My dad's taking me to the match tonight, Peter boasted in the playground first thing that fateful morning.

What match? I replied, confused.

At Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace are playing Inter Milan. In the Anglo Italian cup. It's going to be brilliant. Everyone's going. Aren't you going too?

I looked at him blankly. We were all mad about football at school. We had a right to be. Our country had invented the game, it was the national sport, and to prove that we were also the best at it, England had won the World Cup just after we were born. They'd lost it again four years later, when it was played somewhere strange like Mexico and our parents had been too mean to late us six year olds stay up late at night and watch the games. We all knew what had happened though: England had lost to West Germany because of a goalkeeper called Peter Bonetti and then Brazil had won the whole thing because of a player called Pele. Everyone knew Pele. He was the best player in the world – even though he wasn't English. Some kids at school even knew the names of other Brazilian players: Jairzinho, Rivelino. But no one I knew had ever gone to an actual football match before, here in south London. Especially not one against an Italian team.

Peter seemed so sure that everyone was going, he made it sound like some kind of school outing. I knew I couldn't be left out, couldn't possibly be left behind. I'd never live it down if I showed up the next day and hadn't been to the game too.

Back home at four o'clock my words fell out in a breathless tumble. Crystal Palace are playing Minterlan. In the somethingtalian cup. It's going to be brilliant. Everyone's going. Can't I go? Peter's dad's taking him.

My dad wasn't around to take me. He had moved out just a few weeks before. He had left on a school day, the idea being that my brother and I would be out of the house already and not have to witness the very public confirmation of something we'd long known privately: our parents no longer liked each other. But Thomas, whose responsibility as older brother included walking me to our friendly primary school through the grounds of the nasty secondary school, lingered anyway that morning, until the moving van arrived, the tea chests began rolling out and our dad eventually shooed us off with an unconvincing smile of reassurance. Tom kept quiet on the subsequent walk to school and I kept asking him why he was so upset. It wasn't like we saw much of our dad anyway. He was always working.

My brother seemed unconvinced. Our mother, too, seemed to have deeper concerns. She didn't want us to think that we were missing out on anything just because we no longer had a dad at home. So when I begged to go to Selhurst Park that night, she called a fellow teacher who knew about football, and when he confirmed what Peter had told me, that this was indeed a special game featuring a famous Italian team, she agreed to take me. She asked Thomas if he wanted to go as well. But my brother seemed strangely unmoved by football. He said he'd stay at home. My mum seemed alright about that. He was, after all, the man of the house now.

So it was just the two of us went that night, where we stood on the crowded terrace at the Holmesdale Road end, and I was thrilled to find that my love for football, that which all us boys had - well, all of us but my brother – was confirmed, that it was for real. But I also discovered my love for football was about more than just the game. It was about everything that went on around the game, what people called the 'atmosphere.' Like the shadows thrown across the players by the floodlights that towered above the grass, and the thousands of broken peanut shells trampled underfoot on the terraces; the choruses of male voices singing swear-words and the high-pitched pre-adolescent cries of exuberance; the stench of stale hamburgers and the aroma of sweet tobacco; the sense of solidarity among 35,000 people in close proximity on a warm June evening, contrasted with the competitive nature of the twenty two heroic figures running bravely and skillfully up and down the pitch for that 1-1 draw...all of it added up to the most exciting night of my short life.

I didn't fall in love with Crystal Palace, though. They weren't popular enough. In fact, Peter was the only other kid at school who went to the game that night. The others didn't seem that impressed that we'd been to see Palace. They all supported teams like Leeds and Manchester United, and especially the big London clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham and Chelsea. Some of them said their dads took them to the games. For whatever reason – the shirt colour? the fact their ground was only just across the river and not all the way up in north London? - I decided I'd support Chelsea and, to prove my support was genuine, I begged and begged for a team shirt for Christmas that year. I asked for a number nine on the back, like Peter Osgood wore. But when I tore open the wrapping that Christmas morning, I found myself staring at a number five instead. The shop had been all out of number nines, I was told. Disappointed, I read the Boxing Day line-ups in the paper and discovered that I was pretending to be someone called John Dempsey.

