On Monday I watched Crystal Palace defeat my team, Watford, in the Championship Play-Off final. It was a game that took an absolute age to arrive; just over a fortnight had passed since Watford defeated Leicester in an epic semi-final. That’s a long time without any other football to play, and plenty of time to think about what might be.
Such a long delay creates a sense of anticipation that can exaggerate the high of victory, but also deepen the low of defeat, or so I assumed. This is the third such final I’ve been to, but until Monday I had never tasted defeat. I’ve seen my team lose loads, of course, just never on a stage like this. And, I’ve often wondered how shit it must feel to be the fans quietly trudging back to the station on an enormous collective come down. Now I know.
I also know what it’s like to see and hear the opposite half the stadium exploding with noise. In the previous two finals Watford didn’t concede a goal – a fortunate run that was unlikely to continue with Watford’s recent defensive record. It was horrible, though. Wembley is so huge that the sound seems to take an eternity to reach you. I saw the net bulge when Kevin Phillips scored and assumed the brace position, but it felt like an eternity had passed before my section was drowned in screams of Palace joy. My ears have rarely heard a more hideous sound.
The other significant difference from previous finals was my departure time. I was used to staying behind to see Watford’s players lift a trophy – a ridiculous but enjoyable quirk of the play-offs. This time I was among the ranks filing for the exit. I’d never seen 40,000 people move that fast, parents looked like they were trying to hurry their children towards the stairwells before they witnessed something that would scar them for life. Quickly, quickly!
Outside, the wind had kicked up. The earlier warmth had given many of us a distinctly rouge complexion by kick off time, but now there was a chill in the air and Wembley had never seemed more unwelcoming. All the Watford fans were scurrying in different directions, desperate to escape this gigantic soulless mothership of English football. But, worse was to come. As I circumnavigated the stadium – which felt like walking around the M25 – I had to pass the Palace end. I did so just in time to hear another sickening roar and realised they had just lifted the trophy. I knew there were only minutes to spare before the Palace fans would come streaming out of the gates in full voice. I had never been more pleased to get away from a stadium in my life.
But, despite enduring such a miserable end to the season, by about 7pm when I was making my way home I was kind of over it. There was no sense of injustice – Palace clearly deserved it more. I was just disappointed that after playing some of the best football in the division, Watford couldn’t get started in the biggest game of the season. It really was a great season, though, and the fact that we didn’t turn up in one final game doesn’t alter that. I’ve never taken success for granted – obviously, look who I support – but after that experience I’m even more grateful for the happy memories I’ve got from supporting my team.
And, now the season is finally over and I’m glad, because although it’s been a great one, I’m properly knackered. And if your team’s ever been that close but hasn’t quite made it, you’ll know how I feel. Enjoy the break.