Between October 1969 and August 1972, football was one of the most important things in my life. It started off innocently enough. “Went to a football match with Dad,” read the relevant diary entry. “Crystal Palace v Newcastle. Palace lost 0-3.” Enthralled by the novelty of watching 22 men (25 if you counted the ref and linesmen) running around showing their legs, little did I suspect that this scoreline was not an unfortunate aberration, but symptomatic of the big picture. By the time my eyes were opened, it was too late.
People who support glamorous teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea can have little idea of what it’s like to find yourself attached to a club whose results are typified by diary entries such as these: “Went to Spurs v Palace (2-0). Rotten game,” and, a couple of days later, “Went to Palace v Chelsea (1-5). Better game.” We lost by four goals and this was a better game?
What masochism drove me back, week after week, for further punishment? I might have put it down to the compulsion of the gambler who, having once tasted good fortune, throws away the rest of his life in the hope of tasting it again – except that I had to stand and suffer with that heroically stoic home crowd six times before I saw my team so much as win a match (Palace 2, Arsenal 1).
That first season, Palace managed to hang on in the First Division, but they avoided the drop with a point tally so low it set records. Terse, tantalising, impenetrable entries in my diary hint at a woeful tale of ritual weekly humiliation and ensuing despondency, alleviated only by an occasional social event, cultural outing or goalless draw: “Palace 0, Derby 1. Dave and Julie came round afterwards to deliver cheese (Camembert!).” Or: “Palace 0, Coventry 3. Terrible!!! Saw Citizen Kane at film club. Not bad.” Or: “Near-riot at the Palace!! Yes concert at Rainbow. Superb!!!”
I yearn for illumination, but there is none. What caused the near-riot, and does the lack of scoreline indicate the match was cancelled or simply that it was the usual two-points-on-a-plate for the visitors? Did Citizen Kane cheer me up, or did it depress me even further? And what about that Camembert? Alas, the secrets of the past remain forever locked away.
None of this dampened my enthusiasm. When the first team were playing away, I went to reserve games. I attended “At Home” events and watched the players training. I knitted a Palace scarf so long that it had to be wound around my neck six times to stop me tripping over it. On weekends, I applied careful stripes of claret and blue lacquer to my fingernails.
But what of the football itself? Palace, a little team that had suddenly found itself among the big boys, had evolved a tactic that was simultaneously expedient and completely useless. For ninety minutes, ten Palace players would wedge themselves in their own goalmouth and fend off the opposition as best they could. Once in a blue moon, someone would manage to welly the ball up the field to a solitary Palace forward who, seconds later, would be relieved of his burden by six opposing defenders tackling in unison. The ball would then be booted back into Palace’s penalty area and the Siege of Selhurst Park would continue as though never interrupted.
The terraces rang with shouts of “Woman!” and “Women! The lot of them!”, which seemed to be the worst insult anyone could come up with, though today’s soccer wags would no doubt have had a field day with the name of that solitary forward, Gerry Queen. (This once engendered the classic headline, “QUEEN SWEEPS UP AT PALACE” after an uncharacteristically dynamic performance, though one imagines the writer had to carry it around in his head for several aeons before finding an occasion worthy of its use.)
The players themselves were square-jawed jocks who gave 110% effort, though there were only two among them who were not hopelessly outclassed. One was canny midfielder Steve Kember, popularly known as “Little Stevie Kember”, who was later transferred to Chelsea. And then there was heroic goalie John Jackson, who many a time seemed to be the only thing preventing the opposition from running up a scoreline more appropriate to a game like Space Invaders.
I frequented Selhurst Park for the best part of three seasons and then, in 1972, I stopped going and never went back. This had a lot to do with me going away to college, but a perusal of the relevant diary entries suggests it was also thanks to my first steady boyfriend, who had already established – with an awe-inspiring battery of sulks and tantrums – that he objected to me going to Test matches (August 4) and talking to other people at parties (August 10). The entry for August 12 reads: “CJ upset that I seem to prefer football to him.”
But I don’t like to think of myself as having been at the beck and call of some over-possessive egomaniac. I prefer to think that Palace and I parted company because I could no longer tolerate the gloom into which they routinely cast me. And then, a couple of years ago, the team began to enjoy a modicum of success under the management of Steve Coppell. Against my better judgement, but from what I considered to be a safe distance, I found myself once again taking an interest in their exploits.
This article was first published in GQ (British edition) in 1994.