My six decades as a football fan – and how the beautiful game has changed

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It was fate. Before the Second World War, my grandfather, whom I never knew, worked at the Crystal Palace in south London. According to family legend, he was there on the night it burned down in 1936. I have sometimes wondered if he was responsible for the faulty electrical circuit that likely caused its destruction.

When I was born, we lived for a short while with my grandmother in her flat, less than a mile from where that extraordinary glass edifice had stood. 

Even before I was old enough to know the history of that great building, even before I discovered football, the name was part of me, an evocation of something magical, other-worldly. From my grandfather, to my father, to me, there was no other football team I could possibly follow.

The football club was named after the building, of course; initially founded by workers there in 1861, playing in the Crystal Palace grounds. 

The club in its present form was established in 1905, and in 1924 it moved to its current ground, Selhurst Park, two miles away near the unlovely south London neighbourhood of Thornton Heath – a place I would come to love.

28 December, 1959

Crystal Palace 3, Gillingham 3

It’s the question all football fans ask each other: when was your first game? I was eight years old when my father took me to watch Crystal Palace play. 

We stood behind one of the goals, at what’s now called the Sainsbury’s end, after a supermarket was developed behind the terracing. But in those days it was half terracing, half grassy slope. We played Gillingham. It was a bitterly cold day. We drew 3-3.

I say ‘we’ – I mean they, of course, for my participation was limited to watching, a passive observer, which is pretty much how things have continued for the past 60 years. (The window when I harboured dreams of one day playing for Palace, which opened on that day in 1959, finally closed around my 40th birthday. 

Stanley Matthews, one of the greatest players ever to grace the English game, retired at 50, and even though I hadn’t kicked a football for 10 years, if the call came over the public address system for someone to play on the left, I’m sure I could have done a job.) 

I can remember little about the game itself. But I do remember the thrill of being in the crowd, the shouting, the groans, the collective roar when Palace scored; the palpable shiver of excitement that ran through me, the feeling that in some inexpressible way I had found my place, my team and – for better or worse – my future.

Before club shops and home and away strips at exorbitant prices (a match ticket back then would have cost less than a pound), my mother took a white T-shirt, sewed a claret and blue strip of fabric around the chest and stitched an image of the Crystal Palace – the club badge – above it, for me to wear when I played with friends in the local recreation ground. 

For Christmas, I was given a little ‘league ladders’ kit comprising all the teams in the top four divisions. Each team’s name was printed in its home colours on a small bit of cardboard, which you could then slot into a league table, rearranging the order after each round of results. 

It was a painstaking, laborious process, and even the thrill of handling the card marked ‘Crystal Palace’ palled as it became more bent and dog-eared – a symbol, it seemed, of the club’s standing at the time – until being finally abandoned altogether.

It is an understatement to say that Crystal Palace is not a glamorous club. It is the antithesis of glamour. When I first started following the team they were in what was then the Fourth Division, the lowest tier in the professional game. 

Over the years they made a slow, fitful progress upward – and sometimes downward again – through the divisions, occasionally breaching the top tier before falling back into the hinterland of the second. 

In 2013 they arrived once more in the Premier League where, astonishingly, they – or should I say we – have remained ever since.

They have never won a major competition. The highest league position ever achieved was third place in the old First Division in 1991. They have been FA Cup finalists twice – in 1990 and 2016 – both times losing to Manchester United, and who could forget winning the Zenith Data Systems Cup in 1991?

They are not a brand, nor a franchise; they are a football club.

Football, the Premier League in particular, is the great lingua franca; I have swapped football talk with taxi drivers in America, India and all over Europe. All of them have been familiar with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Few, if any, have heard of Crystal Palace.

At some point in the 1970s, the then-manager Malcolm Allison, possibly thinking the team’s original nickname, ‘the Glaziers’, was too arcane, changed it to ‘the Eagles’. You’ll hear it chanted at games, ‘Ea-gles! Ea-gles’; but I’ve never heard anyone call them that in conversation. 

To fans, the club is simply ‘Palace’; to rivals striving for satirical effect, it’s sometimes ‘Palarse’. A friend in Canada irritatingly refers to ‘the Crystals’ (the name of the cheerleaders who perform before home games). 

He has no understanding of football, and finds my passion amusing and faintly ridiculous, as would most people who know little of football and care even less. But there is nothing logical, or explicable, about it.

To follow a football team is to be initiated into a lifetime of dreams, magic and infinite possibilities – but often the reality is a lifetime of thwarted ambition, frustration and pain. Who in their right mind would consign themselves to that? I did.

18 April, 1962

Crystal Palace 3, Real Madrid 4

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