So, here we are, FA Cup day. For me, while watching Hans Gruber fall from the Nakatomi Plaza is always the indicator that it is truly Christmas, the FA Cup third round draw always starts the Festive Season. Then, at the other end, the FA Cup third round weekend is always the time that a new year truly starts. So as we prepare to face Grimsby, and try and avoid a ‘giant killing’ as the old saying goes, I want to talk about the cup’s meaning to me.
So, it goes without saying that Crystal Palace and ‘cup run’ are things that do not generally go hand in hand. In fact, one Zenith Data Systems Cup aside, we quite simply have no clue what winning a cup is like. Now, here is an admittance. I had no idea what football or Palace were in May 1990. So, as fans were preparing to go to Wembley for our first ever FA Cup Final, I was a six year old at home with no clue about it. It wasn’t until I asked where my dad was, and got told he was at football, that it came onto my radar. Therefore, what was our infamous FA Cup Final, and World Cup Italia 90 while I’m mentioning it, were two massive events that I missed out on. It was from that summer I decided to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become an eagle.
My first taste of a cup run was in the 1994/95 season. Having seen us promoted as Champions in 1994, a relegation year was slightly softened by the fact we reached the Semi Final in both the League Cup and FA Cup. Narrow 1-0 losses in both legs saw us lose in the League Cup to Liverpool, while a 1-0 replay loss to Man United after an original 2-2 draw ended our FA Cup hopes. Still, as a young fan, it would have been easy to think that maybe we could be competitive in tournaments! WRONG! Between then and 2016, we got to experience two more Semi Finals, both in the League Cup. The first came in 2001. Having knocked out Premier League Sunderland at Selhurst in the Quarter Final, Liverpool then came to town. We picked up a huge 2-1 first leg win at home, and travelled to Anfield daring to dream. Clinton Morrison even bragged in the papers that he was better than Michael Owen! For about twenty minutes, the final was ours. In the end, we lost 5-0 and finished with ten men after Kolinko was sent off in goal and the dream was well and truly dead! The second came in 2012, as our huge 2-1 win away to Man United booked us a Semi Final against fellow Championship side Cardiff. We could not have a better chance, improved further by an Anthony Gardner header giving us a 1-0 first leg win at Selhurst. Gardner cemented his role of being the only scorer in the tie when we travelled to Cardiff, only this time it was an early own goal. Then, when Paddy McCarthy got sent off, it looked bleak, but we battled through to penalties. It felt like it was maybe meant to be, until we lost the shootout! Having been to both legs of both Semi’s, I genuinely started to feel that I would never experience a cup final.
Stepping away from the League Cup, to the focus of this article, the FA Cup hasn’t been as kind over the years. As a kid, I used to love the FA Cup. The saying that it is the biggest club cup competition in the world was always banded about, and it felt like it was 100% true. Cup ties used to be huge affairs, and underdog stories were things of beauty. It genuinely felt as though the cup meant everything to every team that participated, and to win it was the biggest honour of all. Sadly, over the years, that feeling has diminished. All around the country, we see many discussions about how the cup doesn’t mean what it used to. Throughout most ties this weekend, you will see weakened teams fielded, and clubs less bothered about being knocked out, because they have more important matters to focus on. Before kick-off, fans quietly want a win, while after the final whistle when they lose, the old line ‘I would rather focus on the league anyway’ reverberates around grounds and social media! For me personally, I must say that until 2015, I had fallen out of love with the cup. There had been a couple of good moments, such as the 4th round replay 2-0 win at Anfield, and the 5th round replay up at Aston Villa when we were broke. Generally though, the FA Cup seemed to bring nothing but disappointment. The draw was normally awful, throwing out some good awful away tie that we would invariably lose. I think Preston away three years running killed off the joy for most people! It seemed that 1990 aside, the FA Cup just had no love for little old Crystal Palace.
Before I go any further, I apologise now, but this article is about to get a little picture heavy. Normally I wouldn’t do itlike this, but that day in 2016 deserves some pictorial coverage and by God I am going to deliver it! With that said, let me get back on track. In 2015, my love for the FA Cup sparked back into life. Firstly, Alan Pardew took over as manager, the man famous for that extra time Semi Final winner against the all-conquering Liverpool in 1990. His first game in charge? The FA Cup third round. It just happened to be the year that marked 25 years since our one and only final, and I have to admit, there was a feeling of destiny about it. 25years on from our agonising replay loss, in which Pardew was involved, was he back, now as a manager, to lead us one step further to glory? Enhancing the rebirth of the magic even further, that third round tie was a real old proper cup tie away to non-league Dover. It was a great day, in which Wayne Hennessey managed to not get a single speck of dirt on his bright kit, and my mate managed to unknowingly drop a curved slice of onion from his burger, down the straight narrow bottle neck into his coke, something that you could never achieve if you were actually trying. The cup run and glory did not happen that year, but it had certainly rejuvenated my passion for it. I had spent years hearing about that 4-3 game against Liverpool with Pardew’s dramatic winner. Time and time again I would read tales about Ian Wright coming off the bench to nearly win the cup. I had missed out on those, and I felt my time was due. I wanted my own Alan Pardew moment!
Step forward 2016. The first half of the season had seen us reach the dizzy heights of 5th in the Premier League as we entered the Christmas period. Injuries and Pardew’s ego would see the second half of the season be a free fall into a relegation struggle and last minute survival. The FA Cup however, was a different matter. Now, I am probably wrong here, but I swear Steve Parish felt the same nostalgia and hint of destiny as I did, and all our focus that year was on the FA Cup. It started with a surprise 2-1 win away to Southampton, a game I think most had written off prior to kick off. The fourth round was another tight affair, against another Premier League team, and a tight 1-0 win saw us into the hat for the 5thround. We would then draw Tottenham Away, and all hope faded. I went to White Hart Lane that day, and what a strange day it was. Dele Alli managed to hit both posts only for the ball to come back out. Alan Mullery was interviewed at half time, to a non-stop chorus of boos and famous Alan Mullerychants by us, and Martin Kelly scored a cracker to give us an unlikely 1-0 win!
