This evening Crystal Palace FC played against Cardiff City FC in the second leg of the semi-final of the Carling Cup. The match featured an own goal, a sending off, gasp-inducing misses from Cardiff, some categorically shocking decisions from the referee and a final place cruelly snatched away by penalties. I am glad it is all over, but I had been waiting with anticipation for this game since Palace’s heady victory in the first leg at Selhurst Park a couple of weeks ago, and former slaying of the mighty Manchester United at Old Trafford back in November 2011. Sadly, we are not on our way to Wembley and my knees are all-a-trembly for all the wrong reasons. It hurts a lot.
You see, CPFC will always hold a very special place in my heart for a number of reasons. You can move the girl to the East End but the Holmesdale End will never be forgotten; a bus, a train and the Victoria Line may physically separate us but metaphorically, we are kind of attached.
I wish I could remember the first time my Dad took me to Selhurst Park as a little girl to watch a game but unfortunately it is lost in a blue and red haze. I think I must have been around eight years old, maybe nine, and I knew right away it was the start of a beautiful relationship.
Going to a home game was, and always will be despite our league position or the final score, a treat. A swift cuppa (thanks Mum) at the Greenbrook house in Upper Norwood always started proceedings before a short drive to Grangewood Park and a saunter to the ground beside other expectant fans. Sometimes you could hear the chant of the stadium crowd in the distance as we ambled down Ladbrook Road and if it was an evening game, from the hill you could see the bright glare of the floodlights illuminating the sky. I always liked it when the weather was cold and brisk as there was something very comforting about being wrapped up warm in hats, gloves and a vibrant red and blue scarf. I never felt the coldness bite as I enveloped my hand tightly into my Dad’s.
A quick detour over the petrol garage courtyard on Whitehorse Road for an essential match programme and some sugary sweets, we would hurry past the ubiquitous orange Sainsbury's sign and the heaving Club Shop bursting with memorabilia. A final squish through the click, click, clicking of turnstiles and suddenly I would be spurted into the ground - a sea of red and blue encircling the verdant pitch.
Even now, there is such charged energy within that red and blue community. Every time I go there, I am convinced I see the same programme sellers from years gone by. Ever present is Pete the Eagle (and his girlfriend in mascot-land, Alice), whose importance even merits a Twitter following: @PeteEagle_CPFC
Pre-match events in recent times also involve a real Eagle taking flight around the pitch before kick-off and, rather unfortunately, the Crystals, Palace’s own ‘cheerleading squad’ who were brought in to inspire the players and even made the Metro in March 2011 when accused of affecting the team’s form.
Attendance has arguably decreased somewhat over the years, but that has not quietened the thunderous roar of the crowd, extinguished the life out of the Holmesdale Fanatics or the habitual playing of '25 Miles' by The Three Amigos when Palace score. Even the most prudent of fans forget themselves when the announcer leads the crowd into repeating the scorer's name loudly - Darrrrreeeen AMBROSE! etc.
It is never an easy ninety minutes. It can be exhilarating. Surprising. Full of ups and downs. Gut wrenching, agonisingly painful. But it is always special.
This little team from South London has a fascinating history. Crystal Palace Football Club was formed in 1905 by the builders of The Crystal Palace and originally played its home games at the cup final ground at The Crystal Palace. They moved to the purpose-built Stadium Selhurst Park in 1924, where the team have also shared the ground with Wimbledon FC and Charlton Athletic FC.
Dougie Freedman, a former player, is now providing paternal leadership to both Palace's young starlets fresh out of the Academy and the experienced older players. We once walked in a Freedman Wonderland but we're now watching him lead our red and blue army hopefully to some form of success. Eighteen months ago we were on the brink of administration, players were playing for free and fans had no idea what the outcome would be. Now Saint Dougie nearly led the team to Wembley. An amazing feat.
Going to Selhurst Park for me is akin to discovering a huge book of memories, blowing off the dust and getting lost in the nostalgia.
Sometimes when I glance over at the Holmesdale End, I imagine that is 1988 again. I can see a little version of myself and my sister Michelle at the front of the terraces with the other children, excited about the arrival of the players coming out of the tunnel and waving back at our Dad. I am expectantly waiting for David 'Kid' Jensen to come out at half time for some pitch-based competitions.
The pages turn to the 1990/91 season where Palace have finished an astonishing third in what was then the First Division. The squad was is full of a host of greats including Nigel Martyn, Richard Shaw, Gareth Southgate, Alan Pardew, Simon Rodger, John Salako, Geoff Thomas, Mark Bright, Stan Collymore, and Ian Wright, most of whom have gone on to find fame in bigger clubs, in management or as a pundit on Sky Sports (*play extravagant fireworks noise here*).
Then, it is the 1992/1993 season and my fourteenth birthday is announced on the scoreboard in an opening game six-goal thriller against Blackburn Rovers. I am a little embarrassed (I am fourteen after all) but very proud.
Sadly, Palace often were defeated, and as a passionate and rather emotional young fan I would regularly cry with disappointment. I could barely stay in my seat when an opposing player took a shot at goal, but on making another great save, my Dad would utter those reassuring words, ‘don’t worry Nic, Nige had it covered’ and all was good again in the world. In around 1995, while a student, I worked in the now defunct Club Shop on George Street in Croydon which was to be the best job ever. First team players regularly popping in, a great bunch of work colleagues, free kit each season and an endless flow of boys coming in throughout the day. What was there not to like for a sixteen-year-old girl? Thankfully I declined the offer to feature in the Club Shop catalogue, foreseeing the endless teasing I would get from my husband if that ever came out from the depths of the Greenbrook attic.
Nige of course was the great Nigel Martyn, Palace's star goalkeeper who broke our hearts when he left for Leeds in 1996. Nigel once inadvertently gave me a cauliflower ear during his pre-match warm up. He miskicked the ball causing it to swerve backwards, knock my drink out of my hand and simultaneously take out me and my best friend Danuta - smack in the mouth. 'Sorry girls', said Nige. 'Ow', said Nicola, with possible concussion and temporary loss of hearing in one ear.
So you see, it is not just a game of football, it is part of me, deep-rooted. It is about where I spent some of my childhood, the special memories it created. It is about being with loved ones and friends who know exactly what it feels like. It is taking pride in a perfectly nice area that gets a lot of criticism for no apparent reason other than sheer snobbery. It is about being loyal to your local team through both the good and bad times (take note London Mancs) and spending the weekend looking irrationally and erratically at the Sky Sports Football Score Centre app and hoping that Jeff Stelling will tell you that Palace have won.
Yes, we moan and whine and vow half-heartedly never ever to go again/to rip up our season ticket/to support a half decent team. I repeatedly deride bloody Palace for being bloody useless and even if we were 5-0 up with five minutes until the end, I would still be nervous; there is no denying it. We don't have the money or the stature of a club like Manchester City. We get ridiculed, taunted as being boring 'Nigels' and we certainly don't always have a lot of luck.
Yet even though my old scarf may be tattered, the corners of the 'Holmesdale - Last Stand' poster that is proudly displayed in the Greenbrook ‘Playroom’ (refurbished, sadly, to become an outdoor storage space) may be peeling and the face paints are fading, they will always be Super Palace from Sel-hurst and will hold a special place in my heart.
As the Holmesdale Fantatics would encourage me to say, I am Palace till I die.
We may have lost tonight and our hearts broken once more, but I'll always be feeling Glad all Over watching this very special team.