Love 1 – 0 Romance

Wrighty after the 3-3 draw
Wrighty after the 3-3 draw

Earlier this year, when Crystal Palace were still in the running for the FA Cup but looking pretty poor in the Premier League, someone asked me whether I’d rather win the cup or stay in the league. Now, no doubt you remember just as well as I do that our 1990 cup run, which saw us take Man Utd to a thrilling 3-3 draw before losing 1-0 in a heartbreaking replay, was one of the most exciting times there has ever been to be a Palace fan. What’s nice about the cup is that winning it is its own reward: when we won the playoff final at Wembley a year ago today we knew it meant we had a tough season ahead. But a cup victory is pure, sweet joy. (I am guessing, we’ve never won the cup. I’m not, for the purposes of this discussion or indeed any other, counting the Zenith Datasystems Cup.)

But winning the FA Cup over staying in the Premiership for the first time ever? No contest. Winning the cup would give us a point in history, a lifetime’s worth of memories, a shared experience that we would treasure forever. Staying up would keep the club in business and stave off ever-present fears of bankruptcy and administration. The club is well-run these days, but if you watched that game at Hillsborough four years ago and spent the last ten minutes not breathing, knowing that if we conceded another goal there was a good chance we’d go out of business altogether, you know why the chance to consolidate a top-division presence is worth ten cup finals. It’s not as exciting, it’s not as romantic, but survival trumps sentiment every single time for us fans of small, struggling, teetering-on-the-brink clubs.

Of course, the problem with being a football fan is that you’re never satisfied. I got my wish and we stayed up for the first time ever, and now I want a top-ten finish and a cup run for 2014/15, and if I don’t get it I’ll be disappointed, even though a year ago all I was hoping for was to finish in 17th. If I start to become one of those supporters who approaches every competition with a planet-sized sense of entitlement you will let me know, won’t you?

 

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Football: an announcement

Crystal Palace fan
It’s tough being a football fan

Earlier in the summer, I confidently declared on Twitter that I was going to support teams from all four English leagues and all four Scottish leagues this season. After a certain amount of back-and-forth with interested parties (“If your SPL team’s not Hibs we can’t be friends any more”), I came up with two lists, which looked like this:

  • English Premier League: Crystal Palace, obviously. If you don’t know this already go back to the start of the blog and read it again.
  • English Championship: Sheffield Wednesday, partly because Sheffield is another one of those cities I have an inexplicable romantic attachment to without ever having been, and partly because they are a friend’s team and I got jealous when his season started a week before mine did, so I went along with him to the opening game at QPR, which they lost, and during which I was conflicted because my all-time favourite Palace player not including Jonny Williams and Julian Speroni, Andy Johnson, now plays for QPR so I had to sit on my hands and not celebrate his goal.
  • English League One: Colchester United, because I was a student at Essex in the nineties and we used to go and watch them play at the old Layer Road ground, which still had standing terraces. They have a new stadium now, which looks a bit like a car park.
  • English League Two: Southend United, because my friend Sarah was a mascot there in her youth, and because of a general familial attachment to Essex.
  • Scottish Premier League: Hibernian, for reasons alluded to above.
  • Scottish Championship: Hamilton Academical, because it’s a good name and because in the absence of other pressures my instinct is always to look for teams based in and around Glasgow, because I like it there.
  • Scottish League One: Stranraer, because it’s the best placename in all of football.
  • Scottish League Two: Queen’s Park, because of the Glasgow thing and, tenuously, because of the Andy Johnson thing. Keep up.

HOWEVER. A few weeks into the season, I find that I do not have the capacity to genuinely support eight sides at once. The commitment involved in following eight lots of Twitter accounts and eight sets of results is more than I care to give while I still have to find time to do things like eat and go to work. So I am revising my plans accordingly. I will support ONE English team and ONE Scottish team with all my heart and soul, and the rest of them will go on a list of “teams I look out for when I remember”. The English team is obvious and uncontroversial, but I may lose a friend with my choice of Scottish team, because I had a meeting in Glasgow last week, and the jolly, rogueish group of men I was with asked me whether I was Celtic or Rangers, and I knew at once that the correct answer was “Partick Thistle”, and as it turned out I was right and the rest of the meeting went swimmingly. So my Scottish team is Partick Thistle, with apologies to all my Edinburgh friends.

The rest of the sides listed above are hereby demoted to casual lovers, there when I need them but not a permanent fixture, with the exception of Hibs from whom I’m afraid I have to withdraw all support now that I’m a Thistle fan. Sorry.