A few months later, Manchester United came to play at Crystal Palace and the same buzz went around my primary school as had preceded Inter Milan's visit. This time there was at least the buffer of a Saturday morning for my mother to confirm the information, and even she knew enough by now to know this would be worth going to. Manchester United had players like George Best, Bobby Charlton, and Brian Kidd Stiles. Proper football stars. International legends. You'd be a fool not see them in the flesh. We stood at the Whitehorse Lane end this time, along with thousands of supposed northerners as Palace were beaten three goals to one – with two more Man United goals disallowed – in what seemed like the most exciting match you could ever imagine. As we walked back up the Whitehorse Lane afterwards, a crowd of 500 United fans gathered around one skinny youth in fashionable tank top and flares who, strapped to the shoulders of two underlings, led everyone through a series of victory chants. He had a different song for every United player, and as he called out the words, his followers would repeat them back at him. It was like he was a rock star of the terraces and I was fascinated by his appeal. I desperately wished I knew someone I could follow and look up to like that.

Later that season, a dream came true when my mum took me to Stamford Bridge to see two more of the country's biggest clubs, Chelsea and Leeds. Over 50,000 people showed up for the 0-0 draw. The lack of goals didn't bother me as I couldn't see the pitch anyway in that crowd. I did notice that some dads bought stools for their children to stand on, while others held their boys up on the crash barriers throughout. My mother didn't know any of these tricks. She was just relieved that we made it out of there without being crushed to death. Next time we go to Chelsea, she said, we're sitting down.

But there wasn't a next time. When I asked to be taken to Stamford Bridge again my request was refused. We couldn't keep going across the river to watch football, I was told. Not when there was a perfectly good first division team playing only three miles away.

Crystal Palace were not exactly good, let alone perfect, but the message sunk home. I could support my local team and go watch them play, or I could support a bigger team, and not go watch them play. The choice was mine.

I chose Crystal Palace for the benefit of seeing regular games and almost immediately, I discovered how football rewarded loyalty. Not in terms of results, which for Crystal Palace rarely went the right way, but in terms of familiarity. Family. In this fully functioning alternate universe, Crystal Palace was the name I answered to, Selhurst Park the shelter I called home, the players were the father figures I craved, and the other supporters, though I knew none by name, were like brothers. Football even offered an obvious advantage over my ongoing obsession with pop music, for buying into American idols like David Cassidy and Alice Cooper meant worshipping from afar, or waiting years for some sure-to-be-sold-out show I wouldn't get to go to anyway. But becoming a supporter of Crystal Palace offered an opportunity for active participation – every single week.

My mum and I went to a few more big games together, working our way round the ground in search of somewhere that would suit us both. We stood near the halfway line on a midweek night when the ground was packed solid for a match against Arsenal, and an old lady who must have been about seventy hurled foul-mouthed abuse at the linesman throughout the entire ninety minutes. My own mum looked upset that I was hearing such language, but when she went to say something she was warned off by other regulars. This was where the old woman always stood, we were told, and this was how she always behaved. If we didn't like what we were hearing, we were to go elsewhere. We were beginning to learn the territory of the terraces.

So we went to the seats a couple of times, including on my eighth birthday, when a half-dozen of my friends were treated to a 0-0 draw against Huddersfield Town in the rain. Those kids who hadn't been to a football match before seemed distinctly unimpressed. Those who knew more about the game maintained that if we'd gone to see Chelsea or Arsenal, we'd have seen better players.

They were right, of course, but that wasn't the point. And anyway, for as long as Palace were in the top division, we saw all the best players at least once a season. We played Tottenham and my mum, whose time as a single working parent was limited, convinced her teacher friend to take me. There was a massive queue outside the ground that day, and as he sent me through the kids' turnstiles this teacher man told me to wait the other end for him to come through and not to wander off. I waited and waited, waited and waited, and then the players came on and the match was ready to start and I went running to the police hut atop the Holmesdale terrace and told them that this man who was taking me to the match had lost me or abandoned me.

They let me watch the kick-off from the police hut and were ready to make an announcement across the public address system, when the teacher showed up, annoyed that I hadn't waited for him like he'd told me to. We watched the rest of the match from the back of the terrace. Well, he did. I couldn't see a thing. He didn't think to put me on his shoulders, and I didn't ask. I never went to a game with him again.

