Saturday, June 01, 2013

Mills and Boon

1. The Spirit of '69

I don't know when the word 'relationship' began to be used. It seems such a technical, dispassionate term. Maybe it was part of the political revision of language that was meant to remove emotion. Seeing as the predominant associated sentiment was hate, there was a point to it. But for love? Other words are redolent with breathless tension – 'affairs', 'flings' and 'liaisons'. There is the naughty wink implied by the not so innocent 'hanky-panky' and 'carrying on'. In contrast, we have the coyness of 'courting'. Then there is the depth of feeling seeping through 'desire', 'passion' and 'romance'. And if there was one word I wouldn't use about supporting a football team, it is 'relationship'.

Yes, this post is about football.

I was inspired to write this by a lovely series of posts from George Szirtes about the role of Manchester United in his life (starting here). In an act of spectacular unoriginality, shameless copying or hero worship (you can decide George), I have decided to do the same about my experience.

If Barbara Cartland had not been obsessed by winsome, virtuous women meeting square-jawed, though tender hearted, alpha males, she could have turned out potboilers about true love instead; the passion of the football fan. George would fit in well with both. Lean, intelligent, with a fearsome work ethic, he is also, of course, a poet and so would make a marvellous romantic hero. His great virtue is constancy. I, on the other hand, am certainly not lean, love my sleep and am a master of prevarication. And when it comes to football, I have wavered. Mine is a more complicated story.

It goes back to 1964. I grew up in the suburbs of South London and the father of a school friend took me to my first football match, Crystal Palace against Charlton Athletic. Palace won 3-1. I still have the programme. We sat in the old stand and at the end of the game we clambered over a low partition to reach the exit quickly. Tubby and hesitant, I lingered at the top only to be given a helping hand by an impatient fan who pushed me off. Nobody was concerned with my sense of indignity. I was ten days past my twelfth birthday.

Most children's football education comes from their families; they inherit their teams. My father had been a top class amateur footballer but had died when I was four. I had no knowledge of his allegiance other than the fact that he had played for Clapton when they won the FA Amateur Cup in 1924 and 1925.

I was interested, uneducated in the game and had a free choice. It was another friend, then a Manchester United fan, who went with me to a handful of matches. We saw Palace again against Coventry City in 1967 when they were on the verge of promotion under Jimmy Hill and went to a match at Tottenham. Then, in 1968, he was given tickets for Fulham against Manchester United and asked me along. It was a different experience; a packed ground was overrun with United supporters as they won 4-0 on the way to the European Cup. George Best scored twice, one a fierce shot at the near post. I remember waiting in long queues at the underground station whilst a police horse lazily nibbled my friend's new, trendy hairstyle. That didn't do it either, but a lingering affection for two clubs was eating away at me.

It was in the tail end of the 1967-68 season that I became a fully-fledged fan. And I chose Palace. It was a non-descript season for them and, in some perverse way, that attracted me more than the allure of the soon to be European champions. Palace finished eleventh in the second division. I also continued to watch United whenever they were in London, but I gave my heart to Crystal Palace. Both my two friends came to the matches with me and in time the United fan was converted to become a zealous Palace supporter.

Romantic attachment is indefinable. There were two rivals for my heart. Manchester United, exciting, glamorous offering the promise of eternal bliss (though none of us knew then that we would have to wait twenty-five years for consummation) and Palace, offering moments of hope and then never failing to disappoint, a floosy in a scruffy ground with open terracing and grass banking. Selhurst Park or Old Trafford? It was no contest. I chose Selhurst. And then the miracle happened.

1968-69 season started with three wins, but after a few setbacks it became clear that we were promotion contenders. The first division beckoned and Leeds United were sensationally defeated in the League Cup. Promotion was sealed in a tremendous final home game. 2-0 down at halftime to Fulham, Palace fought back to win 3-2 and finish second in the table behind Brian Clough's Derby County. We three friends were part of the crowd that invaded the pitch as the team appeared in the directors' box, stripped off their shirts and threw them to the crowd. Then they threw their socks and had to be restrained from removing their shorts.

We made our way back elated. Even at sixteen I was acutely aware of mortality, so I screwed up my eyes and hoped that I would not die before I saw Palace play in the first division.

When the fixture list came out, the first game was at home to Manchester United. There was something odd about the way the two clubs were to be entangled in more than my life.

2. Boom and Bust

The 2-2 draw with United in Palace's first game in the top division remained the highlight of a season that was one long struggle against relegation. In the final fixture of the season, an agonising 1-0 victory over Manchester City gave Palace a chance of staying up depending on the results of relegation rivals Sheffield Wednesday's final two games, played the following weeks. Sheffield needed three points to send us down in their place. The first was, inevitably, at Manchester United. And, to my horror, United failed to keep Palace up as Wednesday forced a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. It was down to the last match against Manchester City, a win would have been enough. The news came through on the radio. City had won 2-1 and Palace were saved.

