Play-Off Final in Sydney

This was written for ‘Palace Echo’ about how we watched the Crystal Palace / West Ham United play-off final in 2004 on the other side of the world.

It’s a pub rammed to the rafters, there’s more cockney accents than you can shake a jellied eel at and the majority are there to watch the big screen and cheer on West Ham as they return to the Premiership. It could be any place in Britain. But this isn’t. The time is midnight and the place is Sydney, Australia.

The game is on, the tickets are clasped close and Palace fans, drawn by messages on the BBS and Holmesdale Online, are gathering at the aptly named Palisade. Given that we will be severely outnumbered at the game we are fortifying ourselves with a few ales beforehand.

I arrive at 6pm and am immediately hailed by the resident Cardiff fan. We usually use the pub as a starting point when the Sydney Palace fans meet and therefore frequently run into this gentleman. He wishes Palace luck and leaves – but him being there has already provided it. I’ve now met him five times in that pub and Palace have won every game that weekend. The first time we met we’d just beaten, erm, Cardiff.

A few others start to drift in. Some are known from previous gatherings but others are not. That doesn’t remain the case for long as Palace stories are swapped between locals, expats and visitors; tall tales and true. There’s even that most traditional event of English pub culture – the dodgy video being passed under the table. I’ve droolingly watched that tape on slo-mo many a time since, especially when Darren Powell heads in the injury time goal in the semi-final against Sunderland. Paul hasn’t joined us since he recently moved north but calls to let us know he’s at the venue in Brisbane. “I’m so fucking nervous!”, is about all he can get out. 10pm, two hours before kick-off, it’s time to head for the venue where the game is being shown.

We pass back into the city centre, down George Street and watch all the young dudes, six to a clapped-out car, leer and holler at any woman passing by. It’s as if the Seventies never ended. Our goal is Scruffy Murphy’s which, despite the name, is actually an Irish theme bar. We dive into the mass and fight our way to the bar where we meet with a few other Palace fans who seem as surprised as we are that they’re not the only ones. Everywhere else is a palette of claret and blue and quite a few of them inform us that it’s a shame our evening will soon be spoiled. We just smile on the outside while our stomachs continue to churn (although that may have been due to the Guinness which isn’t very good).

The Palace fans are the usual mixed bag. Dave, a London boy spending a couple of years working in Sydney; Dan, an Aussie who started following Palace after the 4-3 semi-final; Scott, who met an Aussie girl he couldn’t leave behind; Julian and Renee, like myself, Aussies who found themselves drawn into the Palace whirlpool when over in London; Joe, who moved to Australia decades before; Neil, a supporter since 1969 when he used to walk to the ground but exiled for thirteen years; and Steve and Pat whose stories echoed Neil’s.

We ascend to the main viewing room and find that Julian has grabbed a section for the Palace fans. A few chairs in front of one of the big screens and, most importantly, right next to the bar. That’s enough to hold a group of eighteen Palace fans. There’s six more isolated on a table in the middle of the room. The other one hundred and twenty-six people are West Ham fans. They’re loud, they’re confident, they’re singing about doing something to Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee. There’s a huge cheer when the screen lights up and Pardew appears on it and a few mystified looks when a small chorus of “who put the ball in the scousers net” starts. Then the game begins.

I hate watching Palace games on TV. It’s not as bad as listening to them on radio and that’s normally all we have these days. Tonight it’s made a bit easier because there’s an atmosphere although it’s generally subdued as both sets of supporters realise what is at stake. The oohs and aahs from near misses fill the air while the groan as Zamora fluffs a clear chance is music to our ears. His dying swan attempt to con a penalty brings aggrieved howls from most of the room and a pithy and erudite response of “piss off you ex-seaweed scum” from our area.

Half-time and the confident bluster of the West Ham fans has lessened as they realise that perhaps their script of – (1) turn up and (2) win – may not be so indelibly inked in. But they become very loud and vocal as their team flexes its abilities and starts to shift the balance of the game in their favour after the restart. When Lomas hammers the ball for Vasaen to make a flying save they are on their feet sensing that a goal is to soon arrive. And so it does. When Shipperley waddles the ball over the line my first reaction is to jump up, my second is (force of habit) to check that a linesman hasn’t flagged an offside, my third is to catch Joe who has hurled his 50 year old body across six feet of floor into my arms, and the fourth is to jump up and down like an idiot. A very, very happy idiot. For about a minute all I can hear is delighted screaming and see twenty-three other people experiencing the same. I have no idea what the West Ham fans were doing at the time – I completely forgot about them. I finally remembered them when they cheered Connolly for scoring and then groaned at the linesman for flagging it offside. It was actually funny when they did it even louder the second time.

With seventy minutes gone the reality of the occasion hit and I spent most of the time glancing between the game and the clock ticking over so s-l-o-w-l-y as it, like our goalscorer, limped arthritically towards ninety minutes. When Leigertwood and Carrick collided the Hammers erupted while we held our breath. The referee waved play on and we exhaled, Julian and I exchanging raised disbelieving eyebrows and suddenly becoming sure this was our day. Then the final whistle went. Renee jumped into my arms ahead of Joe so he grabbed us both and the rest joined in with a Palace group hug. By the time we’d finished that and watching the ten minutes of post-match celebrations in joyous and bewildered glee we suddenly noticed that the room was almost empty. There were a couple of Hammers who remained to shake hands and then departed to leave twenty-four people – all the Palace fans – in the entire room. Those of us who had watched Palace when in England had a slight pang at this time because we would have been at Cardiff had we still been resident in that country.   The feeling was intensified when my phone rang. “Can you hear it?”, Nicola yelled down the line and the sound of thirty thousand celebrating with her in the Millennium Stadium came through. Life is bittersweet as a Palace supporter and even more so for the long-distance ones.

At 3am, drained yet blissful, we exited and headed for home. The city centre was almost quiet – the young dudes had garaged their cars and were dreaming of orange Datsuns and furry dice – while I had just missed my bus and had to wait an hour for another one. It didn’t really matter and I arrived home after 5am just as the sun was rising. The long night had ended and a new dawn had arrived. How appropriate.