So I considered it a major promotion when I was allowed to go on my own, on condition I stood at the very front of the Whitehorse Lane end, a position I shared with hundreds of other kids my age and of equally high-pitched screech. You had to get to the ground early to secure this prestigious spot – like when the gates opened - but that actually made things easier. My mother, convinced of Palace's family reputation, would drop me at the ground with a packed lunch and be back home before the real rush started. I had the thrill of watching the terraces fill up over the next hour and a half, hear the singing start up as the Holmesdale End opposite packed tight in the centre, and watch the players came out for their pre-match practice during which they would usually stop to wave and smile at us tiny acolytes looking on in awe. After the match I would relive the action in my head during the three mile walk home, working up my appetite for a Saturday evening dinner of fish and chips, the evening paper with all the football reports and, if I begged enough and could somehow prove I wasn't too tired, a late night watching Match of the Day. All the time I looked back longingly on the cloth-capped images of post-war football fever and figured they'd never had it so good.

I never really expected to meet any pop stars. They lived in a different universe; they didn't associate with common people. Footballers, however, lived all around us, and their movements could be predicted. During school holidays, I'd ride my bike up on the days they had training sessions at the Palace ground, waiting patiently for the player to arrive in their sporty Rovers and Jaguars at which I'd ask them to sign my autograph book. They always obliged, even though some were nicer about it than others. Soon I had every player's signature.

The most treasured was that of John Jackson, the Palace goalie whose years of continual service and down-to-earth reputation made him a local legend. I read a book by Brian Glanville called 'Goalkeepers Are Different'. I quite fancied being a goalkeeper when I grew up; I liked the idea of being different. When a new manager, Malcolm Allison, came on board at Palace, and not only changed the club's nickname (from the Glaziers to the Eagles) and its colours (from claret and light blue to a more pronounced scarlet and royal blue), but also dropped John Jackson to make way for 'young blood,' I even went to a reserves match one Saturday at Selhurst Park just to watch my favourite goalie.

At one point, when the other team kicked the ball high over the goal into the Whitehorse Lane End I went running up the deserted terraces after it. In my hurry to collect the ball for my hero, I slipped and fell down the concrete terrace steps, cutting my knee in the process. John Jackson leaned over the hoardings and asked if I was alright. I told him I was, though I may have been fighting back tears as I did so.

Then he asked me where my dad was, and I told him I was on my own. He looked surprised. I would have been nine years old. Are you sure you're okay? He asked again. I insisted I was, and to the other players' relief, he turned back and got on with the game. But every time he had to retrieve the ball from behind the goal, he gave me a convincing smile of reassurance. I would never have expected to talk to David or Alice. And yet John Jackson was just as big an idol, and he had stopped what he was doing to pay attention to me. I felt like I had a new friend.

Down at turf level on major match days, it was hard to make much sense of the action out on the pitch, but me and the other kids - none of whom I could ever work up the courage to talk to – did our bit for the team by banging on the advertising hoardings in front of us to the theme song 'Glad All Over.' And of course we were ideally positioned to experience the thrill from just a few feet away whenever the ball went into the Whitehorse net.

Usually it was Crystal Palace conceding the goals. In choosing my local team, I had inadvertently picked myself a losing team. The first season I went to any games on my own we got relegated from the first division. The second season I went to any games on my own – the one when Malcom Allison made all the changes - we were relegated from the second division. The consequences of my attending for a third season on my own were potentially calamitous but I didn't care and neither, it seemed, did anyone else who followed the Palace. The club's attendances hardly wavered during our two-season nosedive. We were football fans. We couldn't stop going just because our team was no good. We had staked our colors to the club mast. Besides, this was a family matter, and if there was one thing I had learned already from being a football fan, it was that you never walked out on your family.


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iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2000.
What is this?
Put simply, Coming And Going is a bunch of short stories I've been writing over the years, which follow the progression of the narrator from wide-eyed idol worship, through childhood and pubescence in 1970s south London on into... something else I haven't fully realised or concluded. Until I do, and to keep myself inspired, I'm happy to post the first few chapters as a 'work-in-progress.' Enjoy them as you will, for what they are. And feel free to comment.