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Why the FA Cup final means next to nothing for Manchester United - but everything for Palace

Why the FA Cup final means next to nothing for United - but everything for Palace

19/05/2016 at 17:23Updated 20/05/2016 at 10:06

Crystal Palace fan Toby Keel explains why Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley is so big for Palace fans - and why Manchester United can never understand.

Crystal Palace fans have no delusions of grandeur. No great history to draw on. No magnificent stadium, or great players of the past who bestride the national consciousness, or world-beating teams from the days of black and white TV. There really is no reason at all for anyone except the Eagles’ own supporters to care even a tiny, tiny bit that this small club from south London is in the FA Cup final.

Sure, the club has a cool name. But that’s about it. And even that cool name is something of a con, given that the club’s oddly nondescript suburban setting, nestled next to a big Sainsbury’s and row-after-row of indistinguishable houses, isn’t really in Crystal Palace at all, but rather the far less glamorous Thornton Heath.

While clubs such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Palace’s upcoming opponents Manchester United have followings across the globe, the Eagles’ hinterland doesn’t even cross the Thames. The only way you end up as a Palace fan is if you suffer an accident of birth or relocation that puts you within striking distance of Selhurst Park. The result is a very normal club: small, proud, happy, with ambitions not of world domination, but merely of survival from one year to the next.

Here we are now, though, little old Palace in the FA Cup final, up against a club so famous that you could trek through the wilds of Papua New Guinea for three days and still find yourself taking a pee in the rainforest while standing next to a tribesman wearing one of their shirts.

United fans have already written off the season as a disaster, partially for the loss of a spot in the Champions League, and partially for the fact that the football they have played hasn’t been particularly good to watch.

Give me strength. What a bunch of spoilt whingers United fans are by any normal yardstick. They’re the footballing equivalent of a spoilt daughter of a billionaire screeching about the fact that her Maserati isn’t quick enough, and that she wants a Ferrari now. The rest of us, chugging past in our Vauxhalls and Fords, can afford to sit back and laugh at such antics, rich as we are in perspective, if poor in more obvious ways.

Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace during a press conference

Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace during a press conferenceReuters

On Saturday, though, we’re in the FA Cup. To keep that car analogy going just one line longer, it’s as if we’re at a track day up against that girl. We know we need her to spin off the track if we’re to win, but we’ve every hope that it might just happen. Because this is our chance.

Of course, these days every club gets its shot at the big time via the FA Cup. In the last dozen years alone, Cardiff, Millwall, Hull and Wigan Athletic have all been to the final. Getting there used to be an elite achievement, reserved only for the very finest units. Today, with ‘big’ clubs happily dumping all over their cup hopes as they eye improved league position, it’s like a lottery with perhaps a couple of dozen entrants. Sooner or later, as a fan of a yo-yo club like Palace, you know your number will come up.

And here we are, then: Palace’s number has come up. For only the second time ever, and for the first time in over a quarter of a century, Crystal Palace are in the FA Cup final.

I’m old enough to remember the first time round: in the summer of 1990, Steve Coppell’s Palace were a revelation to so fresh and wonderful it almost made you forget that Margaret Thatcher was running the country and that the Poll Tax took from the poor to give to the rich. The Eagles had made it into the top flight via the play-offs the previous summer, had scraped to survival in what was a first top-flight season in a decade and after an unforgettable semi-final against Liverpool stood on the brink of an unthinkable prize.

At the time, though, survival wasn’t expected, or even much cared about compared to the big FA Cup prize on offer. Younger readers will no doubt wince at someone reminiscing about how the FA Cup used to mean a lot – hey, I get it, we’ve all moved on. But at the time the idea of winning the FA Cup was pretty much just as exciting as winning the league. Arguably even more so, considering that you got a trophy and got to play in the showpiece final.

Ian Wright celebrates scoring

Ian Wright celebrates scoringPA Photos

As it happened, there were two showpiece finals: a 3-3 draw after extra time, and then a dull replay won easily by Manchester United. The trophy that saved Alex Ferguson’s job at Old Trafford was at the expense of Palace.

Indeed, when Palace finished third in the top flight a year later – an achievement which today would be rightly hailed as almost Leicester-esque – my Palace-supporting friends and I were obviously chuffed, but with Liverpool out of sight at the top of the table it was never going to mean anything. Today it would mean the world; in 1991, it was almost an anti-climax.

By contrast, most of the following two and a half decades have seen Palace battling for something: survival, promotion, a play-off spot, survival again, promotion again… and at a couple of points, a genuinely worrying battle against total oblivion for a club with financial problems.

That, for me, has been the joy of supporting Palace. There have been a lot of painful memories – none sharper, perhaps, than Steve Claridge’s 120th-minute goal in the play-off final to put Leicester in the top flight at Palace’s expense back in 1996. But there has been absolute joy as well: just 12 months after that awful match, the Eagles were on the right end of a similarly dramatic twist as David Hopkin scored an equally magnificent 90th-minute effort to secure promotion.

Those ups and downs have always been enthralling; the only dull seasons being those rarities when the Eagles have had mid-table finishes. We’ve not been taking part in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but there’s still a satisfaction in winning your own little go-kart race.

Now, though, it’s as if the Palace go-kart has somehow been unleashed onto the streets of Monaco for a real race. The FA Cup beckons! Revenge for 1990 can be ours! Finally, a glorious trophy to sit at Selhurst Park alongside the Zenith Data Systems Cup! It would mean everything to Palace to win something other than that spurious trophy, or the even-more spurious one you get for victory at the play-off final.

Ironically, though, for our opponents on Saturday it will mean next to nothing. The trophy that once saved Fergie has not a chance in hell of saving LVG. United fans are angry, but they really should savour this rotten spell in their club’s history. You really don’t know how high you’ve climbed if you didn’t start your ascent from the bottom of the valley.

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