When I heard that there was going to be a pitch inspection at 5p.m. the pre-Christmas beers at work were starting to kick in and I must admit that I was hoping that the game would be postponed to some warmer evening without other social engagements. Anyway, I left the pub at Charing Cross at 6 o’clock not knowing if the game would be on or not but it didn’t seem too foggy and I was up for it all. At Victoria I bumped into a good mate and his brother who I hadn’t seen for over twenty-five years, who also happened to have produced some of my favourite records including ‘154’ by Wire and this made the turgid train-ride down to Thornton Heath much more interesting. We didn’t see any football colours from either side till we got off the train so I’d been wondering…
Surprisingly, we managed to get into the Palace bar with no problems at all. The security guy checked our tickets but the fact that they were for the Sunderland ‘end’ didn’t make any difference or maybe it was because the three of us were obviously mild-mannered old gits. There were no other Sunderland fans in there as far as I could see and it seemed like a busy evening at a Butlin’s holiday camp. It was a long icy walk up the road from that bar so I missed the first three minutes of the game but was pleased that I was about three rows from the front and close to the goal which Sunderland were attacking. I hadn’t seen our away strip before and it took me a little while to figure out which team was which and my somewhat intoxicated state was enhanced by the moving advertising screens at pitch level which broadcast wobbly messages throughout the game. The huge screen over the goal at the other end was also distracting as at times I found myself watching that instead of the game itself. Then of course there was the fog, which wafted around in pantomime style, though unfortunately it failed to mask our shortcomings in attack.
The game itself was entertaining and Sunderland easily had the better of the action without ever looking really threatening. There was loads of great build-up
play but when we got to the box Palace coped with everything we threw at them, which frankly wasn’t that much. They took their goal well just before the break but apart from that they didn’t trouble our defence much either. Caldwell was usually solid in defence but I retain my doubts about Varga, and Collins too was shaky; at one stage shortly before their goal he blasted the ball back in the vague direction of Ward only to miss him by a mile and concede a corner. The guy in front of me, who I was pleased to notice bore more than a passing resemblance to my late-lamented Uncle Fred, turned to me smiling and announced, “That’s Collins!”
Speaking of look-alikes, probably the high point of proceedings was at the break when as I was queuing up for a beer someone spotted that the poor
guy working like a madman to serve up bottles of Fosters at £3 a pop was a deadringer for Julio Arca. For the rest of the break chants of “HOO-LEE-O!” and “Julio, Julio, givuz a pint!” echoed out as many fingers pointed in his direction while he looked bemused and just kept his head down as best he could.
As time went on after the break even my usual optimism dissipated as the pattern of the first half was repeated and we lacked that bite in the crucial last sixth of the pitch. (Try saying those last six words quickly. It may help you get through some of that post-Christmas tedium.) My feet were like blocks of ice and I even left my seat for the last few minutes to restore some circulation as I stamped upto the exit at the rear, where I watched the last rites over a sea of heads before legging it out of there at the sound of the whistle. I was overtaken by a spindly youth in a red and white scarf who shouted, “Shite, Sunderland! Shite!” I headed straight for the nearby Chinese chippy and was soon head down in a large portion of chips, so much so that when I looked up again I didn’t know where I was. Fortunately I turned round to see a friendly bus coming up behind me and I was soon onboard dropping chips on the floor as warmth flooded into my numb fingers.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. I think William Blake said that. Well, I had the excess and I got to the Palace but I’m still waiting for the wisdom. Perhaps one day we’ll win at Selhurst Park.
See you laters, alligators.