18 October 1969 is a date indelibly marked in my football conscience. It was my very first visit to Selhurst Park as part of my elder brother’s birthday party. After over five decades, my recollection is a little sketchy, indeed I had to look up the score: a 1-1 draw with Gerry Queen scoring for Palace and fellow Scot Peter Lorimer for Leeds United in front of a crowd of 31,910. Only two clear memories remain. The vivid greenness of the pitch, a vast expanse of pristine grass, which I could almost lean over and touch as we were right up against the hoardings on the perimeter of the playing surface.
From that vantage point I also witnessed a fiery ball of anger who made a lasting impression on me. He was small compared to the rest of the players but what he lacked in size he made up for in pure, unadulterated venom. Anyone who came near him, be it opposition players, match officials or even teammates were all legitimate targets for a never-ending stream of vehement vitriol. All this venom was exacerbated by a harsh, uncompromising Scottish brogue and his flaming red hair and I wondered why he was so incensed. Billy Bremner gave me an early lesson in football passion and for that I thank him.
Last Monday, some 53 years after that first encounter, I watched another draw with Leeds but in entirely different circumstances. I have been in a couple of executive boxes at other grounds such as the Emirates, which had the atmosphere of being in a 5 star hotel, with escalators transporting you to the plush seats. But for the first time in approximately five hundred or so matches at Selhurst I was in a hospitality suite, courtesy of Andy Bell and Rowan Wilkinson of SBX Studios. Being greeted by friendly, attentive staff and then being ushered to the box, it was all very pleasant and had the feeling of going to the theatre rather than attending a football match.
It was all a little surreal to be perched up amongst the dozens of executive suites on top of the Whitehorse Lane end. Watching the pre-match build-up from within the box, beer in hand, I felt a little removed from the action and it would certainly have been awkward to be joining in singing along lustily to “Glad All Over” as I would normally. As soon as the game began it was clear that the next door box was occupied by a vocal group of Leeds fans who were in a boisterous mood. They certainly added something to the atmosphere amongst the more genteel surroundings with their incessant chants reminding us that they were Leeds ad infinitum.
The match itself never really reached the boil, merely simmering along with a smattering of feisty challenges rather than any concerted goalmouth action. The main focus was on Luke Ayling who was clearly revelling in his tussle with Wilfried Zaha. Such close attention was something that somehow eluded the referee Darren England, who seemed blissfully unaware of the continuous fouling. Aside from the mounting resentment against the referee there was nothing to really spark the game into life and at half-time the obligatory prawn sandwiches were on display in the box. But disappointingly, Roy Keane was nowhere to be seen on Sky’s Monday Night Football.
The second half was a tad livelier with Palace pressing for the opener but bar a dipping Conor Gallagher shot that didn’t dip quite far enough and a couple of Zaha strikes in quick succession which Illan Meslier saved with his legs, the breakthrough did not materialise. The match petered out into a tame draw without a goal; it was a game that will not live very long in the memory. I was very much an observer rather than a supporter and the lack of close involvement left me yearning for a close-up glimpse of a feisty Scot terrifying anyone in his near vicinity. Bremner would have enlivened proceedings and I look forward to returning to the cheap seats for the next few hundred matches at Selhurst.