If I’d applied the effort spent avoiding team sports at school to actually playing them I’d have made the FirstX1. Instead, I leaned against posts chatting to goalies, rubbed mud over my legs when no one was looking, and ran in the opposite direction to the ball. However, I’ve realised that football dominates.
It’s not the be-all and end -all, there’s only one of those and football serves as distraction from it, but basically, men left together for longer than 10 seconds will talk about football. Rather than stare at the floor, and nod vaguely at missed chances, I now join them. I chose a football club I thought my Grandpa had supported (although I now suspect he chose the same route as me, blagging him common ground with the overwhelmingly male punters of his Addington DIY shop), and selected Crystal Palace; a club that needs more support than most. My initially faked interest slowly grew genuine, catalysed by the late 90s farce of Italian Atillo Lombardo appointed as our non-English speaking manager while Swedish Tomas Brolin (generally included in sentences alongside Worst Premiership Signing Ever) translated for him.
These days I’m nodding along to talk of ‘attacking or defensive formations’ like it’s a rhythm track and saying things like ‘you’ve got to take your chances’ and ‘it’s a game of two halves’, even when the 2nd half had 6 minutes extra time, so technically isn’t. I’m also aware that including the referee, the opposing team always has 12 men. Mind you, at matches I miss everything but goals, and even missed one of those once due to wondering when the Selhurst pigeons might stop trying to get in for free.
Football has provided an addition to if not life, then Saturday afternoons. As results come in and moods across the land droop, or elevate by some fleeting score line, I finally know what other men are feeling. I know where corners are, and what taking one means. I even know what offside is, even if it required a fellow supporter (there’s a reason Palace don’t have fans – they need all they can get) several Saturday afternoons to watch me gain understanding like a man in physical rehabilitation. My support generally amounts to little more than refreshing BBC.com coverage, but on bad days that’s more effort than the team.
The identity of players not wearing Palace shirts are a mystery to me, although when last night our Adlene Guedioura came on to a resounding ‘who’s THAT?’ for once I may have not been alone. The fact that opponent players are frequently worth more than our entire club, from teams worth more than Croydon, only makes rare wins juicier.
Someone pointed out that I like Palace more than I like football, and they’re right. A football club becomes a little part of you, and enriches you, even Palace, where there’s never a dull moment. Fighting relegation or bankruptcy, staying up or changing managers; Selhurst Park is a soap opera with a Sainsbury’s in the corner.