Football is back and Palace fans Southampton so Toby Kinder is here to look back at a classic opening day Premier League game for the Eagles.
As we look ahead to the start of the second weirdest season since 1939, I got to thinking about opening days and the gap between expectation and reality. I’ve been going to the Cheltenham Festival for about 30 years, and I can confidently say, there is no atmosphere like that on the 0800 train out of Paddington on the first day, as the champagne corks pop, and crucially - no-one has lost any money. After a quick snifter, all those mad accas seem like sound investment policy, and you start to think you might not need your return ticket as you’ll probably be flying home by helicopter. Funnily enough, it’s never yet turned out that way for me.
As a football fan, you’ve had the whole summer to fantasise about transfers in (Nothing’s Ever Good Enough readers insert own emoji here), there will be mates you haven’t seen since May, you’ll be wondering whether the Victory Club’s prices have gone up, and, in recent years, always some new aesthetic touch that makes Selhurst look like the very best tumbledown shithole in the PL (yes, I do sit in the Arthur).
But then there’s the game. And usually, it hasn’t really come together. The key signing hasn’t actually got over the line, or isn’t properly match fit. It’s a bit too warm, and the pitch a bit too smooth. Checking the scores in other games is meaningless, and once it’s over, the table - a modern invention - is utterly irrelevant. It’s an event stripped of context. It’s a little like being hungry all day, anticipating a four-course meal, then your bill arriving after you’ve finished the olives. You sit in the pub and fail to make any erudite conclusion, generally tailing off into ‘well, let’s see after four games’.
There are a few exceptions. I’ll never forget the first ever PL game at Selhurst, where a superb double from a whippersnapper named Shearer seemed to have won it for Blackburn before we came back to secure a thrilling 3-3. During the Pardew grace period, the trip to Norwich was thoroughly vindicated by the pleasure of seeing Cabaye bossing things in midfield and crowning his debut with a goal. Equally, I recall with horror seeing the team sheet before taking on Tottenham under Holloway, and the pure bafflement of the Huddersfield debacle.
Ultimate opening day, though? 1997. What a year. The end of the Tories. Britpop. The Fast Show. Lombardo. In the days before Twitter and Newsnow, you relied on the Croydon Advertiser each Friday for the transfer latest. A story started to circulate in early July that Attilio Lombardo was on his way to newly-promoted Palace. Not only was he allegedly leaving the club that had just finished runners-up in two consecutive Champions League finals, he’d been part of the Sampdoria side that has won the Scudetto in 1991, and through a happy mixture of coincidence, circumstance and chance had become my team to follow through the glory days of Channel 4’s Football Italia.
It seemed inconceivable that one of these legends of Serie A could possibly be seeking employment in SE25, and yet.... The story rumbled on, and as an already cynical, world-weary 35- year-old, I just assumed that an agent was stirring up interest, and that Paul Warhurst and Jamie Fullarton would remain our Big Summer Signings. As we drove up to Liverpool that perfect August morning, we still didn’t know whether he had signed. Somewhere near Coventry, disaster struck. My mate M’s Citroen started wobbling violently, and we realised we’d burst a tyre. Emergency hard shoulder shenanigans ensued. A good 45 minutes were eaten from the schedule. As we approached Scouseville, the traffic thickened. The mother of all hard luck stories began to formulate. Suddenly, we could see Goodison. Incredibly, at 2.45, we pulled into a side-street within sight of the floodlights and there was a parking space. Without restrictions. Take that, kids.
We jogged down the road, made it through the turnstile. As we found a space on the terrace, the teams were read out. “And for Crystal Palace, 5: David Tuttle, 6: Andy Linighan, 7........Attilio Lombardo”. I actually said ‘pinch me’ to M at this point. With Kevin Muscat also in that side, it was as incongruous as a party where all your mates have tins of Foster’s while you drink Bollinger out of a Ming vase. Two minutes in the ball span up in the air after a ricochet. Lombardo brought it down on his instep and killed it dead. There was an intake of breath from our end as if we’d all just seen colour TV for the first time. Literally no-one in a Palace shirt had ever done that before. A couple of moments later, he looked up and threaded a perfect little through-ball taking out 3 Everton defenders. Bruce Dyer - who was supposed to be on the end of it - looked across at him as if he’d been trying to explain Einstein's theory of relativity. In Italian. The man was operating on a level nobody had ever seen before. Of course he scored. Of course we won.
We stayed overnight in a house in Croxteth, deserted by a mate of a mate who’d gone off to the States seven years before, met a girl and never come back. There was a chip pan full of seven-year-old fat in the kitchen, alongside a copy of Dickens’ Bleak House. We dropped a couple of vitality pills and managed to turn a coat-hanger into an aerial in time to watch Match of the Day on a 12” monochrome portable. The next day we were out as soon as the newsagents were open. It was true. We were in the Premier League, and the Bald Eagle was all ours. If Carlsberg made opening days...