I can understand why some people don’t entirely accept this, but Crystal Palace’s win over Watford at Wembley was one of the greatest moments in human history.
Palace fans spent the days after the match unable to think of anything apart from the subject of their affection, like a lovesick teenager. If a tornado had ripped up their house, they’d have swept up the rubble with a soppy grin, thinking “Amazing – we got promoted.”
It seemed extraordinary that the rest of the world was carrying on as normal. For the first two days after the match I would put the news on, and shout “Never mind poxy Syria, when are you showing Ian Holloway’s post-match interview?”
How could people discuss trivia like their kids’ exam results or their forthcoming operation? Why were the television channels carrying on like in any other week? Surely the History Channel should go “In place of the programme about the Battle of Jutland, here’s some footage of Wilfred Zaha and Julian Speroni dancing with the play-off trophy.”
And so the week went on, work deadlines disappearing as I watched the winning goal on youtube from every angle, filmed on shaky ipads, and one on Mexican television with a commentator screaming “GOOOOAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAaaaaAAAlllllllLLLLLL Keveeenn Pheeeeleeeepsss una zero Creeestal Palaaaace.”
Supporting a team in the play-off for the Premier League must take, in my medical opinion, a year off your life. And this was my sixth time. If I have a check-up, doctors will be baffled as to why their results showed I was six years older than on their records, until they factor in their play-off statistics and we all laugh with everything explained.
How can this behaviour be rational? The most common suggestion is that the play-off final, as every headline reminded us, was worth £120 million. But it’s a reflection of modern football that the prize money for winning is assumed to be more important than the winning.
Even the lure of the Premier League leaves many fans ambivalent. We know that every week we’ll face a team who have one player who cost more than our entire squad. We’ll have Alan Hansen sneering on Match of the Day, having learned the names of our players that afternoon so he can complain how hopeless they are. Alan Shearer won’t even bother with that and will inform viewers “If Jillian Spinetti stops any goals going in, the opposition will find it hard to score.”
And matches will be rescheduled to 5.30 on a Tuesday morning, so Sky can bill it as a warm-up for Norwich v Everton at 9.15.
Now we’ll be surrounded by teams whose angry fans expect to win, as if that’s any way to watch sport. So they call the phone-ins on Saturday afternoons snarling “That manager’s got to go Alan, I mean NIL-NIL, with SPURS, he should be boiled Alan, boiled in molten lead, then SQUASHED Alan, in one of those things that crushes cars, that’s TWO DRAWS IN A ROW ALAN.”
The ecstasy of Wembley was about none of this. Three years earlier the club was in administration, its best players and manager sold or sent away to cover a couple of months’ bills, needing a draw to avoid relegation to the third division which may well have led to liquidation.
After a summer of frantic rumours and protests outside Lloyds bank the club was rescued by a management that insisted soberly there would be very limited funds, and the fans accepted we might have to expect a relegation or two, but that was fine because we hadn’t gone bust.
We were resigned to struggle. The following season we were playing another team near the bottom, when we let in a goal through a defender’s legs. Then we scored as their defence stood and watched the ball trickle over the line. And the man right behind me exclaimed “THIS is better. I’ve always said football’s much more enjoyable when BOTH teams are shit.”
At the start of the 2012/13 season Palace were second favourites to be relegated. But we were unexpectedly flamboyantly brilliant, our manager left, we went top, then fell to bits, then rallied and got into the play-offs, with a semi-final against Brighton. And Brighton are Palace’s fierce rivals, for having the audacity to be fifty miles away.
This must be the most unfathomable rivalry in football. We’re not in the same city, or county, or vicinity. It’s as if Southampton decided their rivals were Caracas Athletic from Venezuela, or if our rivalry was with Worcestershire Cricket Club, or with AA Gill the restaurant critic.
Brighton were the form team and it felt they were certain to win. The Brighton Argus published instructions on how to get to the Wembley final, the club announced they’d consulted a psychic llama who assured them they’d win, and on the day of the second leg they asked Brighton fans not to invade the pitch at the end of the game. To be fair to their fans they complied, none of them invading the pitch, with many of them so polite and helpful they left before the end of Palace’s 2-0 win.
The player who scored both goals was Wilfred Zaha, a 20-year-old brought up within walking distance from the Palace ground, who’d joined the club when he was eight. All season, whenever he got the ball, everyone in the ground shuffled, as he skipped and twisted, dipped and pirouetted, while his opponents lined up like baddies queuing up to be battered in a kung fu film, and rarely got the ball off him. Sometimes you didn’t want him to pass or score, just carry on baffling everyone, and once he obliged, taking the ball from his own goalmouth round the whole team to the other goal, then turning round and beating them all again before arriving back where he started.
So 27th May 2013 was a day punctuated by a series of gulps, each more gulpy than the last. We got on the train and there were other Palace fans, which confirmed the match was really happening. Until that point it seemed likely we would get to Wembley and find it deserted, or being prepared for a Muse concert, then I’d check the league tables and realise I must have got confused as we ended the season fourteenth.
