Best drinks so far this summer? Cold Evian and some Dark Star Hophead. 2003 Calon-Ségur and 1989 Langoa-Barton consumed with Boy Wonder were excellent (the best magnum, and the last, of 2003 Calon I owned; 1989 Langoa the most “proper” red Bordeaux I’ve had in ages), but claret and sunshine don’t always mix: it was the Evian that saved the day.
Back to business, business being the word. Football.
Crystal Palace is my team. Born in Beckenham, raised in Sydenham, Forest Hill and Dulwich. From 1985 onward I could see the BBC tower from my bedroom. I am Red and Blue (and, by the way, who the ______ ____ are you?)
And my football team has moved up a gear. This has coincided with my relinquishing my season ticket. I am perhaps the only Crystal Palace fan to have abandoned his team as they are promoted, not relegated. And this time the promotion isn’t the upward swing of a yo-yo. This time it appears to be the real deal. And this time, money is pouring in as opposed to being sprayed out. Things have changed.
I think the best, or rather my favourite, game that I have seen at Selhurst Park was in April 2004. A resurgent Palace, eyeing the play offs rather than looking over their shoulder at relegation, played Sunderland on a Tuesday evening. An Andrew Johnson penalty (he got a few) put us into the lead. My hero Neil Shipperley added a second. The moment I remember was the third goal, a moment of class, concentration, skill and poise from Dougie Freedman. 3-0 to the Palace, and a cracker of a goal – hit on the volley from the right-hand wing – from one of the club’s greatest heroes.
Watch Match of the Day or other such stuff, and Selhurst Park is regularly quoted as having the greatest atmosphere in the Premier League. This is probably true, and has been for the past few years. But for my money, the atmosphere at Selhurst has never been better than in the spring of 2004. We were the underdogs, we were winning, we had a run of luck. And we were still in a league – the Championship – that was more about work, about toil, about being a team – than it was about money. The atmosphere maybe lacked its current volume, but in terms of its spirit, it was unbeatable.
A link back to wine is looking increasingly tenuous at this stage, but it’s not.
Because what I look for in a wine, aside from ticking the usual boxes of balance, correct levels of alcohol, extract, tannins, etc, is two things: energy and character. I’ll add a third: a sense of place.
Energy: Wayne Routledge. Palace have a knack for developing exciting wingers. Wayne might not be Wilfried Zaha, Victor Moses or Yannick Bolasie but, in terms of sheer excitement, of energy, was a joy to watch screaming and tricking down the wing, more often than not into the arms of some duff defender.
Character: In later days we had the warrior that is Clint Hill. Clint doesn’t give up, and is possibly my favourite Palace player of all time on account of that. But in 2004 we had Michael Hughes, for which read a smaller Clint Hill with some pace. He’s here, he’s there, he’s ___ _____where. Never stopping. Seemingly everywhere on the pitch, tearing it up. And, whilst comments on Andrew Johnson’s ability to win penalties were legion, few noted the workrate up front of our equally agile pocket rocket. AJ never stopped trying.
And a sense of place? Born In South London. This is terroir, if you like. At a pub in Farnham just today I overheard: “well done on Sterling” to a Manchester City supporter (Surrey-based) from a pragmatic Liverpool supporter (Surrey-based). I think that they were drinking branded lager in one of the area’s best pubs for proper beer (Dark Star Hophead for starters). I think they missed something. Now, much as my bit of Surrey is pretty nice, my bit of South London makes me feel like nothing else whether I’m in Dulwich Village or Sydenham High Street. It just has something. Something that makes my stomach ache a little just thinking about it.
Many people have asked me: “what is your favourite wine?” Expecting: “82 Pichon-Lalande” or “78 Conti-Conti”. My favourite wine is Irancy. Grown not ten kilometres from Auxerre, my former base, and home to AJ Auxerre, the team that won the French double whilst I was living close by, a team whose supporters, with tractor-driving pride, sang “PAYSANS! PAYSANS!” when their Parisian counterparts dismissed them as peasants…
From the right growers (Podor, Richoux) Irancy can be outstanding, energetic. Most of all, it has a sense of place. Nothing else tastes quite like it. It may well be Championship rather than Premier League material, but it’s what I like. Saveloy and chips rather than prawn sandwiches. And a good one is like that shot from Dougie on the volley, like Routledge spinning the ball between his feet, Hughesy ripping around the pitch like a terrier, Johnson with the match-ball against Brighton.
We are in a different league now. Higher, grander. And it’s brilliant. But I still love Irancy. And I still adore Neil Shipperley.