Remembering Vince Hilaire - one of the most important players in Palace's history

Written by Bert Saltoun

The new PUMA sash away kit launch brought back memories of Vince Hilaire in that last 70s sash. Here's why he is one of the most important player in Palace's history. 

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South London in the 70s and early 80s was a pretty grim place to be a young black man. The fascist National Front, with its headquarters in Pawsons Road, seemed to have a demonstration somewhere on an almost weekly basis and enjoyed the kind of police protection that a victim of a racial hate crime could only dream of.

Young white men, disaffected by long running industrial disputes and the spectre of Thatcherism on the horizon, provided an easy recruitment pool for extremists. Lampposts and walls everywhere were adorned with the NF logo and racist views were expressed freely, often on mainstream television shows.

However, such hateful ignorance conflicted the minds of the inhabitants of one pocket of the area surrounding Thornton Heath and Croydon, and that was mainly down to one man.

Born in Forest Gate, East London, Vince Hilaire joined Palace as a junior and made an almost immediate impact in our all conquering youth team that was carefully nurtured by Malcolm Allison and Ernie Walley and included future stars such as Kenny Sansom and Peter Nicholas, and it wasn't long before Terry Venables handed him a debut towards the end of the 1976/77 season at the tender age of 17.

Well meaning but, by today's standards, wholly inappropriate reports in the matchday programme invariably referred to our "exciting coloured forward" and the fans on the Selhurst terraces soon took Vince to their hearts, despite the racist backdrop that we lived under at the time, that was more often than not encouraged by the gutter press.

1977/78 saw Vince become a regular starter in the first team whilst also helping the juniors win the FA youth cup and the following season he was voted Supporters Player of the Year.

Well built, super fast and with some amazing skill on the ball, Vince provided the ammunition for the likes of Dave Swindlehurst and Ian Walsh to fire us to the top flight at the turn of the decade and soon picked up England U21 caps. A debut for the full England side looked to be on the horizon, but sadly fate had other ideas.

Chairman Ray Bloye (one of the most crooked men ever to take control of a football club), decided that he'd had enough of his toy and, after selling off a large chunk of the land that was the property of the football club (and lining his own pockets in the process) he sounded out Blackburn's promising young manager Howard Kendall to take over from Terry Venables.

Venables eventually learned about this and was straight off to QPR, taking much of the squad with him. A conveyor belt of below par managers followed, including a disasterous return for Malcolm Allison, and over the next few years the club bedded in to a slow and painful decline.

It was around this time that Vince's career should've taken off. The likes of Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham had already opened the door for quality black players to represent their country and Vince really should have joined them as he was as good if not better than any winger in the England squad at the time.

But it wasn't to be. The upheaval around the club along with the offloading of the likes of Peter Nicholas, Kenny Sansom and Dave Swindlehurst put the club into a rut that it took the best part of a decade to recover from. Vince loyally soldiered on for Palace for another few seasons, and was often the only highlight of going to watch Palace during the darkest days of Alan Mullery's tenure.

Once Mullery left Vince decided he'd had enough. Even the appointment of one of England's best wingers of recent times as the new Palace manager couldn't persuade him to stay, despite Steve Coppell pleading with him and promising to make him an even better player, and he left for Luton in the close season.

For reasons that have never been clear, Vince's spell in Luton lasted only a couple of months before he went on to join his close friend Billy Gilbert at Portsmouth where he had a long and successful career and he eventually returned to Selhurst Park as an opposition player at the end of the 1985/86 season where he was duly sent off for throwing Andy Gray into the Main Stand.

The following season Pompey were promoted to the top flight and once again Vince was able to show off his mesmerising skills at the highest level, albeit for only a single season as Pompey were relegated at the first attempt.

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Later on as his Pompey contract ran down Vince was linked with a return to Selhurst Park and Steve Coppell confirmed his interest in bringing him back, but Leeds offered more money and he spent a couple of seasons there before winding his career down with Stoke and Exeter. A brief spell as joint manager of Waterlooville with Billy Gilbert followed, and Vince is now to be found doing matchday hospitality at Fratton Park.

It's very easy to look back upon our childhood heroes with rose tinted glasses. As children our brains are still in development and we gauge how good a footballer is by how exciting we find that player. Vince was nothing if he wasn't exciting. One of the most naturally skilled players ever to grace the Selhurst turf, he also had an aggressive streak which came to the fore most when he pushed the referee over during a game against Tottenham.

Would he have made it in the modern game? I like to think so. In fact if there's a modern day player who we could most compare to Vince, that player would be his successor on the flanks, Wilfried Zaha.

Training methods and tactics back in the 70s and 80s were rather primative - who's to say that if Vince had been given the same first class coaching as Wilf has, that he wouldn't be a star in the modern day game? I guess we'll never know.

One thing's for certain, though. Vince Hilaire is one of the most naturally gifted footballers I've ever seen and, along with my late father, he is the reason I became such an avid Palace fan in the first place.