A year to the day that I made my first trek to Selhurst Park, I returned there on Saturday for the FA Cup tie between Crystal Palace F.C. and Stoke City. The contrasts between Saturday, January 31, 2015, and January 30, 2016, seemed to pervade every aspect of the build-up to this match. The Crystal Palace of 2015 soared to its peak height in the club’s first flight of form under Alan Pardew, who guided the Eagles to three consecutive victories after being hired as their manager on January 2. When Stoke arrived in South London yesterday, Palace was languishing from three consecutive defeats and a goalless drought of six Premier League games that only the prolific “Own Goal” could halt (in a 1-3 loss to Spurs). Number 13 was now the No. 1 for Crystal Palace. Gray clouds, gusts of wind, and rain dampened Selhurst on my first visit; the sun shone and a gentle breeze provided a pleasant welcome for the FA Cup match.
After all those diametrically opposing circumstances, it seemed poetically appropriate that Palace defeated Stoke 1-0, the same scoreline of the league defeat that Everton inflicted on Palace a year earlier.
Thanks to the Holmesdale Fanatics and some willing assistants in the Arthur Wait, the atmosphere for the Stoke match retained the same energizing buzz that helped me fall asleep to “Alan Pardew’s Red and Blue Army” for a few days last year. The differing demographics between both matches were easy to spot, though. A combination of the reduced appeal of the FA Cup and generously slashed ticket prices for the match meant more families and plastic blue seats without a body surrounded me in the Arthur Wait yesterday than there were last year. Regardless of the eye-popping number of empty seats for the Stoke match — there were only five people seated in my row, including me — the ticket plan should be seen as a success. A lot of the parents in my neck of the Arthur Wait towed elementary school-aged children with them to the game, giving those families a relatively cheap afternoon out with a fun atmosphere that the kids could clap and scream along to. The bonus of witnessing a victory can only further entrench Palace roots in the impressionable young minds of those kids who attended the match.
And it wouldn’t be a match at Selhurst for me without a little kid behind me trying to explain it all. Instead of the little girl with a dog hat, there was a boy wearing a blue and white jacket in a group of four who did the math and told his three buddies how many minutes remained before halftime. He complained about Mark Clattenburg — like every adult, and rightfully so — for the missed opportunities for brandishing yellow cards at Stoke players.
“Go to Spec Saver!” yelled another boy in that group of four behind me. (For my American buddies, Spec Saver is an eyeglasses shop that seems to be in the same vein of LensCrafters.)
The taunting from the Arthur Wait extended to the Stoke players. A bearded 20-something man seated in front of me took to Xherdan Shaqiri “Frodo” and “Bilbo Baggins” when the diminutive midfielder set up a corner kick.
Like the Everton game, the breakthrough came in an early goal. Palace’s French international Yohan Cabaye, standing in right center midfield and just beyond the center cicle, launched a low diagonal pass to Wilfried Zaha, who was centrally located just outside the 18-yard box. Zaha split four hesitant Stoke defenders down the middle before slotting home under goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard in a one-on-one.
Three weeks’ worth of angst and frustration poured from the stands onto to the pitch in the form of euphoric roars. A Palace goal scored by a Palace player. Finally.
Even I, Mr. Composure, lost it when the ball rolled past Haugaard and into the back of the net. A freeze on goals for Palace over the past month plus the annoyance of seeing the Eagles downed 1-0 for my Selhust debut equaled me doing a fist pump and singing “Glad All Over” like the head choir kid at church.
My brain tried convincing itself to be content with finally seeing a goal in the flesh, but my body betrayed me with every jolt and jitter that followed Stoke’s near-misses in the second half. My psyche seemed ready for a total collapse when Haugaard somehow punched Fraizer Campbell’s goal-bound volley over the crossbar for a corner kick. Clattenburg also didn’t help things by forgetting that there was a home team’s worth of players to protect from the abuse inflicted by the visitors. By the end of the game, I could attribute my chattering teeth to the flurry of Stoke counterattacks in the second half than the increasingly colder temperatures settling into the ground.
After Clattenburg sealed Palace’s victory with the final whistle, it took a few moments for me to settle down; I felt more relief than joy after sitting through that match. But then “Glad All Over” began to blare for a third and final time that day and I remembered — sing and be happy.
I saw a Palace goal. I saw a clean sheet. I saw the club’s young stallion bag the win. I saw a French international demonstrate his class in a 45 minute cameo. I saw the club’s captain come into the second half and bring back memories of those good old days, breaking up attacks and even kicking off a late counterattack of his own as he charged through the center of the pitch with like a bull before letting the young stallion take the reins to set up an excruciating miss for the striker with the hairstyle of a horse.
All those things I saw confirmed one thing for me, a truth I shouldn’t have doubted: the magic of the FA Cup is still alive.