Schadenfreude. The sanctuary of the suffering football fan. If your team has finally let you down, it’s reassuring to have the comfort of a rival’s demise to provide the silver lining to your season. But what about Karma? Newton’s Law? Dancing on your bitter foe’s grave always comes back to bite you on the backside.
How can a season when your team has defied the odds to reach the FA Cup Final and provide you with a memorable day out at Cardiff leave you feeling sick with envy? When two of your bitterest rivals face off for a place in the Premier League just seven days after you were emotionally wailing along to Abide With Me, suddenly it dawns on you that your season is over and Crystal Palace have stolen your thunder by beating West Ham. For a Millwall supporter in 2004, it was a situation akin to be offered death by firing squad or the hangman’s noose; being stuck in a lift with Jedward or cast adrift on a desert island with James Corden.
Success starved football fans start each season full of optimism. This is usually blown to smithereens before August has ended. They then spend the remainder of the season doing deals with the football gods of fate: If my lot don’t go up, please at least let that other lot get relegated, or better still, suffer the agonising heartache of final day despair.
Last Summer, while most were enjoying their holidays, I was dwelling on my football wish list for the new season, like a child penning a hopeful note to Santa.
Obviously top of the pile was success for my team. Could we overcome last season’s play off final defeat hangover and win promotion? Then there was my son. As if I wasn’t carrying enough baggage supporting Millwall, following your offspring – even if it is only in the Under 15s Tameside Sunday League and Cheshire County Cup – brings yet more yearning for success and sleepless nights. My huge emotional investment was underwritten with relegation hopes for West Ham and Crystal Palace – however unlikely.
For two glorious weeks in April, it looked as though all my ships were going to come in. Millwall were on a record breaking run and looking good for the second automatic promotion spot as Leeds fell apart like a rusty charabanc, West Ham were hurtling towards the Championship trapdoor, Palace – with the help of a 10 point deduction – were looking equally doomed to life in the Third Division and Wilmslow Pumas Under 15s had made it to the County Cup final and were just five wins from league title glory.
But our football hopes and dreams are built on sand and washed away in the blink of an eye. Within weeks, Leeds had regained the runners up spot they had occupied for most of the season, West Ham had survived (which owed more to the ineptitude of their relegation rivals than their fraudulently acquired qualifications they held from the Academy of Football) and Palace got the point they needed from Hillsborough to stay up by the skin of their teeth. There was also heartache for Payne jnr. Wilmslow slipped to an unfortunate and wholly unexpected cup final defeat and could only manage four wins and a draw in the league, leaving them just a point short of their dreams. So I traded in my West Ham, Palace and Wilmslow chips for a play off Wembley win for The Lions. The football followers' yin and yang was restored.
Sometimes, in the end, the footballing fates can be kind, but the contemplation of losing the lot if The Lions failed against Swindon had me looking up the phone number for Dignitas and flight times to Geneva.
"It was a situation akin to be offered death by firing squad or the hangman’s noose; being stuck in a lift with Jedward or cast adrift on a desert island with James Corden."
If I sat down to list my personal cherished memories from 31 years of following football, I have to admit there’d be a very even balance between Millwall’s finest moments and those that have had the cameras zooming in on Palace and West Ham supporters with tears of grief streaming down their painted faces at play off and cup final defeats. Yes, I was more than happy to see Liverpool win the FA Cup in 2006.
A particular favourite that, even now, lightens the darkest of moments when I need my spirits lifting, goes back to the 1987-1988 season.
Millwall and Crystal Palace had been rivals for promotion to the top flight throughout the season. They had taken 4 points from us by virtue of a very lucky 1-0 win at Selhurst Park and a late, outrageously hand-balled equaliser at The Den. This was made all the more unbearable by the fact that my high school at the time was in Eagles territory and I was outnumbered at least ten to one by their fans. As the season’s end approached, Millwall’s twin strike force of Cascarino and Sheringham helped ensure a run that would a take us to an improbably title triumph, leaving our Wright and Bright-laden rivals clutching at play off straws. They needed to beat Manchester City at home and we had to beat Blackburn Rovers to ensure their final play-off berth was secured.
With The Lions already up and Rovers also in the hunt for that last promotion lottery ticket, the outcome put the seal on a fantastic season. Never has a 4-1 home reverse been so warmly received – especially on Cold Blow Lane. While Palace did their bit, news came through that their dream had been shattered by a bunch of hungover players who, for the first time that season, didn’t have to try. And why the hell should they?