[ANNOUNCEMENT ENDS]

The Japanese women’s football team

I love this. Here is a (not very good, because made by me) video of the Japanese women’s football team bowing to the crowd after losing the Olympic final 2-1 to the USA. When they came back out for the medals ceremony, the USA and Canada (third-placed) teams waved cheerfully around, but the Japanese women held hands and did mini-Mexican waves. They were my favourites.

More photos of the game here.

Sofa so good

I have been trying not to write about the Olympics, because I haven’t got anything to say that someone else hasn’t already said better, and because I am too busy watching to think about writing anything anyway. But having spent the last two evenings at live events (table tennis on Tuesday, football on Wednesday), I have realised that – whisper it – the Olympics are kind of better on TV. Of course, being there is super-exciting, and you get to be a part of the crowd and talk to people you’d never have talked to otherwise, and if you’re lucky get within sniffing distance of a superhuman. But you also get to spend a lot of time standing around, or queueing, or spending a lot of money on not-very-nice food, and I realised as I stood penned-in by police horses outside Wembley Stadium last night that I could have been spending all that time watching the fricking Olympics. It’s bad enough that I have to go to stupid work and be in stupid meetings while people are winning medals, but it’s worse when I’ve paid £80 to stand in a queue and miss out on it all.

So I have come to the conclusion that the best way to enjoy the games is by mostly watching them on TV, and just sticking your nose briefly into the action itself. After all, a single ticket to most of the sessions costs just about what the license fee does for a whole year, and with literally every event available via the BBC you will get more sport for your sterling by sitting at home, where the food is cheaper and the toilet queues much shorter, than by buying expensive seats which allow you to sit quite a long way away from everything that’s actually happening.

This is all good news. The Olympics are designed to be watched in person by tens of thousands of people, and on TV by actual billions. In this case, you lose nothing by being one of the ninety nine per cent. So use your Mastercard to buy a Pepsi, settle down in front of your Sony TV and enjoy the freedom and the luxury of watching from the best seat in the house.

Man interviewing fan in comedy glasses
Half-time entertainment at the table tennis. It doesn’t have to be this way.

(All of which said, please note that I will happily accept gifts of free tickets to anything you like.)

 

Football. Bloody hell!

UEFA European Championship trophy
The UEFA European Championship trophy. Nope, me neither.

I have never felt about international football the way I feel about club football. I have never been an England “fan”, or worn an England shirt, or been devastated when they lost a game (all right, maybe for five minutes after the Germany game in 1996, but I was young and impressionable and quite probably drunk).

It’s partly to do with the disagreeable connotations of the English flag, and partly about the wearying media hysteria which surrounds England’s presence at any international tournament. But mostly, it’s just that I’m not all that interested. It’s not them, it’s me: Crystal Palace have a prior claim to my heart and I can’t love two teams the way I love one.

(There’s also something in there about feeling part of my local community, which is an inclusive group,  in a way that I don’t feel “English”, which is an exclusive group, and something else about Crystal Palace footballers not being the kind who get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, and an unrelated distaste for drunken topless men shouting in the street when England win.)

But I’m not anti the England team. I like to watch them play, and I am happy to see them win. Or I used to be. But this time around (there is, in case you hadn’t noticed, currently a football tournament taking place), I am disconcerted to discover that I actively want England to lose. Watching them play France last night I found myself silently egging France on, and occasionally shouting inadvertently (and, once, clapping like a hyperactive child) when they came close to scoring. I wasn’t supporting France the way I support Palace, but I was certainly supporting them the way I support, I don’t know, West Brom against Chelsea.

And there’s the reason: the Chelsea connection. Or more specifically, the John Terry connection. Here’s the thing: England won’t win this competition. They’re not good enough. They will probably go out in the quarter finals, to the usual lamentations from the press and vaguely exasperated eye-rolling from everyone else. And after a bit, we’ll all forget about who played well or badly in which game, or whether the right substitutions were made. But we will all remember that Roy Hodgson chose to take John Terry and not Rio Ferdinand to Ukraine, a month before Terry is due to stand trial for the racist abuse of Ferdinand’s younger brother Anton.

I don’t know how the trial will go. But I do know that John Terry is an awful man (Rio isn’t a saint, but compared to John Terry he is a shining beacon of humanity and intellect), and that stacked against all the excellent reasons not to take Terry to the competition is the single argument in his favour: that he is a good footballer. But we already know that England won’t win, so what have they gained by taking him and leaving Rio, who is also a good footballer, at home? Approximately nothing. When by doing the opposite – by using John Terry as a scapegoat and a symbol for all the loutish, entitled, ugly behaviour that footballers can exhibit – they could have sent out a message that says: we will punish footballers when they behave badly, and we don’t need to stick our thumbs up our bottoms and wait for bad behaviour to be legally determined in a court before we see it happening and call it out.

