apart from the generality of central defenders.
There were inevitable calls, especially from around Selhurst Park, for Cannon to be recognised by Scotland and he was called up to the squad for a European Championship qualifier with Belgium at Hampden Park in December 1979.
Cannon did not make the team and would never be recalled into the squad, however. This was a harsh fate but hardly surprising. At a time when Liverpool’s Alan Hansen was struggling to get a game for his country it was not too surprising that the Scots chose to overlook a bloke playing for Crystal Palace.
To be fair to Scotland they weren’t exactly short of decent players at that time. As well as Hansen the first division contained the likes of Martin Buchan, Gordon McQueen and Kenny Burns while north of the border there were other candidates notably the Aberdeen pairing of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish.
Cannon’s international prospects were certainly ruined by the sudden, dramatic collapse of Palace who sank without trace the following season back into the second division from where they would never return during Cannon’s playing days.
It is difficult to understand how Palace slipped so far from grace so quickly but the 1980-81 season was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish and ended with the club relegated at the bottom of the table some sixteen points from safety, a huge margin in the days of two points for a win.
Burridge and Sansom had departed in the summer but with Fenwick ready to fill the left back position and the signings of Paul Barron and Clive Allen completed there seemed no reason why Palace should not be able to remain competitive.
Having started sluggishly, however, Palace were unable to find any form and a lack of goals, which a miserly defence had prevented being a real problem during the past few seasons, came home to roost when the back four now began to buckle under the strain.
Matters on the pitch were not helped by upheaval off it. Venables suddenly left to take over at QPR and after Ernie Walley had taken temporary charge the club made the catastrophic decision to bring Malcolm Allison back as manager.
Allison’s golden touch had now very definitely deserted him and the team was in danger of becoming a shambles when his short stay was brought to an end.
Dario Gradi took over for the rest of a season which everyone connected with the club was soon hoping would end as quickly as possible.
Although Cannon’s partnership with Gilbert remained intact for the majority of this season his form suffered along with everyone else’s. The hardy Scot was actually out of action for a couple of months as the season neared its’ end. It is possible he was suffering from shellshock after a year fighting fires behind a disintegrating team.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of Palace’s decline during this season was the fact that it coincided with Cannon’s testimonial year. Despite the increasing problems suffered by the club, however, the Palace faithful were quick to acknowledge the sterling service already given them by Cannon and his various fundraising events were all well supported.
The widespread optimism surrounding the club did not return with the drop back into the second division and, with quality players following each other out of Selhurst Park one by one, the club struggled to keep their heads’ above water back in the lower standard.
For four consecutive seasons Palace remained uncomfortably close to the relegation places, never finishing above 15th in Division Two. With the club now almost blindly searching for a winning formula the reliability of Cannon was paramount in maintaining second division status. Still mainly partnered by the reliable Billy Gilbert the centre halves provided almost all the resistance as the team chopped and changed around them with almost frightening regularity.
Further changes in manager didn’t help the situation, either. Steve Kember took over from Gradi for a year but looked somewhat out of his depths trying to stop the rot. Alan Mullery looked a decent appointment but the Palace faithful never took to him (his Brighton links hardly helped) and Steve Coppell found the going tough during his first season in charge after taking over from Mullery.
There were precious few highlights for the club during this time but Cannon continued to perform manfully under extreme pressure. Never one to hide from a fight the captain’s bravery and leadership qualities, as well as his ability, had never been so badly needed by the club as now.
In 1982-83 Palace would have been relegated had they lost their last game of the season at home to Burnley but managed to save themselves with a 1-0 win. The following year two late home victories over Charlton and Swansea went furthest towards securing survival again. Cannon, who had been out for a seven game spell injured earlier on in the campaign when only one point was gained, proved his worth to the club yet again by opening the scoring in both these crucial games.
Under Coppell, however, there was a sudden improvement and from the 1985-86 season the club found themselves challenging at the top end of the division again. As well as seeing a new batch of youngsters coming through the club now found more obvious partners for Cannon in the towering Mickey Droy and the big enough Gavin Nebbelling, Gilbert having now left to give further excellent service to Portsmouth.
Cannon was moving into his mid thirties but was as dependable as ever as Palace twice missed out on the newly introduced play offs by a whisker. In both the 86-87 and 87-88 seasons Palace finished 6th but at that time this was not enough to make the end of season play offs. Initially it was decided that three teams from the lower division would compete with one team from the league above to decide who played where the season after so Palace were left frustrated on both occasions.
It seemed obvious that the club were heading back in the right direction but it was becoming less certain that the stalwart Cannon would be going with them. Not only was the skipper getting on a bit, now almost 35, but it was being suggested that his personality was clashing with that of some of the rising stars within the club.
Young players such as Andy Gray and Ian Wright had already shown that they had the ability to take the club forward but their carefree, perhaps careless at times, attitude was in stark contrast to the deadly serious commitment that was second nature to Cannon.
Whether this was fact and contributed to Coppell’s decision to give Cannon a free transfer can be mere speculation. Perhaps the manager simply thought Cannon had given the club everything he had to offer. All eras must come to an end and his had been a longer one than most.
By the time Cannon left Selhurst Park and hung up his boots he had smashed every Palace appearance record going. His 571 appearances may well never be bettered while in total he pulled on the various Palace first team shirts 660 times in all competitions during his time with the club.
It is unlikely that anybody could have questioned, even once, Cannon’s dedication and commitment to the cause during those games. For well over a decade he set the standards for his fellow professionals to follow at Selhurst Park and ended up establishing himself as the greatest servant the club has ever had.
And as anyone who saw him will testify, he could play a bit too.