A few thousand years ago the Mayans predicted that the 21st December 2012 would mark the end of the world. Just like the prophesies of Nostradamus, some people genuinely took it seriously, hiding away in caves or playing REM records over and over. But for us Non league football fans there was a hint of the truth about their prediction.
The Saturday before Christmas is Man Day. It’s the perfect excuse to escape from the Christmas shopping, relative visiting or doing chores by having a couple of beers and watching some grass-roots football. After a few weeks of being on my best behaviour I had today all planned out. Family brunch then a visit to Dulwich Hamlet FC. And just in case there was a bit of rain on Dog Kennel Hill I had alternative plans all the way from B to Z. What could go wrong?
The Mayans were a canny bunch and never said how it would all end, and so when we woke to water seeping under the front door I momentarily forgave them and wished I’d completed the weekly Build Your Own Ark magazine from Marshall Cavendish they advertised last Christmas. Games started to fall by the wayside from my list. Maldon & Tiptree, Corinthian, Wealdstone and Mertsham had all gone by 10am. Folkstone and Ilford followed at 10.30 and then the big Medway derby between Lordswood and Rochester was cancelled. Yet Dulwich grimly hung on. Perhaps it was the thought of the £1.50 special club-branded Shepherd Neame beer due to be launched today that kept the referee on the right side.
But it couldn’t last and at 11.47am my plan A was postponed. Just like thousands of other men up and down the country I faced a day of Christmas preparation hell. It really was the end of the world as we knew it and I certainly didn’t feel fine!
I’d considered Brentford v Stevenage earlier in the morning but such was the success of their “pay what you want” advanced ticket offer that it was a virtual sell out. Alas for all involved that met a watery grave soon after midday. There was just one option left. The fat kid who is picked last in the school playground. The coffee cream in the bag of Revels. The pint of Fosters in a real ale pub. Crystal Palace.
The game was sure to be on as it was a later kick off for the TV cameras. It sort of fitted in well with the Fuller family plans and it was less than an hour away by public transport. But it was Crystal Palace. CMF could sense my hesitation. But she is a good woman and laid out the options to me. It was picking the turkey up at Bluewater or football at Palace. No man should be put in that position.
The casual reader may now think I have something against Crystal Palace. But I don’t. I don’t feel anything about them – that’s the issue. There is no bond whether through love or hate. A bit like the Casualty on TV. I won’t go out of my way to watch it but if it’s on I will indulge.
Millwall – sworn enemies of West Ham. Charlton Athletic – my Grandad’s club and where I saw my first ever football match. Arsenal – my first team. Spurs and Chelsea – see Millwall. Brentford – worked next to Griffin Park for 5 years and so on. But apart from the odd moment such as Simon Jordan’s tenure as the most orange football chairman ever, and a play off defeat at the Millennium Stadium back in 2004 I’ve never really had an opinion on Palace.
In fact considering they were so close to TBIR towers it is amazing I’d only seen them play at home twice. The last visit back in that 2004 season was when Iain Dowie somehow took the side from relegation candidates to play off winners in just 5 months and they had beaten West Ham 1-0 over Easter. I remember that sitting/standing on the Arthur Wait stand was like a throw-back to watching football in the 1970s with its obscure views, no leg room, heavy policing and awful food.
My first visit actually did come in that decade. It was May 1979 and I’d been asked to go along to the final game of the season by a school friend and his parents. The club, under the mercurial management of Terry Venables when he was actually a decent coach, were in the verge of a return to the top flight of English football. Over 51,000 crammed into Selhurst Park on that day, a record that will undoubtably stand for ever more. I can remember being in the ground very early and being passed down the front to sit on the perimeter wall of the Holmesdale End. Today Selhurst Park has a capacity of almost 50% of that crowd from 1979. The huge Holmesdale terrace has now given way to the modern double-decker stand, although the Main Stand and the Arthur Wait are still holding their own.
Palace are having a cracking season. Fighting for one of the promotion spots with the likes of Hull City and Cardiff City primarily thanks to the skill of Wilfred Zaha and the goals of Glenn Murray. It came as some surprise that after a flying start manager Dougie Freedman decided to join Bolton Wanderers in October and the club moved quickly to bring in Ian Holloway. With reasonable ticket pricing (£26 for second tier football), easy public transport, a decent attacking team and pissing rain, it had all the makings of a good evening’s entertainment.
Crystal Palace 1 Huddersfield Town 1 – Selhurst Park – Saturday 22nd December 2012
I know that some of my very good friends will hate me for saying it but I bloody loved my two hours in SE25. You cannot fail to be impressed by so many things about a trip to Selhurst Park even if you are a Charlton or a Brighton fan. Yes I know I was desperate for any football and yes I know that the poor standard of refereeing led to a highly entertaining game but even still I doff my hat off the Palace for their match day experience.
