Great British Memories (Notes from a return home)
#1 THE HOLMESDALE FINDS ITS VOICE (AND TONY REDISCOVERS HIS PASSION)
Living in the States, I can pretend I don’t really care about Crystal Palace FC any more. After all, the team is not in the Premiership; the games aren’t carried on Fox Soccer Channel. I pick up the scores by RSS Feed (when I remember to), and when the results go against us (which they often do), I shrug my shoulders and get on with my life; it’s not like I have other Palace fans in the Catskills to discuss them with. I can even absorb the recent run of dire news – that the club is in Administration, that we’ve had ten points deducted as a result, that the best young player has been sold in a rush and the manager gone to QPR in a huff – and assure myself that it’s alright, they’re all overpaid anyway, that sooner or later a club is going to go under for good, and that if it’s us, then it’s us and that’s that.
Then I get back to Britain and everything’s different. British people don’t just follow football; they obsess about it. The Sunday papers carry full page reports on every game that’s played in the Premiership, and statistics on most that aren’t. England’s finest, Wayne Rooney, comes off the pitch with an injury two months before the World Cup and in fear that he might be out for the mighty clash against the USA in South Africa, it’s instant front page news – from the tabloids to the broadsheets. Everybody seems to know everything about every team at any given moment – and that means they all know of Palace’s dire straits, in much more detail than I do, and they’re ready to discuss it with me, instantly. And as soon as that conversation starts up, I realize how much I care, after all. You can’t be British, in Britain, and be otherwise.
I didn’t attend any of Palace’s away games while I was in the UK, but I did get to the home match against Cardiff City on Saturday March 27th. To be honest, it was a depressing affair: the lunchtime kick-off, carried live on Sky, knocked the real attendance (as compared to the published one, which includes no-show season ticket holders) down below 10,000. Nor was the mood in the Vice-President’s Lounge (yep, some of us have gone up in the world) exactly ecstatic, with various board members whispering conspiratorially in the corners, presumably about the latest rescue rumors. Out in the stands, initial hopes of the fans getting behind the team were quickly forestalled when Cardiff, chasing a promotion spot, took the lead after just five minutes. The Palace team, knocked together by new manager – sorry, coach – Paul Hart from a badly depleted squad, played valiantly, but without the kind of confidence necessary to keep them in the, ahem, Championship. That Palace had what looked like a clear penalty – clear to everyone but the referee, that is – turned down hardly helped matters.
And then, early in the second half, Palace replicated the corner kick that led to Cardiff’s goal, defender Clint Hill rose to the challenge and with it, headed in an equalizer. The ground erupted – especially the Lower Holmesdale, where the Palace hardcore gather in the corner closest to the away fans. (Almost 4,000 of the day’s 9,500 attendance could be found in that one lower stand.) What we used to call the “Palace roar” took hold around Selhurst Park, and over the next few minutes, even some of the suits in the Director’s Box got to their feet and joined in the singing and shouting. The mood was contagious, and almost 39 years after I first attended the ground, I found myself as much a Palace fan as ever.
But then, not even ten minutes after the equalizer, a ludicrous handball decision called against the Palace led to a second Cardiff goal, and the crowd, as per cliché, was silenced. The team searched for inspiration but it was not to be their day; we lost the game 2-1, and with it, slipped further into the relegation zone.
Back in the Lounge afterwards, I realized how much it hurt. I felt robbed, not just by a couple of genuinely poor refereeing decisions (see how rapidly the blind loyalty comes charging back?) but by the fact that I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen Palace win a game in the flesh – it’s many years now, that’s for sure. A new friend assured me it wasn’t my fault and that, come on, as Palace fans we’re used to things going against us. And I tried to take refuge in the fact that within a couple of weeks, I’d be back home, removed from day-to-day involvement in the scores and the news, and once again immune to the passion that surrounds it all.
Still, heading out of Selhurst Park, I stopped in at the Palace club shop anyway. Not surprisingly, given the club’s recent string of bad news and the fact that we’re coming to the end of the season, they were almost given the stuff away. Before I knew it, I’d bought myself a very nice fleece top for just £10. Palace may have lost, but they’d won me back. A few hours later, I went to a pub in Bexhill – close enough to Brighton, Palace’s biggest rivals – and I wore my colors with pride. You can take the boy out of the Palace, but you can’t take the Palace out of the grown man.