At Victoria station the odd traveller who wasn’t a Palace fan seemed lost, like an old person who’s wandered out of their care home and into a nightclub, amidst the red and blue that oozed across every corner. Hundreds gathered to drink and sing and chant, becoming slightly more South London with each minute. Middle-aged greying types who arrived saying ‘Let’s hope for a keen contest’, after fifteen minutes would scream “Sarf lundun’s NUMber one, oo-oo oo-oooo”, with a pumping growl that, if it was caught on CCTV would get them struck off the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
It seemed a shame there had to be a match later on to spoil the occasion.
There was the gulp, the saliva-stopping gulp that threatens to choke as you turn the corner and see the arch of Wembley. And then the asphyxiating rasping clamminess as you take your seat, like being strapped into the world’s biggest roller coaster, that the jolly lad from the fairground tells you may or may not crash, it’s about fifty-fifty.
But all of this was meditative tranquillity, compared to the fizzing electrifying thumping moment, when no one dared make a sound but the collective silence created a hum like a nearby Spitfire preparing to take off, the distant under-the-breath squeals, the twenty minutes minute before Kevin Philips took the penalty awarded to Palace half way through extra time.
The story of 35,000 lives, belonging to the Palace end of Wembley, and many more who weren’t there, would be altered by this kick. In 30 years those still alive would recount the magical moment when Philips scored, or the dejection of him missing. To have no chance is disappointing, but is nothing to the misery of having a chance and blowing it. Some turned their backs, as if this might spare them from ever discovering how it had turned out. In one clip I saw later you can hear a woman’s quivering voice crying ‘Oh my God, oh my God please please oh my God’, so you’d think she was watching her son dangling from the top of a lighthouse on a length of sellotape.
He struck the ball in the top corner, and we could get on with clutching seats and squeezing strangers in an effort to make the last fifteen minutes disappear.
At the final whistle I don’t remember cheering. I recall gasping like an actress that’s won an Oscar. I remember that after a few minutes it felt as if singing and cheering wasn’t enough, as you sing and cheer for any normal win, and this warranted some sort of new special noise.
And I recall the stadium imposing its mode of celebrations on us, so rather than sing Palace songs we were fed ‘Ain’t no Stopping us Now’ and ‘Let it Be’ and speeches by npower sponsors, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if Palace manager Ian Holloway was ordered to announce “What a win! And now we’re in the Premier League there’s never been a better time to consider that npower supplies electricity as well as gas, with special springtime deals that heat your home for lots of extra time with no penalties!”
Lives can be charted through the play-offs. For the 2004 final win against West Ham, my son was seven, staying awake until we arrived back from Cardiff at midnight, then running down the road to wave his flag with jubilant innocence. For the 2013 final win against Watford, my son was sixteen, staying awake until he arrived back from Wembley with his mates at five in the morning, then depositing a shopping trolley and men at work sign on the lawn, with no memory of where he’d found them.
The strange equation of following a football team is that status and joy are barely connected. The day after the win against Brighton, Manchester City sacked their manager, for coming 2nd in the Premier League and losing the FA cup final, and their fans were interviewed in a state of despair.
The fans of hundreds of clubs, down to the League I found called the Ian Hart Funeral Services Worthing and District West Sussex League, must have been happier than Manchester City fans at that moment.
And we were euphoric, not because we’d been promoted, but because the players seemed like our mates we might bump into around Croydon, because we’d been at the point of extinction, because we expected so little, because I’d agreed with a bunch of fans before the game that if we lost, we’d definitely go to next season’s away game in Bournemouth, and I was slightly disappointed that trip was now cancelled. And for just this moment we had unexpected unbelievable glory.
Watford fans ambled outside Wembley, their dejection the price of our jubilation. But many of them shook our hands and congratulated us, as I hope but can’t be sure I’d have done to them if they’d won. Because for all the rivalry that supporting a team entails by definition, somehow the opposition brings people together.
We’d won £120 million apparently. You’re supposed to spend it on players who might give you a chance against Chelsea, but right then, if a vote had been held amongst the Palace fans, I reckon we’d have decided to spend half of it on fixing the Selhurst Park toilets, and the rest to take the 35,000 of us to Paris and get hammered.
The next day, while in a cafe studying the article about the game in the Financial Times, not even getting annoyed by Phil Collins on Magic FM, I tried to rate the occasion in my all-time list of great days. “At the top, obviously, are the births of my two children and my wedding”, I thought. But then I pondered, that magical as my wedding day was, I had known for certain at the start of the day that by the end of it I would be married. Before the play-off final the outcome was far from guaranteed, so there was a case to be made I thought…..
And then I judged it might be best not to pursue that line of thought. But it definitely has a decent claim to be fourth.