Those who believe the best things in life are free can point towards Crystal Palace’s signing of Darren Ambrose as evidence. The midfielder did not cost the Eagles a penny when he joined the club in 2009 following the expiration of his contract at local rivals Charlton Athletic. The Addicks opted against offering Ambrose a new deal. Their loss was Palace’s gain.
Ambrose only spent three seasons at Selhurst Park, but his status as a cult hero is secure. He joined a club that had ambitions of getting back into the Premier League, having suffered relegation by the narrowest of margins in 2004/05.
Palace were disappointing the season before Ambrose arrived: a run to the play-offs the previous year had raised expectations, but Neil Warnock’s side finished in the bottom half of the table. Still, there was a sense that Palace were building a squad capable of challenging towards the top end of the Championship – and in the first few months of Ambrose’s debut campaign, that is exactly what they did.
After a 1-0 victory over struggling Plymouth Argyle in the middle of January, Warnock’s men moved to within a point of the play-off places. Ambrose had made an excellent start to his Palace career. The Plymouth game was the club’s 25th of the campaign, and the ex-Charlton and Newcastle United man had already found the back of the net 11 times. Ambrose was not a striker – he usually played on the right or left of midfielder, but could also be used centrally if required – but he was already established as Palace’s chief goal threat.
A few days after that victory over Plymouth at Home Park, the Palace squad flew up to the northeast of England for a game against Newcastle United. When they were in the air the club was plunged into administration, a development which the players learned when their mobile phones went into overdrive upon landing. A 10-point deduction followed, taking Palace from the cusp of the top six to just outside the bottom three. The aim was no longer reaching the Premier League; it was avoiding relegation to League One.
Ambrose played as big a role as anyone in ensuring Palace did exactly that. It was a close-run thing, though, with a six-match winless run in March leaving Palace four points adrift of safety. By then the manager was Paul Hart, who replaced Warnock on a short-term deal after the latter manager decided to join Queens Park Rangers. That was a disappointment for Ambrose, who has hinted that he might not have signed for Palace were it not for the Yorkshireman.
“I felt a bit like I was in no man’s land with my career [before joining Palace],” he told The Athletic. “Neil Warnock was a massive factor in me signing and said he would build the team around me. To hear that was fantastic. He confidence in me and played exactly how I liked, told me what he wanted from me and I knew my job 100 per cent. When a player has confidence there is no stopping them.”
Yet Hart did a magnificent job of bringing everyone together and keeping Palace’s spirits high. The squad of 2009/10 had a togetherness and sense of purpose like no other. Ambrose, along with the likes of Shaun Derry, Clint Hill, Alan Lee, Danny Butterfield, Julian Speroni, Jonny Ertl and several others, was ready to give everything for the cause.
Crucially, he also provided a touch of class that would prove pivotal: on the final day, when Palace needed to avoid defeat by Sheffield Wednesday to stay in the Championship, Ambrose scored the decisive goal with a controlled finish from Sean Scannell’s cut-back. It was his 20th strike of the season in all competitions, and although Darren Purse later restored parity for Wednesday to set up a nervy finish, Palace got the 2-2 draw they needed.
That could easily have been Ambrose’s last game for the club. With a prospective takeover dragging on, Palace had to raise money to stay in existence and the midfielder was one of their most valuable assets. QPR agreed a fee of £750,000 with Palace as Warnock sought a reunion with Ambrose in west London. But Palace’s incoming owners, a consortium led by Steve Parish, pulled the plug on the deal at the eleventh hour. Ambrose went on to sign a new contract with Palace.
The goal against Sheffield Wednesday was his most important in the red and blue, but it was not his best. Some might argue his sensational free-kick against Aston Villa in February 2010 deserves that title, but the consensus is that Ambrose’s magnificent strike against Manchester United the following season takes the prize. It is perhaps second only to Andros’ Townsend’s volley against Manchester City in the pantheon of great Palace goals of the 21st century.
It is often forgotten that Ambrose was left out of the starting XI for that League Cup tie at Old Trafford. Introduced from the bench at half-time, it took just 20 minutes for Ambrose to put his stamp on the match. Collecting possession 40 yards out, he fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net. Gary Neville called it the best opposition goal he had ever seen at Old Trafford.
That was the highlight of Ambrose’s second season at Selhurst, but he also scored seven times in the league as Palace again avoided relegation. Many fans feared the worst midway through that campaign, but Dougie Freedman made Palace much harder to beat after taking charge in January, and that defensive solidity ultimately got them over the line.
Ambrose spent one more campaign in south London before he was sold to Birmingham City in 2012, just as Palace were preparing to embark on their promotion-winning campaign. If it was not for Ambrose, though, they could easily have been in League One at that point – or even out of business.