I woke up on Saturday 21st of May feeling an unpleasant mix of excitement and nervousness. This was because by the end of the day I would know whether Crystal Palace F.C’s Emirates F.A Cup run would have the fairy tale ending that it so richly deserved, or if our season would end in the bitter disappointment that all Palace fans have become far too used to. I was fortunate enough to be there, at Wembley, to witness this unfold in front of my very eyes.
As soon as we got into London I started to see red and blue shirts everywhere, but once we got to Covent Gardens they were all you could see. We had taken over the entire area, our chants were heard from three streets away, our red and blue flares would’ve been noticed all across London and the sheer mass of loud, drunk and passionate men would’ve perhaps worried a tourist that didn’t know what was happening later on in the day, however I had never felt more at home. I chose to save my voice for Wembley but I still was filled with pride to be a part of that magnificent fan base, and that was a theme throughout the day.
When we decided to take the last few trains to Wembley, the reality of it all seemed to dawn on me. This was no ordinary match, this was a cup final. There was going to be a winner and a loser, and I could only hope that the result fell in our favour. Walking up Wembley Way is special, having that spectacular stadium in front of you, being amongst both sets of supporters, it’s all very unique. Similar to when I watched the semi-final, I went to one of the vendors to the side of the path to buy myself a commemorative scarve because I knew that, regardless of the result, it would be an unforgettable day.
Once I got into Wembley and found my seat, I began to wonder about our starting eleven. I felt a massive sense of dread when I saw Zaha, who I believe to be our best player, walking out onto the pitch before the warm-ups in his tracksuit and in floods of tears. I thought he must’ve managed to get himself injured which meant he couldn’t play which would’ve been a huge blow to our hopes and for Zaha it would’ve been utterly heart-breaking, missing out on playing in the Emirates F.A Cup Final for your boyhood club against the club that rejected you. Luckily though this wasn’t the case and he did indeed start the match and he was on the pitch for the entire game. One player who did miss out on a starting spot was Jason Puncheon, which not only shocked but outraged me. He had just hit goal-scoring form and was also Croydon born and bred so being dropped would’ve felt like being kicked in the teeth for him, and I felt like it seriously hindered our chances of winning.
About five minutes before kick-off, the sensational Holmesdale Fanatics unveiled an enormous banner saying ‘This mentality is unstoppable’ to go with the massive image of an Eagle’s head surrounded by pieces of red and blue tinfoil. Not only was our support powerful visually, but the noise we made was unreal. From the start right the way through to after the final whistle we were louder and more passionate than the United fans, which I really hope came across during the live coverage on the television.
I’m not going to talk about the actual game much, however I do think that Mark Clattenburg should have won Man of the Match for Manchester United. His decision to twice pull the game back for a free kick to us in the middle of the pitch despite us being through on goal, and not awarding us a penalty when Zaha was hacked down in the box by Wayne Rooney definitely helped Manchester United on their way to victory.
Obviously, the highlight of my day was when Jason Puncheon smashed the ball past David De Gea and into the back of the net. It took half a second for my brain to react before I shouted for louder and longer than I ever have, and probably ever will! I was surrounded by unbridled joy and passion by everyone around me, grown men were reduced to tears of happiness and I was hugging people I’d never met before because we were all in complete elation! Those two minutes when we were 1-0 up were the happiest I’ve ever been, and I was still celebrating when United equalised. The transition of emotion from pure joy to utter despair so quickly is something I can’t compare to anything I’ve ever experienced before and I hope I never experience it again. It almost felt like being put out of our misery when Jesse Lingard scored and won it for them; for those two minutes we had dared to dream and we had been punished for it.
Yet, looking back on the day, not once would I swap my place with a United fan. The unending singing and the togetherness of our fans made the day one of the highlights of my life. Never have I felt more proud to be a Crystal Palace fan, we showed the whole world why we are the best fans in the country by a long shot. Even after United had won we were bouncing around and telling the team that we love them. The friendliness of the man stood next to me during the game (who also correctly predicated that Puncheon would score first) represented why I love my football club as much as I do. As cliché as it sounds we are one big family and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The final score was gutting and depressing but I would rather lose showing the passion we did, than win showing the passion United did, which was next to none. I sometimes wonder how many of those United fans cried with happiness and hugged the men and women around them but I doubt any of them did. On that day I learnt that a club shouldn’t be judged by how much silverware that’s in its trophy cabinet, but by how much passion is shown by the fans, the players and everyone else involved in the football club. That’s what matters.