Stockport (Sunday 6th May 2001)

”It was the best of times it was the worst of times”. When Charles Dickens wrote those words I doubt he was thinking that one day they would probably apply to all Crystal Palace supporters who went to Stockport for this game. There was pain there was joy there was ecstasy there was agony and all of these came within a single 15 minute period.

After the Wolves game of the previous week (from which I had walked out after 47 minutes) the season seemed almost over. With it being obvious that Alan Smith had no idea whatsoever it finally became apparent even to Simon Jordan that he was no where near to being up for the task. In most cases when Palace sack the manager they replace him with someone called Steve.  In this case Coppell was not around and so the job instead fell to Mr Kember. The new caretaker manager introduced a radical system of playing his best players in the positions they are most comfortable in. Because of this and losing the oppressive nature of Nosferatu Smith the team was able to rip apart Portsmouth on a Wednesday. It did set things up for a nail-biting final weekend, however for the first time in five games Palace were out of the relegation places and stood some chance of remaining in Division one.

Due to a mixture of it being the final game of the season and an unwillingness to trust Virgin trains on the Sunday many of us decided to stay in Manchester overnight. This first required us to get out of London. This proved a little more difficult than expected because Virgin managed to outdo even themselves by ensuring that we were sat on the train at Euston station for an hour before they kindly informed us that due to signalling problems on the line there would be no trains running at all that day. This forced us and a few hundred other people to make a quick run for King’s Cross St Pancras station where we were informed that our tickets would be valid for a train up to Sheffield. After sensibly deciding to hit the pub we then had to run (along with half the population of London) to end up on this now massively overcrowded train. Fortunately Gareth and I managed to find seats, opposite one bloke and his girlfriend. It turned out that he was also a Palace fan on his way to the game. She wasn’t very happy about it anyway so when she discovered she was sat opposite a couple more of them she was even less impressed. Despite the train being overcrowded to an extent that even Indian safety officers would blush it finally trundled its way out of the station and we, a mere 90 minutes after we expected to, were on our way to Lancashire (well, Yorkshire actually because we had to get a connection from there through to Manchester).

Once we got to Sheffield (which is starting to seem like a second home because we have been there so often this season) we had to pile on to a small regional train. I used a term small advisedly because the train company, in its infinite wisdom, decided to only attach two carriages. I’ve seen sardines that have had more room than we had in that train. The highlight of that trip was probably the very large person trying to get on while answering his mobile phone with “I am on the train . Well , partly on” . Most people on the train seemed in fairly good spirits considering the condition although the woman who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant did give us a little cause for concern. Mind you, so long had the journey taken she hadn’t even conceived when she got on the train in London. Eventually we crawled into Manchester, a mere three hours after our expected arrival time. A quick taxi ride to the hotel and then we had to decide on the most important issue of the weekend; where were we going out at night.

After a few beers and a meal at a place on the Curry Mile (guess what we had), we ended up in a cafe F.A.B. This was a place that had a science fiction theme. The place contained both a Dalek and an Ice Warrior which although large and lumbering probably would have had more speed and movement that our current back four. Due to a mixture of the smoke, the crap music, and the antibiotics I was on I left at a fairly early time. This got me back to the hotel just in time to catch the end of match of the day and to see the images of the Crying Coventry supporters as their team was relegated. Not the happiest of images on which to go to sleep.

Waking up next morning, I was greeted with a repeat of the crying Coventry supporters. As omens go this one was named Damien and had 666 tattooed on its forehead. After a very hearty breakfast (which was going to be more than needed considering the amount of alcohol I was going to have to imbibe to get me through the game) we booked a taxi to take us to Edgeley Park. We then had to wait an extra half hour because someone else pinched our taxi (for a minute there I thought we were back in Liverpool). We arrived at the ground at eleven- thirty and were amazed to see the official supporters’ coaches pulling up at that time. Usually you expect to see them arrive at least 10 minutes after the kick-off so for them to arrive a mere two hours before was completely amazing. With plenty of time before the game we did it the only sensible thing available, we headed for the nearest pub. If I thought the train journey up was crowded it was nothing compared to the crush from the number of people trying to get into each hostelry. It was such an impossible task that instead we just nipped around the corner to the nearest off-licence grabbed a few bottles of whatever and then returned to stand on the street outside the pub.

