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?


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.


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.

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.)

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.


Crystal Palace played local rivals and legendary nutters Millwall on Saturday, and lost by a goal to nil, leaving us second from bottom of the Championship. So why did the game leave me in a good mood? I think there are three reasons:

  1. There was a really good atmosphere, despite the segregation of the away fans in a heavily police-protected area of the Arthur Wait stand. Whole sections either side of the Millwall supporters were deliberately kept empty so as to provide a buffer between them and the home fans, and although somebody let off a smoke bomb at kick-off and a bunch of the fans swarmed one of the empty sections, we didn’t see any real trouble. Since we were accompanied by elegant American friends for whom sport is something that’s mainly meant to be fun, this was excellent.
  2. We had great seats – five rows back in the Main stand, close to the players’ tunnel and mere feet from the action. We only had one opportunity to catch the ball when it came out of play, but it was still exciting. And the three most notable incidents of the game (a goal, a sending off and the removal of a Millwall fan who had infiltrated the home supporters’ end) all happened in our corner of the pitch.
  3. All of our players are about seventeen, and although we lost the game, we looked the better side for long stretches of it. There’s plenty of surprises left in this season, and as Yazz once memorably said, the only way is up.*

* May not be strictly true.

Home and away

Exactly one year ago, I was here:

Dining deck, Ocean Majesty

I know this because today is my birthday. I turned 33 on the high seas, and I am turning 34 a day after arriving back from a completely gorgeous trip to Ontario, spent with family old and new as well as some good books and better friends. Due to a lack of planning, the photos are lurking somewhere in my dad’s luggage, but they will make an appearance here and elsewhere soon.

Anyway, it turns out going on holiday around my birthday is a good thing to do, partly because it’s a treat and partly because when people ask me what I’m doing for my birthday I can say “going to Canada”, and thus be relieved of the obligation to hold any kind of a party. I like parties, but I like them best when they’re someone else’s.

The only downside of being away at this time of year is that I miss the start of the football season (do you see how carefully I chose the title of this post?). We started off in fine form with wins against Leicester City in the league and Yeovil in the Cup, then folllowed up with consecutive losses to Barnsley and Ipswich. We usually draw the opening game of the season, but is otherwise a fairly traditional start for us. However, I was cheered by the news (texted to me while I was away, its importance clearly warranting the cost of an international SMS) that Edgar Davids has signed to the club on a pay-per-play basis. That can only be fun.

Anyway, it’s about time for me to go back to bed so that I can shortly be brought breakfast in it. I used to dislike having a birthday at this time of year, because the season is just starting to turn, so my birthday always felt like the end of something. But in recent years I’ve come to realise that the end of summer is also the start of autumn, and autumn has a loveliness of its own. So I’ll take pleasure in today’s grey drizzle and look forward to the leaves changing colour. After all, when that happens, it means it’s nearly Christmas.

The footie

I like watching international football in pubs in other countries. I think it’s because I can’t understand most of the commentary or the reactions of the people around me, so I just get to watch the game and avoid the dimwits and the thugs who beset most attempts to watch an England game in an English pub.

The last time I watched a major football tournament whilst abroad was in 2004, when I was in Alicante. Euro 2004 took place in Portugal, and on the news one evening a reporter interviewed people living near some of the stadiums to ask whether their lives were being disrupted by the football. “We’ve heard reports that there are English people rioting in the Algarve”, said the reporter. “Is that true?”. The local shrugged. “There are always English people rioting in the Algarve”, he said. “I don’t think it’s anything to do with the football.”

I was also in Spain for the 1994 World Cup, on a post-A-levels holiday with three friends. We caught a coach at Bromley South and travelled for a day and a night to get there, and a day and a night to get back. In between we spent a fortnight sleeping in a caravan on a rickety campsite somewhere on the Costa Brava; eating chips and salad and drinking sangria, making friends and getting into fights with the locals in the nearby strip of bars and restaurants that was the closest thing the area had to a town, swimming in the campsite pool and watching the football. I don’t remember anything about the football, except that I enjoyed it, and that it marked the point at which I got back into football after renouncing it forever following the debacle of Palace’s defeat by Manchester United in the 1990 cup final.