This triumph only opened the way to more suffering. Two more seasons of struggle and dramatic escapes culminated in the appointment of Malcolm Allison as manager. He took Palace down two divisions. They were relegated to division three in the same season United went down to division two.

But then the revival began. The start of it was the cup run of 1976. Palace went all the way to the semi-final as a third division club before the fans' hearts were broken as the team froze and lost to second division Southampton. But stunning away wins at Leeds, Sunderland and Chelsea are etched in my memory, just as I am etched on YouTube. Shortly after Palace's second goal I am there in the crowd, celebrating. There is a screen grab below.

Allison had another influence. He admired Milan and when he was at Manchester City used their red and black stripes as City's away kit. He did a similar thing at Palace. Out went the traditional claret and blue and in came red and dark blue stripes, together with a new crest and nickname of eagles. It is a change I have never wholly reconciled myself with.

We three friends all still went to matches together when we could, but we were young, wanted more from life, and everything was changing. One had moved away to live in the countryside and in September of 1976 I moved to Manchester.

3. Manchester

Manchester saw a change in my attendance patterns. I went to most United home games and Palace away games in the north. I was still a Palace fan but saw more of United. And the centrality of football in my life was fading. I had taken redundancy, studied at evening classes and entered the University of Salford. I was on my way to becoming an adult education lecturer and academic. Saturday afternoons were now reserved for essay writing with the football commentary on the radio. The year I left work, Palace had been promoted to division two. At the end of my first year at university they had won the second division championship under Terry Venables. Their young side had such a bright future they were dubbed 'the team of the eighties'. The year I graduated they finished bottom of the first division and had been relegated again.

Something else was happening too. My old life was slipping away. The three friends who had shared school, football and youth had drifted apart. We lost contact and though United were beginning to win more of my affection, I had started to fall out of love with football.

The eighties were heartless years and the football matched. Ruthlessly pragmatic, the pace had quickened and skill declined as two sides packed midfield and played high offside traps denying the space and time given to the longhaired artists of the sixties and seventies. But it was events off the pitch that got to me.

We should not romanticise the stadia of my youth. The crowd violence was real and ever-present. But the hard work, investment, social engagement and rebuilding that was necessary to confront the problem was entirely absent. Instead, club chairman competed with each other in savagery. One talked of birching hooligans on the pitch, another of turning flamethrowers on them. It was if the boardrooms of our football clubs were inhabited by the Taliban. These were the only businesses I knew of that wished to inflict brutal violence on their customers. It was only rhetoric, but what they were allowed to do was contemptuous of the ordinary fan, punished them for their loyalty and, it can be argued, was an act of class hatred.

Whilst those who could afford it sat in the stands with good views and relatively civilised conditions, the rest were physically caged on the terraces behind spiked steel fences. The grounds were crumbling, toilets were disgusting and I got tired of being crushed at inadequate entrances and exits and having my view obscured by fencing. The violence struck first. When I saw corpses being carried out of Heysel, I thought, "It's not worth it. I don't want to go any more". And all the time I was certain that there would be more deaths. I was convinced that one day those bloody fences would kill a lot of decent working class people. They did. Ninety-six of them.

In the meantime I had discovered a fresh love. I was taken to rugby league and fell for it both on and off the pitch. Here was a sport with a deep working-class ethic, demanding extraordinary levels of skill and courage, which was wonderfully entertaining. Off the pitch, there was no fencing, no segregation and, despite a large proportion of the crowd being pissed, no violence – just witty and abusive banter. Living within easy travelling distance of greats like Wigan or St Helens, who did I choose? Swinton. Another floosy. Another abusive affair. Over the years Swinton has provided a constant source of disappointment sprinkled with the odd moment of hope, just to keep you hooked. It was a new Crystal Palace. This time, there was no alternative temptation winking at me in the corner. I have stayed true and blue.

4. Eric

In the meantime, Palace had revived with a new young manager, Steve Coppell, who had played on the wing for Manchester United. And they reached the FA Cup Final; their opponents were, of course, Manchester United. The semi-final against Liverpool was televised live, but was on the same day as Swinton were playing at Huddersfield. I stood in front of the TV, ready to jump in the car the moment the match ended, expecting a heavy defeat. Instead it went to extra time and Palace won 4-3. We sped to Huddersfield and got there seconds before the kick off. I was wearing a Palace scarf to go with my Swinton one.

The final marked a turning point for me. A dramatic and dazzlingly entertaining draw at Wembley was followed by a replay in those days before things were settled by penalties. This time Palace decided to try and win by kicking the opposition off the pitch. It was a horrible, negative performance and they went down to a deserved 1-0 defeat. Later, with allegations of racism in the boardroom, it was hard to sustain affection. And then came Eric.