The mood of the crowd was fairly upbeat although there were definitely undercurrents of worry. They were quite a few songs being sung and a very large Palace flag which someone attempted to drape over a nearby shed. It quickly fell down (the flag!) so someone decided to jump up on the shed and arrange the flag in all its glory. He achieved this to great applause from the crowd who then laughed as the whole thing slid to the ground as he enjoyed his moment of triumph. But then the happy moments were over because we suddenly became aware that it was almost time for kick off and so, fairly reluctantly, we set off for the turnstiles.

Travelling the whole two minutes caused us to think about what tactics we would use to get the bags full of alcohol into the ground. We settled on the tactically ingenious plan of sticking everything under the previous day’s dirty clothes and hoping no one would notice. I was stopped first and it took the stewards quite a few seconds to search my rather large bag. There was nothing untoward in it. Jane was next and lost her alcopops. They then asked Paul if he had any bottles in his bag. He said “no” so they waved him through. A truthful answer but one that hid the fact that there were two dozen cans instead.

The first thing to notice was that we were on a terrace. The second thing was that the terrace was very full. The third was that there was very little room for our bags. However, we managed to make more than enough by barging our way through. With our hopes piled as high as the bags we all wished for one thing – over with as soon as possible and that the agony of this season would finally end.

I was going to produce a special edition, a 10,000 word epic that would chart the progress of the entire day and highlight the Crystal Palace Phoenix as it rose from the ashes of Division one. However, there was one small problem with this. My voice recorder used for taking notes broke down. On the plus side this allowed me to watch the entire game uninterrupted by needing to speak the action. On the downside this meant I had to watch the entire game uninterrupted without the distraction of being able to speak into my recorder.

The game started in the usual Palace fashion of pushing forward quite early, earning quite a few corners, and then being unable to make anything out of them. We also appeared to lack the fluency that we had at Portsmouth. As a result Stockport weren’t unduly troubled by our attack although, as some form of compensation our defence wasn’t overly troubled by theirs. They did have a couple of half chances early on, a through ball being slightly overhit and being grabbed by Kolinko. Of bigger concern was the only cross that our keeper missed which fell on to the head of an unmarked Stockport player but thankfully he managed to put it wide. Their only other real chance of note came from one of the very few mistakes made by Austin during the game when he allowed the ball to drop behind him and then suddenly discovered that the Stockport player was a lot closer than he originally thought. Kolinko ran forward and punched the ball way and managed to take out both other players as well.

On the Palace attacking side there was a half chance for Clinton from a through ball from Thomson too close to the keeper and he managed to parry it away with his legs quite easily. A long range Berhalter drive at least had the advantage of being on target. The best chance of all fell to Forssell who was fed running in on the left-hand side but dragged the shot across the keeper and beyond the far post. It ended scoreless at half-time with Palace probably just shading the game and having nothing to show for it. The other results had been trickling in and showed that Portsmouth were one up against Barnsley but that Huddersfield were 2-1 down to Birmingham. As things stood Palace were still sitting in the last relegation place.

There was only one way of getting through the second half and that lay in the pile of bags in front of us. With a lot of people on the terrace between us and the watching stewards it was nothing to squat down and have a few surreptitious slurps of beer. This almost came to a premature end when Jane returned to her place and, on being asked if she wanted a can, grabbed one and stood there drinking in full view of the stewards.

The second half started and continued to follow the pattern of the first, Palace trying to get forward but not getting any solid result. On the bright side Stockport weren’t really troubling the defence but that wasn’t much consolation. Neither was the news from the radio or the text messages being received. Portsmouth had extended their lead thanks to Kevin Miller conceding, yet again, a lot of goals when playing a relegation threatened team on the last day of the season. Let’s just use the word ‘coincidence’.

As the game went on the Palace crowd become quieter and more dispirited. At times it was even possible to hear the Stockport crowd although their rendition of “play up Pompey” was slightly less welcome than anything by Celine Dion. Clinton had a chance he possibly should have done more with and Forssell elected to shoot from a tight angle when a pull-back would have found Morrison in plenty of space. But nothing was looking too likely even though a rather rotund Tommy Black, brought on for the last ten minutes, had started causing a few problems by running at players on the right.