(That holiday was also the source of one of those weak jokes that I make instinctively and against my better judgement every time I hear the feeder line. As we boarded the coach the driver made an announcement giving us useful information such as where to find the toilet and how soon we would be making a cigarette stop. “There are rubbish bags at the end of each seat”, he concluded. “Oh I don’t know”, said a teenage boy behind me. “”They look quite nice to me.”)

This time, we were in Cyprus for the beginning of the World Cup. It occurs to me that another reason to watch football abroad is that lager tastes better in hot countries, and lager is the natural accompaniment to a game of football. Here’s the first lager of this year’s World Cup – a small Keo, in the Blazing Saddles Tavern in Coral Bay:


We watched England’s first game, against the USA, in a bar just around the corner from our apartment, on Tombs Of The Kings Road (did I mention that I love Cyprus?). Most of the crowd was English, though there were pockets of locals who had just come to eat and were largely bemused by the hooting and wailing of the white-shirted masses. With half an hour until kick-off, the barmaid distributed vuvuzelas and everyone gave them an experimental blow. They all sounded the same – just like the ones on TV – except for ours, which was the Barry White of vuvuzelas and emitted a deeply sonorous and surprisingly loud BLART which made everybody look at us momentarily, until we put it away.

A few minutes before the match was due to start, the manager decided to see whether he could get an English commentary version of the game. There were six or seven large screens around the outdoor area, where we were all sitting, but the controls were indoors, so he had to shout instructions to someone in the kitchen in order to navigate the channel browser. My Greek consists of about eleven words so I couldn’t make out the precise nature of what occured next, but somehow the TV ended up on a channel broadcasting what I think I would describe as hardcore porn (I am using a definition provided many years ago by my friend A, who told me it’s hardcore if “you can actually see it going in”). The manager sprang into action and switched off the TV, but this didn’t stop the scenes from being projected on to the remaining six-foot screens around the bar. Fortunately, since it was 9.30pm, there were no children in the bar, so it didn’t really matter that it somehow took them a good three minutes to switch over to another channel. By the time we got back to the Greek-language channel we’d started with, we’d missed the national anthems, but it was worth it for the spectacle of the four middle-aged woman sitting opposite us, who I think enjoyed their three minutes of free porn more than I’ve ever seen anyone enjoy anything.

I don’t much care whether England win or lose on Wednesday: my heart belongs to club football and Crystal Palace, and I am as happy watching Spain or Nigeria or Mexico, and as invested in the outcome, as when I watch England. But so far this World Cup seems to have been lacklustre, with a disappointingly poor show from African sides and some teams barely bothering to turn up at all (I’m looking at you, France). But there’s another week or so left of group games and then the knock-out stages to go, so there’s hope yet. For the record, my prediction is Holland, but I should warn you that I have never once got it right.


We watched the first half of yesterday’s game at home, then we had to take a taxi to an industrial estate in Bermondsey, where we were rehearsing the music for a wedding we’re playing at later this month. It was raining heavily. I like to think it’s always raining heavily on industrial estates in Bermondsey.

The taxi driver took the scenic route, and it was already wildly optimistic of us to assume we’d make it in fifteen minutes, so it was about halfway into the second half before we got the TV at the studio working and were able to watch the rest of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever felt my heart beating so fast as it did in the few minutes after Wednesday scored the equaliser. By the end it wasn’t even really football; just a group of desperate men endlessly knocking the ball out of play. It wasn’t fun to watch.

Once the game was over, we went into the rehearsal room and played better than we’ve ever played before. I feel bad for Wednesday, but they’ll be back. And at least this result gives us the best chance of remaining a going concern, which was my main hope for the end of the season. Oh, football, you break my heart but I still love you.