Dan Cooper explains why Palace fans deserved the to win the FA Cup 2016 more than any other team. And why it hurts so badly that they didn't.
At first glance, he looked unremarkable. Just another bloke trudging home from the game, deep despondency etched on his face. But then you began to notice. The first thing that stood out was the suit - sharply cut, tie still impeccably assembled. Then that famous expression, unmistakeable behind the disappointment - a peculiar hybrid of world weary resignation and twinkle-in-eye mischievousness. And then, to put the whole thing beyond any doubt, that subtle Scouse drawl, long since woven into the fabric of Crystal Palace folklore: 'If you see a cab driving around lads, let me know.'
I'd never really envisaged how my first interaction with Steve Coppell might pan out, but it sure as hell didn't involve searching for an errant cabbie outside a North West London chip shop. But you can't pick these moments, and so here I was, face-to-face with a bonafide, all-time hero. Looking for an Uber.
For a Palace fan of my vintage, this unlikely meeting was both poignant and staggeringly timely. Exactly 26 years earlier, having stitched together a rag bag collection of waifs and strays and taken them to the brink of FA Cup glory, Coppell had ignited a lifelong love affair between me and this mad little club from SE25. As an impressionable 7 year old, I had loved it all - the dazzling red and blue strip, the raw, unhinged genius of Ian Wright, the seemingly endless sea of red and blue balloons spilling out from the terraces onto that impossibly green Wembley turf. I remember Dad letting me stay up past bedtime to watch the replay. I also remember crying myself to sleep.
Heartbreak – it’s common currency at Palace. When it comes to the FA Cup, it seems that we're forever destined to measure it in portions of time. For Coppell and his class of 1990, it was seven minutes. The exact time left on the clock when, with the score poised at 3-2 and with glory within spitting distance, Mark Hughes rolled the ball past Nigel Martyn, setting the wheels in motion on a journey that would eventually culminate in the disappointment of that godforsaken replay.
Nine minutes this time. Believe me when I say that those extra two minutes do little to take the edge off. But this time around, rest assured that not a single one of those lousy minutes will define my Cup Final. Instead, it'll be 175 seconds. A fraction of time so fleeting, it barely warrants mention. And yet that was all it took – that impossibly small window between Jason Puncheon lashing the ball into the net and Juan Mata pulling United level – to capture the very essence of everything that's beautiful about Crystal Palace.
The scenes that greeted Punch’s goal were nothing short of life affirming; 26 years of ‘what ifs’ being exorcised in a riotous outpouring of unimaginable joy. Strangers were hugged as if lives depended on it. Tears were shed. I took off up the concourse, with all the purpose and coordination of a blind Jack Russell trying to run the 100 metres, for no reason other than the fact that I had absolutely no idea what else to do with myself. Meanwhile, the big, burly bloke behind me stood stone still and open mouthed, wearing the expression of a man who simply refused to believe what he’d just witnessed. It’s a hard thing to explain to the uninitiated; that visceral outpouring of collective joy that reduces otherwise stable adults to a flailing mess of misplaced limbs and unchecked emotion. But if you get it, you get it – and there’s simply no other feeling like it.
Perhaps it was just too perfect. The local lad, firing Palace to FA Cup glory in front of his adoring fans. This cup run had always carried with it a sense of inevitably. Though none of us were stupid enough to say it out loud, I suspect we all felt it – this was written. Meant to be. As a Palace fan, you’re hard wired to expect disaster. But when Punch smashed that ball beyond De Gea, there was a palpable sense of a club finally allowing itself to believe; a collective surrender to hope, permeating fans, management and players alike. It was glorious, thrilling, sublime. And, ultimately, it was fatal.
Like many others, I had convinced myself that, for all the hype and fanfare, this one didn’t matter as much as those famous days of yesteryear; Hillsborough, Edgeley Park, The Amex – those were the true nerve shredders, the ones that had a profound impact on the very future of the club. By contrast, this was only ever a bonus. In the cold light of day, I’m sure that assessment will still hold true. But for now, it's inescapable - this one hurts. Bad.
It hurts because the club needed it. Doc Brown wasn't joking when he wryly noted that ‘we want more than the Zenith Data Systems cup’; Palace’s history is a rich and proud one, but the absence of heavyweight silverware continues to weigh us down.
It hurts because there isn’t a fan base in the land that deserves it more. Much has been written about Palace’s game-changing support over the last few years, but the effort on Saturday was a genuine revelation. 15 minutes before kick-off and the Palace end was absolutely rocking; a relentless onslaught of noise, colour and positivity, that continued unabated until long after the final whistle had been blown. The lamentable effort from the other half of the ground, blunted by the sort of entitlement that only unimaginable success can bring, served only to highlight the pure passion emanating from the other end. Performance in the stands may never win you a trophy, but my God, as consolation prizes go it wasn't half bad.
But most of all, it hurts because for many, there may not be a next time; fans who might not be afforded the luxury of waiting for another quarter of a century, and players for whom this was almost certainly the last chance saloon. From the little old lady trudging out of Wembley proudly adorned in 1990 regalia, to those battle hardened warriors laid out on the pitch at full time, you couldn't help but pick up on an unspoken sense of regret, of a golden chance not taken. I wish we could’ve done it for them.
Standing next to Steve Coppell in the North London drizzle, it was tempting to question the futility of it all. 26 years on, and here we all were – crestfallen, regretful, knackered. Just like back then. All that time, money and emotion and you wind up right back in the same place. Pissed off. But then you look around, and see a bunch of mates who you’d never have otherwise met. You think of all those people who flew in from every imaginable corner of the globe, just to watch a football match that they only ever had an outside chance of winning. You think about all those away days, from Scunthorpe to Old Trafford, Plymouth to Stamford Bridge. The barmy celebrations and, more often than not, the wall punching frustration.
Palace matters. It’s real. It brings people together like no other. A crazy, infuriating, bewildering beast with the biggest of hearts. We’ll all continue to suffer at its hands. And we’ll all wake up tomorrow (and the next day, and the day after) still wondering why someone – anyone – didn’t put Wayne Rooney on his arse. But when all’s said and done, we’ll keep on showing up. And eventually, we will get there.
After all, as a few wise men once said, this mentality is unstoppable. You'd better believe it.