Despite only being 7 miles as the crow flies from TBIR it would have been foolish to negotiate the streets of South London by car during peak Christmas shopping time so I let the train take the strain. 43 minutes after leaving home I was walking out into the rain at Norwood Junction. The ground sits hidden by suburbia just like football grounds should be, at the heart of the local community and not in an industrial estate out on a ring road somewhere. Character and history oozed from every street corner and the moment you turn into Holmesdale Road and see the towering stand, shining its lights down onto the pitch you can almost feel as if the view was an inspiration for H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds play.
I had a ticket for the Arthur Wait stand which despite the fact it was almost the only gig in town, it was near Christmas and Palace were high-flying was only two-thirds full. The rain was falling hard as we queued to get in, although a 5.20pm kick off meant that spirits (well, beer levels) were high. As I entered the stadium I got the first look at the lush green playing surface which was currently being monopolised by the Crystal Girls. Ah yes, the Crystal Girls. Who can forget THAT video from the summer. Alas today they were wearing a few more clothes although we can forgive them that as it is near the end of December.
The first strains of the club’s infectious song, “Glad All Over” struck up and that was a cue for the Holmesdale End to jump into action. In what was a scene that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in any continental grounds a huge Palace flag was unfurled from the top tier as well as a banner along the front of the stand. “The Palace support – Fanatical by tradition” it read and the fans were certainly that. Top marks from the New Eltham jury for that display.
The team emerged and the plethora of fancy dressed fans became apparent around the ground. Snowmen and Father Christmas’ were two-a-penny but how about a few reindeer, a Christmas pudding and even a Jesus? Call me shallow but was it any coincidence that all of these fans had found themselves in the front row of the stand for a televised game?
Palace kicked off and within seconds looked dangerous down the right. Just 33 seconds gone and Huddersfield’s full back Woods was in the book for a late challenge on Bolasie. The rain continued to fall, causing most of us to move back a few rows to drier conditions whilst on the pitch Huddersfield started to take control on a game the bookies had already decided was done and dusted.
Eleven entertaining minutes gone and the referee straightened his hair and decided to take centre stage in front of the watching millions. A ball over the top of the Palace defence saw Beckford up against Delany. The Terriers man fell to the ground and out came a red card. Harsh on Delany and Palace but could the visitors make the one man advantage tell?
Less than ten minutes later it went from bad to worse for Palace as a very soft penalty was won by Scannell who beat his man in the box and then fell to the floor as if hit by an invisible marksman. Once again, the referee was keen to make a name for himself by pointing to the spot. Up stepped Adam Clayton, namesake of the U2 bass player and former boyfriend of Naomi Campbell, and it is hard to remember a worse spot kick. Campbell herself could have taken a better one as Speroni had time to do his make up or play a quick jam session with Bono in the time it took for the ball to travel from the penalty spot to him. Behind the goal Jesus claimed it was divine intervention.
Of course it is more difficult to play against ten men, as any manager will tell you who is losing/lost to a numerically disadvantaged team, and Huddersfield’s Simon Grayson would have said something similar when Wilfred Zaha smashed the ball home into the roof of the net after a clever run into the box. The lad definitely looks special and like Victor Moses before him, Palace will struggle to keep the big guns seducing him with promises of fast cars, fast women and fast food come January time.
An entertaining first half came to a close with the Holmesdale End fans still in fine voice, welcoming back the Crystal Girls in their Mariah Carey outfits. I have to say I was quite enjoying this. Of course normally I could share some of the enjoyment with you by the medium of photography. But after last week’s encounter at Chesterfield I am being a good boy and not taking any pictures of the game or players (well, apart from the odd one or two).
The second half never reached the highs of the first. Speroni was the busier of the two keepers, although after making four or five brilliant saves he let a Southern (scored by a Northerner) header creep through his legs to draw Huddersfield level. There was still time for Huddersfield to be reduced to ten men when Anthony Gerrard, cousin of Stevie G, was sent off for a high challenge on Bolasie. As he was escorted off the pitch my mind flashed back to the Cantona incident and the Palace fans who let the Frenchman know how they felt. The walk to the dressing room for the sinner(s) hasn’t changed and there is always that thought it could happen again.
So a draw was a fair result for both teams effort. Whilst Palace had the majority of possession in midfield, Speroni was the busier keeper. Both manager’s contested their respective red cards in the post match interviews, feeling that they could have gone on to win the game.
I left as soon as the final whistle blew certainly not Glad it was All Over. It had been a very enjoyable evening out despite the appalling weather and my original best laid plans. I’m sorry Palace that I ignored you for so long. You didn’t deserve that.