I remember the coach ride home. We were jubilant, but concerned about the quarter final draw. We had played Premier League opposition in every round and were due something different, and the whole coach rejoiced when we drew Reading, albeit away. As quarter finals go, we were not at our best. In fact, while Reading weren’t great either, I did have my concerns that we were going to blow a great opportunity at a Semi Final. Thankfully, two late goals saw us become the first team to book a place in the Semi’s, and when Everton and Watford pulled off big wins, suddenly it was game on. When we draw Watford, I had my concerns. It was the easiest of the possible draws, but I envisaged that the Hornets would be desperate for revenge after the 2013 Play-Off Final. Still, I had my ticket to my first ever FA Cup Semi-Final, I was going to Wembley again, and I was buzzing! The day itself was amazing. Our end was a sea of red and blue, a cauldron of noise and just immense to be a part of. When Yannick put us ahead early, the place just erupted. It was a joy to behold, and my fears of a yellow revenge eased. We were looking comfortable, until a brief spell in the second half, during which Troy Deeney equalised. Had we not replied so quickly, I think it would have been a very different outcome.Thankfully though, before Watford had the chance to get their sails up, Pape Soaure fired a pin point cross from the left, into the box, where it was met by the head of Connor Wickham.The spot where I was standing, was behind the goal, to the right. I watched in what seemed like slow motion as the ball passed the keeper and nestled in the corner in front of me. Euphoria everywhere, we were heading to the final, and at last I had my Pardew moment!
The final itself was a day like no other. Our end of the ground was the place to be. While the United fans sat in silence pre-game, we sung our hearts out to Glad All Over, and as best we could to Doc Brown’s Glad All Over Again. For me though, it was the pre-game show that the FA put on, that really made the day sink in. Despite the fact that I normally can’t stand that stuff, it reminded me that this was the big day, it was the major trophy and we were really there. United fans should have been ashamed of themselves that day, barely managing any noise other than to cheer their goals. Down our end, it was a non-stop party. We owned Wembley that day, our fans were the true winners in my heart. For the players, to come out for the game and hear that noise from us, and see the red and blue stripes surrounding the giant eagle head in the crowd, it must have been inspirational. Don’t remember it? Well below is a little reminder. I was actually under that eagle banner, sweating my globes off!!
I am likely about to be heavily biased, but we were the better team that day. The first half, we had all the best chances. We deserved to be leading at half time, we SHOULD have been leading at half time. Sadly the cheat that is Mark Clattenburghad other plans, disallowing Wickham’s goal to bring play back for a free kick FOR US!! He made other errors too, but that was the worst of them. At half time it was 0-0, and we all had the right to be aggrieved. There was also that worry, that United would be a better team second half, which inevitably they were. It started to get the feeling that our best chance had gone, that it would end up being a 1-0 loss where we all muttered the words ‘what if’, but then on come Jason Puncheon. For reasons known only to the ego of Alan Pardew, Puncheon was inexplicably left out of the starting line-up that day, and it didn’t take long for him to prove what an error that was. Just when we weren’t expecting it, up popped Puncheon with quite possibly my favourite ever Palace goal, not because it is the best, but because of the occasion and what it meant. Thumping it in right in front of us, I have never known scenes like it. That was one of the most joyous moments to ever be a Palace fan, and I will never forget it. For a few minutes, we all dared to dream. For a few minutes, we were on our way to winning the FA Cup. It was unbelievable, I just can’t do it justice with words.
Sadly, it was not to be that day, as a 2-1 extra time defeat ended our dreams. Just like my dad, I had seen us go so close, only to fall at the final hurdle. However, just like my dad had his FA Cup Final, now I had mine. I have to admit, I have never really gotten over that day, and I don’t think I ever will, unless I actually see us win it. There were two elements that made it even harder to take. The first of those, was the Unitedfans. Silent all day, a lot of them didn’t even wait around for the trophy ceremony. I mean, seriously, it is bad enough that it was a cup final and they weren’t singing their hearts out. To not even watch your team lift the trophy, that is just beyond me. I don’t get it, I never will. Some people just don’t appreciate what they have, likely spoiled by having it too often. The second element, was that we hadn’t even got back on the coach yet, when the news broke that Louis Van Gaalhad been sacked. I mean, he must have literally just put down the trophy, as they handed him his P45! Winning the FA Cup was that run of the mill for United, that they were more bothered about sacking their manager and appointing Mourinho, then they were about celebrating the win. It guts me, because winning that day would have meant EVERYTHING to us. To our players, to Steve Parish, to us the fans, winning that day would have been the world. We deserved it, we worked so hard for it, and we would have cherished it, but instead it went to the undeserving who couldn’t care less. Typical. Through the heartache though, my passion for the trophy has been revived. I have a hunger for it, I feel excitement for it, and crave that feeling again.
So as I end this article, let me do so with a picture not found on the internet, but one that I took in the moment on my phone. It is a moment I mentioned in my Absent Palace XI article, and one that I can share with you now. Losing that day was tough, it was gutting, but the moment captured below, the moment that Mile Jedinak burst into tears on Keith Millen, it broke me. As I took this photo, my heart was breaking. I need it to be put right, I need the agony to be eclipsed by seeing us finally win that famous trophy. I hope that is starts at SelhurstPark tonight.