I’d spent much of my Saturday evening taking abuse from two Palace-supporting school colleagues, so up in arms were they that Millwall hadn’t done the decent thing and paved the way for them to jump on the back of our promotion bandwagon. As I soaked in a Sunday morning bath still floating on the euphoria of the previous day’s events, I questioned if life could get any better. My musings were interrupted by Dave Lee Travis on the radio with an important message for anyone travelling to the Whitney Houston concert that evening. Due to illness, Whitney had been forced to cancel. Poor Whitney. I suddenly remembered that my two Eagles chums had bought tickets for this. Yes, really.
I was now in a quandary. Should I do the decent thing and call my friends to make sure they’d heard this announcement and save them their wasted journey? I was after all, probably DLT’s only remaining listener and there was a good chance they’d missed this news. Or should I be bitter and twisted and, with their vitriol from the night before still ringing in my ears, slope back beneath the suds and let the buggers suffer for the second time that weekend.
Conscience got the better of me. These were friends first, Palace fans second. It wasn’t their fault. I made the call.
Unfortunately, they didn’t believe me. In these days long before information overload there was no Internet or 24 hour rolling news to check my tale and they dismissed it as mischief-making on my part and duly made the long, fruitless journey from south London to Wembley. Priceless. Even at the tender age of 15 I thought: “OK, God, you can take me now, it can’t possibly get any better than this” because I knew, sooner or later, the tables would be turned on me.
And so it goes on. Every football fan rides the rollercoaster. Not only of his own team’s varying fortunes, but also the veritable Boethius’ Wheel of seeking solace from your beloved’s demise in the most dramatic possible failures of your rivals. Conversely, their success can rip into your heart as hard as your own team’s defeats.
Over the years I have danced down the streets as The Eagles shipped nine goals at Anfield, hidden behind the sofa as they beat the same unstoppable Liverpool machine to reach the Cup Final, and dined out for the entire Summer on their FA Cup winning dreams being snatched from them by Manchester United. I wanted to kiss Steve Claridge as he broke their hearts with a last minute play off final winner for Leicester, and burn an effigy of the infidel who scored an equally late winner for them 12 months on and get them into the Premier League after finishing SIXTH.
This morning I found myself with a strange dilemma. Breaking news: Crystal Palace are on borrowed time. Administrator Brendan Guilfoyle announced that if the anticipated takeover by fans’ consortium CPFC 2010 was not finalised by 3pm he will begin the liquidation of the club. How ironic that he should chose the usual kick off time for a football match to start reading the last rites. By 10am I have already received three texts and several work colleagues have added to their congratulations of my team’s play off triumph, assuming that news of Palace’s demise is worthy of equal celebration.
But it’s not.
"Success starved football fans start each season full of optimism. This is usually blown to smithereens before August has ended."
OK, just for a second the thought of them being struck off and consigned to the Surrey Sunday League as AFC Palace did arouse me slightly. And as I watched the news coverage of their fans outside Lloyds Bank HQ dancing around like a bunch of nerdy teenagers at a Radio One Roadshow when the news that they had been saved broke, the alternative vision in my head of them blubbing like girls and swinging from lampposts by their pretty red and blue scarves as the axe fell was momentarily more palatable.
But then I had to think about it in the long term. A big part of the elation in Millwall gaining promotion this season was the chance to pit our wits once again against our rivals. The excitement on the day the fixtures are published looking for the two games and planning the days; the sick feeling in your stomach as the big game approaches and, hopefully, the immense, indescribable joy of scoring against and beating them. All that would be denied, in return for a few weeks gloating on some Internet messageboards. Where’s the fun in that?
Flash Gordon would have gone out of his mind with boredom had he slain Emperor Ming 'early doors'. Superman would undoubtedly have let himself go and developed a paunch in his blue lycra leggings if Lex Luther had been permanently put to the sword at the first sight of Kryptonite. And there would have been very little fun on the buses for Butler if Blakey had been transferred to another depot.
We’ve all watched a suspense thriller when the hero has a chance to despatch his nemesis. We scream at the screen: “Kill him! Kill him! While you’ve got the chance...” But he doesn’t. He allows him to wriggle free and plot another attack. All in the interests of prolonging the story and keeping it interesting of course. And we’re grateful for that, albeit incredulous at his leniency, because we know there’s a chance that he might not be so lucky next time and we'll be treated to another thrilling battle. The anticipation of that next meeting is both tantalising and terrifying.
So I’m going to cast aside my childish spite. I’m going to do the honourable thing. After all, like the spoilt brat that I am, I got my own way in the end this season.
So I’ll force out the words that stick in my throat: I’m glad Crystal Palace have survived. But I’m sure at some time over the next season or so I’ll be choking on them again.