Football isn’t a matter of life and death, but its morals and values seep through into society. The England management had the chance to do a good thing, the repercussions of which would have played out in small but important ways across the country, and they didn’t take it, and that’s why I hope they lose.

(I am still waiting to pick my team for the office sweepstake, because the person inside whose desk drawer the all-important envelope is locked ran over his foot with a lawnmower at the weekend (I’ll get England now, I expect). I am of course supporting Ireland, but they didn’t have the best of starts, so I am going to be boring and tip Germany for the win.)

Stephen Hendry

Young Stephen Hendry

I don’t want to talk about Stephen Hendry like he’s dead, which is what the media seem to mostly be doing. But when somebody brilliant stops doing the thing they’re brilliant at, it’s hard not to get a bit wistful. Last night, after seven world championships, 36 ranking titles and 775 competitive century breaks, Stephen Hendry announced his retirement from snooker following his defeat by Stephen Maguire in the quarter-finals of the world championship in Sheffield. He’d had a brilliant start to the tournament, making a maximum 147 break on the opening day against Stuart Bingham and going on to defeat John Higgins 13-4  in the second round, but it all went a bit to pot (sorry) against Maguire, and Stephen ended up losing 13-2.

It is, of course, Stephen’s right to retire anytime he likes, and I doubt he’ll need to join the dole queue anytime soon. But I am a bit sad that he made the announcement so quickly after losing his last game, because it makes it seem like the two are connected, even though he says not. It also takes something away from Maguire’s victory (“you killed Stephen Hendry, you bastard!”), and casts a shadow over the rest of the tournament, because all of a sudden nobody’s as interested in the players who are still involved.

Every snooker pundit ever likes to remind us that Stephen Hendry is – or now, was – The Best Snooker Player Of All Time™, and although my heart belongs to Ronnie, they are right. (Ronnie, you will recall if you have ever watched any snooker, is The Most Naturally Gifted Player The Game Has Ever Seen™, which is different.) Where Ronnie is fiery and unpredictable, Stephen was always calm and reliable. Ronnie was the best and he knew it: Stephen always came across as humble, even during the nineties when he was comfortably outplaying everyone else in the world.

If Ronnie O’Sullivan had announced his retirement moments after crashing out of a tournament, nobody would be surprised. What am I saying, “if”? He’s done it, plenty of times. I am half-hoping that Stephen doesn’t mean it, the way Ronnie never did, but I know he probably does because you can tell from his snooker as well as from the way he talks that he is a thoughtful and measured person who doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean.

So we probably won’t ever see him making another 147 at the Crucible, but I think in years to come we’ll remember not that he retired mid-tournament, but that he retired barely a week after making his third maximum there and giving snooker lovers everywhere yet another moment to remember. Thank you, Stephen, you really were the best.

Olympic rage

I have spent seven years defending the London Olympics to everyone who thinks they are a terrible waste of money and effort. “The Olympics”, I have said more than once, “are the only time when the nations of the world come together in an activity which isn’t a war. They represent the best of human society and endeavour, and we should celebrate them”.

I still think that, but Londoners have been exposed to an increasing amount of games-related publicity in the last few weeks, and I think I’ve finally snapped. It’s not the solemn entreaties to walk or cycle instead of taking public transport this summer (although unless you’re going to refund some of my £160 monthly travel costs, Boris, you can fuck right off with that suggestion); nor is it the utter mess they made of ticketing (although I’m separately angry about that). No: the reason my stomach clenches every time I see one of the posters is the unutterably hideous font they’re using to promote the event.

Look at it:

London Olympics text

It looks exactly like the kind of design I used to come up with, freehand, when as a teenager I briefly thought that I might like to be a graphic designer. It was the fact that my fonts looked like this that made me realise I wasn’t good enough. It’s ugly, it’s difficult to read, and most of all it looks half-finished, like a placeholder that’s being used as a joke to remind the designer to replace it with a proper font before he sends the proofs over.

But it’s not a joke, or a placeholder: it’s the font that somebody, somewhere – possibly, even, a committee – has decided should be used to showcase British design talent on the biggest, brightest stage of them all. I feel ashamed every time I look at it, and you know what? I could absolutely have done a better job.

(Also terrible: the logo, which I have ranted about elsewhere, and the mascots, which are so bizarrely awful that I almost can’t bring myself to mention them at all, but just for comparison, here is Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Misha, for the avoidance of doubt, is a bear:

Misha the Olympic bear

…and here are Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the 2012 London Olympics:

wenlock and mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville are, uh, they’re…aliens? In…cycle helmets? Cute! I want one!

Still, at least they aren’t named after a small-town law firm. Oh.)

