Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Love stories

Most football fans inherit their team from family or from the place they grew up. There are some though who aren't locals. This isn't uncommon but most choose a glamorous, successful club. It's easy to do that. Then there are others whose choice seems inexplicable. Their path is stony and is not strewn with the rose petals of success. Something else sparked their imagination and loyalty.

I started watching football in the 1960s by taking the short bus ride to Selhurst Park to see Crystal Palace. When I moved to Manchester, distance strained but didn't eradicate the relationship. Discovering the wonders of Rugby League and following Swinton, a team that could disappoint even more than Palace, did replace watching football for a while. Over the last few years, though, Palace and I have become reunited and my vows have been renewed. The power of first love has prevailed. Then a miracle happened. Palace were promoted to the Premiership and actually stayed up. And that was not all.

This Saturday there will be a glorious consummation of the affair. Palace are in the FA Cup Final for only the second time in their history. I have a ticket. And they play, inevitably, Manchester United, who were their opponents in their first final in 1990. United are the nearest club to me now, and I have watched them often. They have won everything, multiple times. If Palace win, this will be the first major trophy in their history. It will be a special day.

I see more away games than home ones, and as you talk to other fans you hear their tales about how and why they began to support Palace. I love these stories. Each supporter has something unique to say about what brought them to their passion. It isn't always what you would expect. Here are four different ones.

Drawing up in the away fans car park for a cup tie at Wigan, our car had a Swinton Rugby League sticker in the back and we parked right next to one with a Warrington Wolves Rugby League badge in its window. We chatted to the car owners in the ground. They were a large family, but weren't from London. A friend of theirs went to work there, caught the bug, and started sending them press cuttings and souvenirs. Palace became their club too. The red and blue stripes of a Palace shirt showed underneath their Warrington sweatshirts as the whole family cheered us on - to defeat.

There must be something about Warrington and Rugby League. I was in the away end at Manchester City and a man with a broad Northern accent was explaining how he came to support Palace. He was an avid Rugby League fan - a Warrington supporter. In 1970/71 season, Warrington switched to playing on Sunday. To fill in his blank Saturdays he thought he would start watching football. But who was he to support? He had no footballing heritage, so he decided that he would watch BBC's Match of the Day one particular Saturday night, and he would support the first team they showed. It was Crystal Palace. He became a Palace fan. We lost 4-0.

Manchester United gets more than its share of overseas fans, but I was surprised when the man next to me in the Palace section spoke to me in an American accent. He had been a student in London and had done a year's work placement in the club offices at Selhurst Park. He was hooked. He returned to the States and now lives in California. He had flown over to go to the game at United and the FA Cup semi final at Wembley the following Sunday. We lost 2-0, but won the semi to reach this year's final.

I was on the train down to London for that semi final and there was another Manchester based Palace fan on it. He had moved north to go to University and had stayed. His support was unexceptional, but he was going to meet his son who lives in the north-east, and it's the son's story that got to me. He was born and bred in Manchester and his father tried hard not to influence him. For a couple of years from five or six onwards, he wore a United shirt. Then he had a City shirt. Finally, his dad took him to Selhurst Park to see Palace. The match was a tedious 0-0 draw with Rotherham. And that was it. He became a Palace fan. For life. He made a free choice on the basis of something dreadful that charmed him.

Football support is a combination of the magical with the ridiculous. All over the country Palace fans will be making agonising choices about which shirt to wear, what train to catch and which pub to drink in. All of us will be trying to decide which one will be the lucky one. We will descend on Wembley, from all corners of the world, each hoping that we have chosen right, and that our replica shirt is the one that will see us raising the cup at the end of a match that will only bring tension and pain, whether we win or lose. I can't wait. I haven't been as excited since I was a kid.

So to play us on to Wembley here's some music.

The rapper, Doc Brown, has recorded a Cup Final rap - Glad All Over Again

It's good, but I prefer this, recorded by a bunch of builders from Bromley. It has that unique Palace touch of imperfection. Some photos in the video were put in back to front. But it's a real sing-along. Here's Young Stanley with The Holmesdale.


SP said...

And every fan, of every other club, will be supporting Palace too - best of luck.

The Plump said...

Except, probably, fans of Millwall, Charlton and Brighton. But very one else is with us.