Monday May 13th 2013, kick off 19:45 at the Amex Stadium, Falmer, near Brighton.
Championship Play off S/F, 2nd Leg.
Brighton and Hove Albion 0-2 Crystal Palace.
att 29,518, admission £28, programme £3.50, Harveys best £3.90.
It has been forty-three years man and boy since my first encounter.
Just occasionally a special game of importance and with a performance to match, touches one deeply and re-affirms the realisation, that your first love never really leaves you, in fact it probably grows stronger.
Last Monday night, at the Amex Stadium, the PA man rather bombastically encouraged the home support…..
“Let’s make tonight one of those nights, a night to remember, a night to say, I was there”
Yes, I thought, indeed, I hope so, although not for the reason he was hoping.
An almost 30,000 strong crowd had gathered at the this wonderful new ground situated on the North downs, frankly, in the middle of nowhere, with poor transport links, little parking and a small branch line railway station, crazy really, but never the less the Amex is pleasing on the eye.
In our little corner, we were restricted to just 2,000 tickets by the police, and gathered in hope rather than expectation, a lifelong sentence as a Palace fan!
The first leg had finished as a 0-0 stalemate, Brighton had edged the first half with their neat passing patterns and movement, without really creating anything significant. Palace edged the second half.
This result left the form team, unbeaten in ten, Brighton, as firm favourites to progress to the richest game in football (to the winners) at Wembley stadium on May 27th to play Watford, Sunday victors of Leicester.
Meeting friends on the concourse an hour the before kick off, a pre-match ale was enjoyed to calm the nerves. As the beers went down the atmosphere was being slowly cranked up, the beer fuelling the hope and belief of, well whatever happens, we felt, the least we could do, was play our part by supporting our team fully for the ninety minutes.
I found my seat was near the back amongst many of our younger fans, many probably being part of the ‘Holmesdale fanatics’, who have become renowned for their repertoire of euro style songs and flags, many now heard sung by all clubs in England, but not so three or four years ago when the HFs first started to make an impression on the atmosphere at Palace games.
The only change to the Palace team was Aaron Wilbraham replacing the injured ’31 goal’ Glenn Murray. Glenn having done knee ligaments during the first leg, twisting his knee badly whilst unchallenged during the second half.
Brighton fans were given blue/white cards to hold up when the teams came out, which looked impressive, when the teams emerged on the pitch their jaunty old-fashioned club song ‘Sussex by the sea’ rang out. The game kicked off and the Palace fans struck up a tune, and sang, and sang.
Brighton had much of the early possession, but Palace kept their shape very well.
‘Albion, Albion’ rang out around the ground, in our corner….
‘My father said to me, now listen here son, you’re CPFC
So here we are, you know us by the noise
The Pride of South London, the famous Palace boys
Whoaaa Whooaaa Whoaaa Whoaaa’
The first half was a half of few chances, as cagey as the first leg. But the Palace were playing well, although we lacked width and penetration, Brighton were not really making inroads.
A lad behind me was screaming for the introduction of Bolasie to add extra width to our attack.
I was happy with keeping it tight and frustrating Brighton, and creating anxiety amongst the home crowd.
‘We love you, we love you, we love you
Where you play, we follow, we follow, we follow
Because we support the Palace, the Palace, the Palace
And that’s the way we like it, like it, like it
Whoaaa Whoaaa Whoaaa Whoaaa’
Half time, all good, still 0-0, all eleven of the Palace team playing well.
Early in the second half Jonny Williams is put clean through on goal, we all stood rigid in anticipation as one, is this it? No, he just screws the ball a yard wide, to a man (and woman), our hands go to our heads. The support for him is immediate…
‘Ohhh Jonny Jonny, Jonny Jonny Jonny Williams’
The introduction of Brazilian Moritz (for Garvan) and Bolasie (for Williams) introduces more adventurous play from Palace, Zaha is still a menace, and Brighton still kick him, he doesn’t give in. Barnes on for Ulloa for Albion gives them new impetus, but still they cannot break us down.
Some Palace fans had wondered if Holloway had lost the dressing room over recent months, that nonsense and this performance made that thought look ridiculous.
‘We’re the pride of South London
South London’s number one, you know it’s true
We’re the RedNBlue
Whoaaa Whoaaa Whoaaa Whoaaa’
The game ebbed and flowed, not a classic, but engaging and compelling for those of us involved, neither set of fans could bear to lose this, the bragging rights at stake being enormous, as well as the Wembley final (and possibly promotion) as the end carrot.
The Brighton fans in unison used their free clappers, whilst we sang.
‘We are Crystal Palace, and we clap with our hands’
Then in the 69th minute, a ball out to the left wing, was controlled by Bolasie, he swiveled, turned to face the goal and sent a low cross into the area reaching the far right penalty area, time seemed to stand still, as we looked to see Zaha unmarked, he stooped, then headed firmly into the back of the net.
Queue absolute pandemonium in the Palace end, as Zaha ran to us. Palace fans young and old were dancing a jig of delight, arms and legs everywhere, strangers hugging strangers, my programme sent into the air from my pocket.
After two or three minutes of this, our support recovered its composure, and with the realisation that we had still about twenty minutes to hold the lead.
‘We are Palace, super Palace, from Selhurst’
Voices now a little croaky, emotion in the back of the throat, but everyone proud, if we lose this one now, at least we have given our everything, the team, and the fans.
Brighton were still probing, but seemed unable to find a route through our dogged defence, every player to a man on form on the same day, Moxey possibly having his best of the season in keeping Buckley at bay.
Albion crank up the pressure, Speroni makes an excellent one-handed save, Moxey clears one-off the line. We breathe again.
But the fact is that Palace looked the stronger as the game went on, Wilbraham missed a good chance with his head to put the game to bed.
‘We love you, we love you, we love you’
Minutes ticked by, ten to play, five to play, all of us willing the clock down. In the eighty-eighth minute Palace broke again, KG took the ball just outside the area, played a five yard pass into Zaha’s feet in the centre of the area, he turned to his left, wrong footing the defender and hit a rocket with his left foot which flew into the back of the net.
We knew that was it, Zaha again ran over, the end was dancing on seats, people almost crying with joy, emotion, pride all rolled into one. Our boy, the fifteen million pound Palace academy lad, ten years at the club had only gone and done it. His last game for us would now be at Wembley.
It was too much for the lad immediately to my right, who threw up at games end, by then most of us were standing on our seats applauding the team as they now danced in front of us.
Lump in my throat, tear in my eye, this was indeed a night to say “I was there”.
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, football, bloody hell (Sir Alex Ferguson, 1999).