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.