Wednesday night, League Cup
Sat deep in Selhurst Park’s main stand, look above you and you see the graceful ironwork skeleton of one of Archibald Leitch’s lesser known works, now dressed and disguised in the makeshift refurb of corrugated roofing, make-do-and-mend extensions and blue plastic seats. Beneath your feet the wooden floor is still there, dampening the footsteps of those creeping in late, making their way bent and apologetic towards their seats. Architecturally it’s undeniably ugly now but sat low and dark in this South London bowl, surrounded by unkempt terraces of London stock brick it’s everything a football stand should be: drawing 13 thousand pairs of eyes on this low-key Wednesday night cup tie inexorably towards an open gleaming rectangle of grass.
In the narrow technical areas by the side of the pitch stand the managers in symmetry. Pardew, hands stuffed in suit pockets, is all tension and anxiety. Brisk encouraging hand-claps, anguished glances over his shoulder at his assistant John Carver. A Palace old boy under pressure, he stiffly, briefly acknowledges a sympathetic old chant in his direction from the home fans. Later on when Newcastle are reduced to ten men, the red carded player walks off seeking the reassurance of support from his manager. Pardew can’t bear to look at him. Warnock meanwhile, to his right, stands forever one foot forward yet slumped like a some worn teddy bear in oversized leisure wear. His body straightening only to howl calibrated indignation at perceived injustice, to jab a frantic finger at space unoccupied.
On the pitch, understudies being given their chance, maybe their only chance. Just go out and express yourself son. Fresh faces nod sincerely at the urging of their boss’s boss, endeavour to do better. Every touch affects the players confidence, the misplaced pass slumps young shoulders, the clever turn or through pass pushes the chin up and the chest out. Just go out and express yourself son. Confidence rises and falls, the game swings back and forth. It’s the League Cup and the crowd is patient and supportive. We’re all playing Football Manager tonight, trying to spot the raw kid with potential, the under-appreciated reserve deserving of his first team spot.
Johnson, the returning Palace darling, back after eight long years away, older, slower, wiser now, is practically hugged onto the pitch by an indulgent crowd. But it’s not enough. Palace succumb in extra time in a game that stayed competitive for 120 minutes. Leaving the pitch, hands clapping above their heads, mirroring the supporters, I look on wondering how many of the unfamiliar faces we saw tonight we’ll see again, when the pressure’s on and the stakes high.