The Blog

Crystal Palace in the FA Cup - History or Heartache?

If you happen to be attached to anyone of South London ancestry aged, say, 35 and over, expect extreme behaviour from next Saturday night. After the unheralded happiness, a blissfulness may settle in and stay for good. Because should South London's Crystal Palace football club prevail against Manchester United (Man Utd) and win the FA Cup, the first trophy in their 111 year history, these men and women of not necessarily sound mind will, in most of their words, 'most definitely die happy'.

More likely, Man Utd will run out victorious, and a meaningless win to 99% of their global armchair fans will match a meaningful loss to the Palace faithful. Cue living happy-ish considering the club's (recent) history but certainly not ready to die happy. Don't call for the proverbial pipe and slippers just yet.

Memories of 1990 are what burn brightest in the mindset of this demographic. The last and only time their beloved Eagles made a cup final against the same opposition at this year's, Man Utd. When they were seven minutes not from just making history for Crystal Palace but resetting the football universe's tectonic plates as well. Had Man Utd's Mark Hughes not equalised there would not have been the eruption of Sir Alex Ferguson's team into two decades of football dominance - as, almost definitely, the then underachieving custodian of the Reds would have got the chop.

Palace on the other hand would have grabbed what cup success offered with both hands. (Humour me here). Winners when the cup mattered most, making them pioneers in the potty footballing world that was about to come into play.

I sit slap bang in the middle of the demographic, coming of age as I did in 1990, the greatest - but not quite great enough - year of the club I'd never lived more than 2 miles from. My home for the first five years of my life was actually in the hamlet they call Crystal Palace, where the club also started its life - so supporting anyone else would have been churlish at best.

Despite the hurt, 1990 remains my footballing nirvana. The players my favourite team, manager may favourite manager, memories my favourite memories. I kick started that season shaking hands with my hero Ian Wright, gloriously photographed for posterity; my tragically dyed Jewfro a failed ode to the sophisticated soul boy highlights of cult hero, Supa Alan Pardew.

In the top division for the first time in nearly a decade, I was seeing the Liverpools, Spurs and Arsenals up close. Throughout the season, like the swelled number of Palace fans standing at the games, our emotions swayed back and forth, from losing catastrophically in the league 0-9 one week to beating at-the-time big boys Nottingham Forest the next. The back end of terrace culture saw mars bars chucked at a chubby Paul Gascoigne, sticks of celery, funny fanzines and scraps with - scampering from on my part - Millwall. Good times.

And then there was that most unlikely of FA cup runs. Fantastic times. The draw was decent to us. Portsmouth, then Huddersfield were beaten before we laboured to dismantle lowly Rochdale and Cambridge by a solitary goal apiece. Somehow Palace had made the semi-final, against Liverpool the best team in the country by many a country mile. They'd beaten us that season 9-0 remember - let's say that again: n i n e.

So beating them 4-3 stunned the football world. The elation and exhaustion I felt on a massive terrace in the neutral ground of Villa Park I'd never experienced before and haven't since. Four celebrations ever more amplified. Breathless, bouncing. Ecstasy defined the era. But my Pardew-induced rush that day would never be rivalled, wherever the rave and whatever its chemical enabler.

Pardew the scorer of the winner and now, 26 years on, our manager.

Then the final and that oh so close victory to Man United. Followed by? 20 years of underachievement. Underachievement being an understatement of criminal proportions. Survival, literally, overriding success at every juncture. Administration twice. Flawed owners. Stockport and Sheffield providing memories of escaping slipping to the third tier by the skin of our teeth. A season here and there in the top flight always ended abruptly within 12 months.

The narrative shifted six years ago when from a ground zero of virtual bankruptcy came third time lucky white knight owners who claimed to be authentic fans. And this time, praise the Lord, they were the real deal.

We've all achieved vertigo to match the queasiness of the hastily put up at our ground's, Holmesdale stand (be careful up there), such are the dizzy heights the club has reached. Most notably - and inconceivably - promotion to the Premier League and about to start our fourth season continual there. Sell-out crowds. Part of the elite that entertains the world week in, week out.

The parallel with 1990 is palpable what with Pardew the scorer and now manager, Man Utd the opposition, underdogs, the one hand on the cup. Though the facts tell a slightly different story. We're in a better position now, no doubt (though, there is more to lose). Engaged yet not meddling American investors with a canny owner, pots of money, strategy, stadium build, stability of sorts. Golden times.

Yet, us older fans yearn a peak to our odyssey, a purpose. Ok, the cup has lost lustre in recent years, but it offers something that could define the club. The possibilities are keeping me up at night, knowing that success on Saturday will mean sleeping easy for the rest of my days.