Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Deadline 1500 hours today

The first ever blog topic. Maybe the only ever blog topic. It needs to be a biggie; needs to be a head-turner; original, witty, thought-provoking. So why have I decided to write about football?

Well, it's vaguely topical (there's a world cup just around the corner), it's certainly popular and it's not every day that the club to which you have dedicated a fair amount of time and money goes out of business. But that looks like being the fate of Crystal Palace Football Club at 3pm today. A bit of background: I've supported Palace for about twenty years. When I was too young to know better, I supported Liverpool, as did most of my classmates in leafy Barnes, South West London. I remember one chap called Jeremy Rampling (found brief fame in 'Tom's midnight garden' way back when) supporting Brentford, but he was derided for it. Supporting Liverpool was very much about fitting in; if your team were the best in the Country, then you bathed in their reflected glory. If you supported Brentford (and none of us knew where they were, they might have been less local than Liverpool), that made you rubbish. Because Brentford were rubbish. You see? Hardly complex. Anyway, I digress...

Palace have given me pain and pleasure in roughly equal measure. There's the 1990 cup run high, the 1997 play-off final win, the last day at Stockport, and the last day escape (2nd May 2010) at SWFC. On the flip side, there's the 9-0 and 6-1 drubbings by Liverpool, the last day relegations (once at Chartlon of all places) and the 1990 cup final (replay) defeat. I've stuck with them for 20 years, and there's little else (save family) that I can say this about. Financial mismanagement and the collapse of the illusion that there's any real money in football have now left Palace staring into the abyss, and unless there's a dramatic turnaround by 3pm today (the official deadline for a deal to be struck to buy the club), Palace will be no more, the club will be wound up, and the players will be sold. Selhurst Park, the club's home since the 1920s will be sold for development, or even worse, it will end up like Wimbledon's old home at Plough Lane, which stood desolate for many years, with only a plaintive 'womble 'til I die' painted on the gates to remind people of what was there once.

And yet - here's the funny thing: I don't really care that much. There, I said it. The club into which I've invested cash, time, emotion and terrible replica shirts is being expunged from the face of the earth and I'm not terribly bothered. I wish I was, but I'm not.

I have a complex relationship with football. I used to like it too much, now perhaps I don't like it enough. It's similar to the feeling one gets when reading 'The Lord of the Rings'. One minute you're gripped, in a world of your own, deeply immersed in the book, and the next you look up, look around and say to yourself 'isn't this all a bit silly'. For orcs and goblins, just replace Alan Lee and Sean Derry. They don't care that I'm here, screaming my lungs out, trying to suck the ball into the goal. If I wasn't here, it would make no difference, and I could have spend my £25 doing something more cerebral. But what if everyone thought like that? Would they still play the game if no-one turned up? Football gives one a sense of belonging. The club welcomes you (to a degree), expects nothing of you, and gives you an immediate family. It's where you can find England's last bit of truly tribal behaviour, and if I could remember the exact words that Colin Firth uses in 'Fever Pitch' I'd quote them now (you may need to youtube this, there really are some great reasons for being a football nut. I've just forgotten what they are). It's where you can stand shoulder to shoulder with the bouncer who was intent on kicking you to death on saturday night, but becasue you're both wearing the red and blue, you're comrades in arms, blood brothers for the next 90 minutes. And I think that's the real crux. When I was growing up, lots of things change: you change, your appearance changes, your friends change; but your football club stays the same. It's a nice piece of constancy in your life, and gives you a fulcrum around which you can balance all the uncertainty. The football club will play about 40 league games a season, it will appear in about 2 cup competitions, and Iain Dowie will still look like Jabba the Hut's mate from Return of the Jedi. If you need that stability, mixed in with the escapsim that football brings, then by all means stick with it if it works for you.

Something inside me has become detached from the club however, or at least the aura around the club. Maybe it's the fact that I'm now older than most of the players, maybe it's because they get paid too much, maybe it's becasue lots of them have tattoos on the inside of their forearm. Whatever it is, I won't be shedding a tear at 3pm, and the only thing I'm really sad about is that I may have drunk my last pint in the Thomas Farley and eaten my last saltfish pattie from Cornfield's bakery: that's real tradition for you, and it's all my own. Oh, and the fact that I might have to go and watch Peterborough next season.

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