I’ve never been a fan of long car journeys.
The minimal space, the stuffy atmosphere, the motion sickness. It’s a cramped and cheerless experience, and one that’s made no better by the nagging thought in the back of your mind that this could be the last time you ever see your football club in action.
The date was May 2nd, 2010, and three mates and I were on the way to Hillsborough to see our beloved Crystal Palace take on Sheffield Wednesday in what was essentially a Championship relegation play-off.
It had been a draining and topsy-turvy campaign. Pushing for a top-six spot at the turn of the year, Palace sunk down the table after being plunged into administration and deducted 10 points at the end of January. Manager Neil Warnock departed for QPR in March, and a 2-1 loss to Cardiff shortly after left us staring relegation in the face.
Demotion itself was not particularly worrying; Palace fans, after all, clearly did not place too much importance on results and success when it came to choosing a London club to support. The primary concern was that a League One side – with its reduced revenue and increased distance from the top flight – was a much harder sell to prospective buyers than one competing in the Championship. It may have been misplaced, but there was a genuine fear at the time that losing to Sheffield Wednesday could be the end for Crystal Palace Football Club.
We survived. A 2-2 draw was enough to send Wednesday down to the third tier in our place, much to the ire of the menacing locals whose mood and general demeanour persuaded me to remove my Palace top before we exited the stadium and made our way back to the car for another long journey back south. This one, at least, would be less apprehensive, if just as uncomfortable.
Never did I think back then that Palace would be an established Premier League team preparing to compete in an FA Cup final just six years later.
Football clubs work best when everyone’s pulling in the same direction, something that wasn’t always the case during the divisive Simon Jordan’s time as chairman. No-one knew what to expect of the four men who completed their takeover of the club a month or so after that decisive day in Sheffield – particularly as Steve Parish, the leader of the group, had peroxide blonde highlights and a flashy sports car just like his predecessor. In truth, most people weren’t looking too far ahead, and the overriding emotion was one of relief given that the process of liquidation had been set to begin just a few hours after the deal was eventually finalised.
As it turned out, we had nothing to fear. It soon became apparent that each member of the quartet was a Palace fan, and each helped to foster a sense of unity and togetherness that has more or less remained intact ever since.
Not that things started swimmingly. Under George Burley, we played some neat and tidy football but were simply too open, naïve and lacking in quality. That wasn’t all Burley’s fault, of course – there was a great deal of upheaval in the playing staff in the summer of 2010, which always meant a quick fix was unlikely – but the comprehensive nature of many of the defeats hurt.
My friend Matt and I certainly chose the wrong season to try and attend as many away games as possible. There was a 5-0 thrashing at Derby, which featured the surreal sight of left-back Edgar Davids (yes, that Edgar Davids) being torn apart by their buccaneering right-back John Brayford (yes, that John Brayford), and a 3-0 loss at Reading where Paddy McCarthy was given the run-around by Shane Long.
The nadir, though, was a 3-0 reverse at Nottingham Forest in December, when academy product Alassane N’Diaye – now representing FC Tobol in Kazakhstan after unsuccessful spells with Hayes & Yeading and Hastings United – turned in the worst individual performance I’ve ever seen. It snowed that day and our journey back was so bad that I arrived home after my Dad, who hadn’t finished work until 2am. Still, at least we missed the Football League Show.
Dougie Freedman was my favourite Palace player as a kid. A scheming second striker who was adept at both scoring and creating goals, the Scot was the type of player who would shift supporters to the edge of their seats whenever he had the ball at his feet. He was never quite good enough for the top division and games occasionally passed him by, but some vital on-pitch contributions and his 10-year service to the club made him a real fans’ favourite.
I was therefore overjoyed when Dougie was appointed as Burley’s successor in January 2011. He did a good job, too, dragging us out of relegation trouble by making us harder to beat and difficult to play against. We then consolidated our position in the Championship the following year, securing a comfortable 17th-place finish and reaching the semi-finals of the Milk Littlewoods Challenge Rumbelows Coca-Cola Worthington Carling Cup, before a whirlwind first quarter of the 2012/13 campaign, when Dougie, our Dougie, kick-started a promotion push that left everyone on the Selhurst Park terraces dreaming of the Premier League.
Then he left for Bolton.
A week previously, Freedman (note the less affectionate moniker) had warned teenage sensation Wilfried Zaha of the perils of departing too soon and insisted that he himself would never leave a job half-done. It was a pretty crushing moment when he jumped ship at the first sign of interest from elsewhere, and one that opened my eyes to the fact that loyalty in football really doesn’t exist. If even Dougie, our Dougie, could back down on a promise and leave us in the lurch, why would anyone else stick around any longer than they had to?
The spirit in the squad remained, however: even though almost all of the Hillsborough heroes had gone, their mentality and commitment seemed to have been inherited by the new group. We played Leicester off the park at the King Power just days after Freedman’s exit and rose to the top of the table following Ian Holloway’s appointment as his replacement in November. Despite a late-season stutter, we overcame the odds to defeat rivals Brighton in the play-off semi-finals and then beat Watford at Wembley to secure a Premier League return. Holloway did an OK job, but most fans agree it was the quality and togetherness of the players that got us over the line.
Watford at Wembley, of course, was the task that awaited us in the FA Cup semi-finals last month. We’d been awful in the league for ages, winning just one of our last 18 top-flight encounters, but I was still pretty confident we’d get the job done.
That’s what we’ve done ever since that trip to Hillsborough in 2010: whenever the pressure is really on, whenever a game has really mattered, Palace have come up with the goods. We avoided relegation in 2012 despite beginning the season severely undercooked both on and off the pitch; we won the play-offs in 2013 despite entering them in dire form; and we survived in the Premier League in 2014 and 2015 despite having Ian Holloway and Neil Warnock at the helm for almost a full season between them.
The players didn’t let us down: we fully deserved our 2-1 victory against an off-colour Watford outfit, headed goals from Yannick Bolasie and Connor Wickham booking Palace’s place in a cup final for only the second time in our history. Bolasie, Joel Ward, Damien Delaney, Wilfried Zaha and Mile Jedinak, survivors from the promotion campaign three years previously, all played their part on another victorious day at Wembley to set up a meeting with Manchester United, our conquerors in the same competition’s showpiece in 1990.
We probably won’t win on Saturday. But we don’t have to win on Saturday. For us it’s an opportunity, not an obligation. Being 90 minutes away from a major trophy and a spot in the Europa League, rather than potential financial oblivion and a place in League One, provokes excitement, not anxiety. It’s something to relish, something to revel in, not something to be afraid of.
Best of all, I can take the train straight there, without the non-existent legroom, the stuffy atmosphere and the nagging thought in the back of my mind that this could be the last time I ever see my football club in action. It’s been a great six years.