I got into football quite late, I suppose. I didn’t really have a team until the late 1980s, and I chose the club my father used to go on the trolleybus and watch when he was that age: Crystal Palace. It seemed such a tremendous, glamorous club, named after a glittering prize. I was young and I didn’t know what Selhurst Park was really like. I just liked that my dad liked them, and that was that. I began to follow the results, the ups and downs, usually downs, and few ups. But still. You waited for the videprinter on a Saturday afternoon, or the faithful chimes of Sports Report on the car radio, to tell you how many they’d lost by this week, and my father would come out with the usual grumble of despair – or occasional yelp of delight. Crystal Palace, 3-1!
Back then, football was still clambering over its hangovers of hooliganism and Hillsborough. We didn’t go to games, although there wasn’t really any trouble. You followed on Ceefax or on the radio – John Salako from the halfway line sending the Capital Gold commentator into ecstatic apoplectic frenzy in a replay against Nottingham Forest one year, I recall it vividly. It was later that I started going to matches, and where I discovered the grimy joys of Selhurst Park, the rivers of toilet water in the Arthur Wait stand and the long trudge up the hill to the station or a car parking street after another bleak defeat sending the team – I still find it hard to say “us” – towards relegation from the Premiership promised land.
Every other week, the same chance to talk through the match with my father. It wasn’t always easy as a teenager to find something in common, and like most children I think I was pretty aloof and unlikeable as a son during that time. But we had football, we could always talk about that, and everything would somehow be all right. My dad had watched me hopelessly hoof a football around in the little league for all those years, cheering on in horizontal sleet and never once complaining that my boots had made his Vauxhall Astra carpet into a crust-ridden swamp. This was the same, but different: we could talk about our shared ambitions for the club we followed. We could talk about the games we saw and the players we liked. It kept us closer than I could have hoped during those years of my early and middle 20s.
When mum died, I think we both found some kind of comfort in football, and a perverse pleasure in the ups and downs of Palace. There was a void to be filled, and you know the void of the person you loved can never be filled with anything other than that person – it’s just a hole that will never heal, whose scars will always be felt, no matter how hard you hide. In between conversations about cancer treatments, chemotherapy, prognoses and, eventually, death, we always had that safe place to go to, where we could be just a dad and his kid again, talking about something simple and meaningless rather than the more brutal, bitter, bleak world into which we’d found ourselves launched. It was the inherent randomness and fate of life, but it was about something we could trivialise and put in a little box and leave alone, which wouldn’t give us nightmares. Football isn’t “more important than that”, but it did help.
I wonder how many other people it’s the same for, how many people found some hope in something at a time when the rest of the world fell apart. It’s easy to cheapen or ridicule sport, largely because it’s a cheap shot and it is faintly ridiculous to follow a group of coloured shirts in preference to another group of coloured shirts. And yet, and yet, it does mean so much more. It’s a place you can go to for a couple of hours and scream and sing and jump up and down, then go home and go back to everything that’s still fallen apart – except you could forget it for a while, for a beautiful while.
I even managed to get a job covering Palace for the local paper. It was called live text commentary and it was a new thing. It’ll never work, they said, but I did it anyway. (It ended up being comfortably the best writing that I ever did.) I went everywhere to follow the club, from St James’s Park to Stockport Country, from the open-air toilets at Grimsby or Barnsley to the rocking old stand at Maine Road, from Walsall on a Tuesday night to Burnley on a burning hot August day at the start of the season, watching the cricket being played on the ground next door while the game itself wasn’t up to much cop. I saw the team wander all over the place, and I wandered with them. I made friends along the way, some of the red-and-blue clad fanatics who travelled along with the team and saw them struggle to break back into the top division – and go nowhere in the FA Cup. Ah, the FA Cup.
People talk about the “magic of the cup” and how it’s largely disappeared. I know that’s true but I do remember why it was a little bit different. I guess my first FA Cup final that I can remember was Ricky Villa wandering through Manchester City’s defence. In those days you could buy the cup final programme in newsagents; it was a big deal. Bigger than almost anything else on television. You followed the teams to the ground, then watched one of them pick up the cup. Tottenham, then and then they all blur into one giant montage: Norman Whiteside’s strike; Dave Beasant’s save; Elton John’s tears; Gary Mabbutt’s own goal, and then, oh yes, 1990. What a game. What a final. What a let-down in the replay. All that hope gone.
But it really meant something: that game really meant something, more than all the qualifying for Europe or coming third or fourth in the top division do nowadays; it meant a piece of glory you could never have taken away. Except of course it wasn’t glory but a glorious defeat.
Now it’s 26 years later. I won’t be watching that cup final through a tear-soaked haze in the living room of our old house; I’ll be there. I won’t be a 15-year-old grumpy teenager but a 41-year-old dad, with a baby of my own, though I doubt I’d ever want to inflict a football team on the poor girl. But my father, now 71 himself, will be there. He promised me his ticket if I couldn’t get one, but I wouldn’t have dared not let him go, after all he’s seen as a season ticket holder down the years.
Look, it’s a daft little club, playing a daft little game. And I know that we – they – probably won’t win. We have no right to win, given the relative strength of the squads, and that’s that. But to me it all means something more than the result. It means having that day, having a memory I can take with me, something more than what it is. Just to say you were there. Just to be there. To sing, and be part of something, to follow. To be there with dad.