This is one of those books where you think it’s a thin premise which can’t possibly be for anyone not following a specific narrow range of interests. How wrong you would be. As with a lot of memoirs it’s following someone’s sheer love and joy of being involved in an endeavour which opens it up to a much greater audience.
Full disclosure: the author is a friend, I used to write for his Palace Echo fanzine, and he sent me a very early draft for review (he ignored all my suggestions and it produced a far better book). He still gave me a mention in the credits, probably because he realised not to do what I suggested.
The book is about Crystal Palace and their games against overseas opposition. Most of these games are not easily found because they don’t take place in the UEFA and FIFA-sanctioned events. This is because Crystal Palace are not one of the ubiquitous and massively funded English Premier League regular top six teams. They are one of those scrappy clubs which bubble under the glamour and make the EPL such a great competition by punching above their weight and giving the ‘big boys’ a bloody nose on regular occasion. The title is based on the only time Palace played in an officially UEFA-sanctioned tournament in Europe – against a team who were actually in Asia.
Welcome to Crystal Palace; we don’t do normal.
The book is split into various regional chapters against which teams Palace have played. Some European countries, some continents. The modern ones involve the trips which the author has made which contain many of the tales and characters which surround you when following any sporting team. The historical ones are surprisingly fascinating. Some are written by people who were there (the pieces from then-starting journalist Dom Fifield on the tours to China in 2000/1 are enlightening not only for how a professional sports team handled things at the time but also how that then-shielded country worked. Modern PR or governments would not allow that these days so it’s a rare view that will probably never be seen again). The research to unearth the Palace trip to Bohemia before WWI and the stories of that tour are worth the price of the book alone.
For the true football fan of any club there’s many hilarious tales of disappointment, hangovers, local misunderstandings, unexpected joys, welcomes, non-welcomes, weird people – not only from your club but others – and the understanding that football is brilliant apart from the actual 90 minutes watching the game. My only grumble is that the Kindle edition has no pictures. I’m hoping a later version will perhaps have caricatures of the people mentioned in each chapter because the larger-than-life actions of some people more than deserves them. ‘The Sniffer’ seems enough to have a true crime podcast made about him.
I’ve read many books about football from those who follow teams other than mine. There’s always a common thread amongst the really good ones where they write about life and football fans in general while giving context about their own club so you understand their point of view. Neil does that really well. So much so that the last chapter where COVID-19 shuts down not only football but life for most of us has one of the most poignantly beautiful moments when he walks into – ironically given the main premise of the book – his local ground.
It’s available at all good physical and virtual bookstores – and some bad ones as well. The original review appeared here.