Romantic novels are not complete without a strong, dark, temperamental and, preferably, foreign hero who sweeps the heroine off her feet. United signed Cantona. There he was, Heathcliff and Rochester rolled into one. I saw his first game at Old Trafford. I was expecting fancy footwork. Instead, he played deeper and ran the game. The skill was there but so was the strength. He was utterly dominant. I had a new boyhood hero in my forties.

Cantona was the catalyst that opened up an unbelievable chapter in the history of United and I became a Cantona fan, probably more so than a United fan. His weakness lay in his fierce temper, a product of his pride and intelligence. He did not suffer fools gladly, once calling his national team manager a "shitbag". As a result, his greatest moment of fame was to attack an abusive spectator, leaping into the crowd with a kung-fu kick, at, where else, Crystal Palace.

Though never quite the same when he retired, I continued to follow United, seeing some wonderful football and enjoying the success of the season of the treble. The joy was palpable, but restrained by something inside. Was it just because I was older, or was it the nagging guilt of infidelity? And once again I was losing my love of football.

The game itself was better, but the economics of it caused me moral unease. It was not just the obscene amounts of money, nor even the greed of the Premier League; it was what was happening to fans. In the eighties the issue of football violence had been dealt with by punishment, now the tactic was more profitable, exclusion by price - gentrification. I and many others began to be priced out, even though I was in a comfortable middle class profession. Corporate guests got the best seats as stadia were redeveloped. And as football gentrified, it became fashionable. Politicians adopted unconvincing allegiances to appear as ordinary guys. Ownership changed. Plutocrats came in. I didn't like it and the contrast with Rugby League was striking. I stopped going and became an armchair fan. In the meantime, Palace went into administration and nearly ceased to exist. So did Swinton.

5. Reunited

Crystal Palace were receding from my life. I still looked out for scores, though even forgot to do that at times. I watched United on TV and followed Swinton home and away, going to exotic places such as Dewsbury and Barrow. Even that became more truncated as I got my house in Greece and Rugby League became a summer sport. Then, something else happened. I got an email out of the blue from an old friend who I hadn't been in contact with for more than thirty years. It could never have happened without the Internet. This set in train a series of conversations about "whatever happened to …". A bit of Googling and we found out. Those three schoolboys who stood on the Holmesdale Road End, who ran on to the pitch in 1969 and who suffered the agonies of the 1976 cup run, were back in touch.

We were radically different people from the ones who drifted apart. I was an academic on the verge of publishing my first book, another was an entertainer and disc jockey who lived in Spain, the third was a playwright living on an organic farm. We decided to meet and where else could we go but to a Palace match.

Reunions are difficult, something that Milan Kundera depicted in his post-communist novel, Ignorance, where he built his narrative on a reunion between one person who escaped and his old comrades who remained trapped in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. For a time the past holds, but there is a void, those years without conversations, those life experiences about which they were mutually ignorant. It could only end in disappointment and distance. This is also the case with an old football team. Some players were unknown, even the supporters' chants were different; everyone was talking of matches you hadn't seen. There was an ache of regret at the missing years. But the bond was there, Palace won, the joy was deep and the shared weekend was alcoholically magic.

Yet friendships cannot solely rest on a shared past. They have to have a present and build a future. And that future will, inevitably, be centred around football. An era has come to an end at United with the retirement of Ferguson. A new one is beginning at Palace with sanity returning to the boardroom and a dramatic promotion to the Premiership by winning the play-off final at Wembley. It hurt not being there. My first love had stirred. The texts from the friend who went flowed. Emails buzzed over to Spain.

The star of the play-offs was Wilfried Zaha. Twenty-years-old, extravagantly talented, but very raw, he showed something else in those games, strength and courage. He has the makings of a very great player indeed. But he too is off. To Manchester United. In interviews he showed himself to be articulate and determined to leave a legacy at the club that had nurtured him for ten years. Even if he goes on to be a United great, you get the feeling that he will never lose his affection for his first team. I can identify with that. Crystal Palace are back in my life, but I also might just become a Zaha fan.

The power of first love is part of the armoury of cliché that the romantic novelist carries into battle. The best subvert the genre; others embellish it with purple prose. But there is an alternative literary device, a cyclical view of life. Though our physical lives are unavoidably linear, our destinies are linked to our pasts. Circles are closing; old ties are proving stronger than I thought. And you know what? It feels good.


mikeovswinton, wiv mates in the pool said...

Its nice to see you have retained your sense of humour Pete. "sanity returning to the boardroom"! Its one way to describe the appointment of Holloway.

The Plump said...

Well after Bolton nicked the manager ...

Seems to be quite good at this promotion lark too.

But I should have said, financial sanity.