Race For Life

I am not a runner. This is how I look when I run:

running

Sorry it’s only a small photo; it is one of only two in existence, and I have used the other one, taken only moments earlier, on my fundraising page for the Race For Life in aid of Cancer Research, which I am running in June. It’s only 5 kilometres and you are allowed to walk, although my evil genius aunt is giving more money depending on how much actual running I do, which means I have to at least try to run it all, which means the photos of the event will be even more embarrassing than this one. But since it’s in a good cause, if even one person sponsors me after reading this post, I hereby promise either to post photos here afterwards, or NOT to post photos here afterwards, depending on that person’s appetite for photos of sweaty people falling over.

Sponsor me here.

Glad all over

The reason this morning’s advent song didn’t go up until midday is that I didn’t wake up until after 11am. The reason for that is that I didn’t get to bed until sometime after 4am, and the reason for that is that last night I went to Old Trafford to watch Crystal Palace beat Manchester United in the League Cup, in a night that I will remember for a very long time. As I said to the beloved on the way home, and I was only half-joking, who’d have thought the two best days of my life would happen within a fortnight of each other?

(I am not going to write about my wedding here: if you know me, there are a million photos on Facebook and if you don’t, you’re not interested.)

We travelled up by coach with 30-odd other away fans and club staff, on a package trip that included lunch at the hotel where the players were staying and a pre-match briefing from Lennie Lawrence, assistant manager at the club. There was also breakfast in the boardroom at Selhurst Park before we left, free CPFC goodies, a raffle and a quiz (we won neither), all of which was very exciting at the time, but it’s already faded in my mind, pushed out by the memories of the main event.

From the outside Old Trafford looks a bit like an out-of-town shopping centre, and inside it’s undeniably big but somehow not as mind-blowing as the Emirates or Stamford Bridge, for reasons which I can’t pinpoint. But it’s still Old Trafford and you can’t help feeling a thrill as you take your seat in the East Stand and look across the pitch at the Stretford End, slowly filling up with home support.

We had brought around 5,000 fans and the noise we made was fantastic, from well before kick-off until well after the final whistle. I don’t always join in with the singing – there is one song, especially, which I definitely can’t bring myself to sing along to – but away crowds are always louder, and I found myself carried away on a tide of excitement over which I didn’t entirely have control. I was a bit worried I’d have lost my voice today, but all seems to be well (I am self-medicating with chocolate, just in case).

I am not going to write a match report because I can never see who anyone is and I always miss at least half the action through looking the wrong way, but I will say that we looked as keen and as energetic as I’ve seen us in as long as I can remember: I don’t know what Dougie said to the players before the game, but it worked. Shaun Scannell especially was excellent before he went off injured, and I hope we can hang on to him for as long as possible. But I was even more impressed by our back four, who managed to keep United’s attacks contained to just two real chances, one which went wide and one which was saved by Lewis Price. Sky Sports’ post-match analysis told us that United had 68% of the possession, and I can well believe it, but although they had the ball for long periods, we never let them do much with it.

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a game in such a state of heightened tension, last season’s final-day showdown at Hillsborough possibly excepted. Before it started, I was more or less resigned to losing but having a jolly day out nonetheless. But as soon as it became apparent that we were giving them a run for their money, I was a quivering bag of nerves. As John Cleese said in Clockwise: “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” I suspect I wasn’t a fantastically entertaining viewing companion during the game: all I can remember is hysterical laughter, the kind you imagine you might come out with if a bomb missed you by yards, alternating with white-faced shaking and hiding my face in my hands.

But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. When the final whistle went and we all leaped in the air, screaming incoherently and hugging whoever was in grabbing distance, I remembered exactly why every single football-related heartbreak is worth having, because they make the moments of joy so much sweeter. I can’t imagine a quarter-final victory meaning as much to supporters of a side who routinely expect to win cup ties as it did to Crystal Palace, who haven’t reached a semifinal in ten years and haven’t beaten Man United in twenty-two. In moments like those, it feels like the happiest accident in the world that I support a team for whom a big win like this is a glorious surprise rather than par for the course.

I think the lasting memory that I’ll take away is of the away fans standing in an almost-empty stadium after the home support had melted away, singing “We’re going to Wem-ber-ley” high into the echoing rafters, and in that instant, feeling like we were the best team in the world. Maybe we will go to Wembley and maybe we won’t, but whatever happens for the rest of this season, nobody can take last night away from us.

I know

…that the season’s started and I haven’t posted about the football yet. You know when you see a red squirrel or a kingfisher and it’s beautiful and miraculous and you know if you move an inch it’ll run away and you’ll never see it again? Well, that.

But…shh, don’t say anything…and DON’T COME ANY CLOSER! Just – shh – look.