In the end the best chance came from the left. After Stockport had managed to hit the stanchion outside Kolinko’s goal Palace worked a nice move that saw Berhalter cleverly hold up the ball on the edge of the area and tap it into Freedman’s path. He struck it low and past the diving keeper. From our vantage point we were already in the air but those behind the goal had the much better view as it skidded past the post and came back off the advertising hoardings. With only four minutes left the spectre of being in the third tier of the league started to solidify. It was at that point that the general feeling in the crowd changed from vain hope to a solemnity that was almost funereal; standing by the grave just waiting for the coffin to be laid to rest.

Down the other end Stockport tried to take advantage by putting in a cross that went to the edge of the area. Hopkin and a Stockport player jumped for but Hopkin led with his hand. Much in the same way as Maradonna’s ‘Hand of God’. This should have been either a free kick on the edge of the area or a penalty to Stockport. Instead we were refereed by officials who turned out to be the only three people in the entire crowd and television viewing audience who couldn’t see that it was a handball. Hopkin had a quick look at the referee after the offence and hoofed the ball upfield. It fell to Morrison and then bounced into the path of Freedman. He ran to the left corner of the area with the defender in between him and the goal. He dummied to go left and then pulled the ball back onto his right foot and got a fortuitous deflection off the heel of the defender. With only the keeper to beat he forced the Stockport custodian to start to go down to cover the near post and then lifted the ball over him into the back of the net. Three seconds later there were 500 Palace supporters partaking in a celebratory pitch invasion while the rest of us were just going absolutely mental, jumping around and hugging everyone and, in my case, falling over the pile of bags in front of us.

The goal commentary

Now all we had to do was hope we could either score again which would have put us ahead of Portsmouth on goal difference or hope that we didn’t let in one and also have fingers crossed that Huddersfield didn’t equalise. This should have been easy as we only had three minutes to go. Which was extended by five minutes time added on thanks, in no small part, to the pitch invasion. As that time disappeared with no change to the score we were still just nudging ahead of Huddersfield in avoiding the last relegation place. With seconds left the Stockport keeper punted the ball upfield. Jamie Smith, out on the touchline in the Palace half went to head the ball forward. It was slightly mis-directed and instead went back in a looping manner to Kolinko. Who would have easily caught it had he been nearer his goal-line. Instead he had to turn, take a few steps backwards and catch it. Which would have been fine had he not slipped when he turned. It seemed like an eternity before he finally got traction and managed to grab the ball scant feet from the line. It would have been so typical of Palace to concede an own-goal in that manner. With Kolinko’s punt to put the ball back into play the final whistle went and we could do no more than wait.

It seems a bit weird but even with five minutes time added on we still had to wait for the Huddersfield game to finish. This was spent gathered around anyone with a radio and listening to them as they relayed a running commentary as if we were priests gathered around the Oracle and waiting for a sign that our earthly suffering would soon be over. After two minutes Gareth announced that it was all over at the other game. So we celebrated. Then he announced that he’d made a mistake and they were still playing. I think it was when I told him that I’d kill him if we were relegated that he started moving away. But he hadn’t travelled far before the official confirmation came through that the Huddersfield score was the final one and that we were safe. At that point I couldn’t do anything apart from feel a sense of relief that one of the most emotionally draining of seasons had come to an end and that we were still in the First Division.

After refusing to leave the ground until the team had made an appearance we finally traipsed out half an hour after the final whistle. A stop in the first pub brought forward quite a few congratulations from the Stockport fans who were not only impressed by the Palace support but also happy that it had given them their biggest crowd for the season. I even got to talk with that rarest of all creatures – a Manchester United fan who lived in Manchester. With the pint supped quickly on police advice that some lads in a nearby pub sometimes get silly we made our way back to the railway station. There we ran into a load of Birmingham fans who we were more than happy to buy drinks for. So once on the train everything was fine until the conductor told us that our sing-a-longs had upset one of the other passengers. And we were singing the clean ones! He said the person in question was demanding a free move to first class. Instead he told us there was a free compartment available and instead of moving a single person to it all the Palace supporters could have it for no extra charge. Top bloke and a top result. So we could sing the not so clean songs to the Watford fan we acquired from somewhere and to any Brighton supporters we could ring up.

The day was enjoyable only for the exhaustive relief that came four minutes after the game had finished. A lot of luck went our way during the game and I don’t think anyone can claim otherwise. But the celebrations came not only from avoiding relegation but from having survived the damage of Alan Smith and regaining our club. And regardless of the result that was so important.

BBC radio end-of-day summary