(actual date of posting – 18 April)
Match thirty-four vs Southampton (away)
Match thirty-five vs Arsenal (home)
Match thirty-six vs Leicester City (home)
Total mileage 5,732.4
Three matches to update on since my last blog: I’m blaming the school holidays.
One of the perils for any modern day travelling football fan is having your best laid plans scuppered by a fixture being moved for TV – all the more so if you’re taking the slow route to matches.
As originally scheduled, Palace were due to play away in Southampton on Wednesday 5 April and at home to Arsenal on Saturday 8 April, both in the first week of the children’s Easter holiday. We had decided we’d have a short holiday in the New Forest during the school holidays.
I warn you, this now gets complicated… The obvious choice would have been for us to go to the New Forest during the first week of the holiday, so that it would be a relatively short trip for me from New Milton to Southampton for the Wednesday night match. (I should say, if we had done that, I’d have had to cycle to and from New Milton at either end of the holiday – otherwise it would have been cheating.)
That would, however, have meant travelling home on the Friday to ensure I was back in time for the home match against Arsenal. The Friday was my daughter’s sixth birthday. She did not want to travel on her birthday (quite reasonably: last year we flew back from Florida on her birthday, and she was sick on the plane!). So, instead, Janet booked us a four night break from Monday 10th to Friday 14th.
All fine and dandy, until Sky chose the Palace-Arsenal match for broadcast on Monday 10th. Janet tried to change the holiday booking to the previous week (we would no longer need to be back for the Saturday, so no travelling on Hannah’s birthday). They were fully booked. Instead, she simply added a couple of days to the start of the holiday, and I would have to travel back on my own for the Arsenal game.
More on that later. First, there was the trip to Southampton. 80 miles each way for this two day journey, staying with Palace-supporting friends who live a couple of miles from St Mary’s. I’ve enjoyed the rides over the winter months, but the ride to Southampton was something else. The sun was shining, spring had arrived, and the countryside was in bloom. Riding in such conditions was an unadulterated pleasure and I felt the same pure joy that I had in conquering the early long rides back in September. How long ago they feel now.
The fields were a blaze of yellow and the air filled with lovely smells. My hay fever suffering wife disagrees with me, but I love the sight of a field of rape; and I was treated to many wonderful views as I rode through Surrey and Hampshire. I had an added boost when I checked my phone during a roadside pitstop. I had received a £1,500 donation from the Palace players, which meant I’d smashed my initial fundraising target of £10,000. (As a result I have increased my target to £15,000 – at time of writing I’m up to £11,309.) This excellent news acted like a tailwind, and I managed 55 miles before stopping for lunch.
That left a mere 25 miles for the afternoon stint. I’ve been sharing details of my exploits (and begging for donations!) on an on-line Palace forum. There’s a small band of regular posters on the forum who are keen cyclists (not least my personal mechanic – for the duration of the challenge – Duncan from the excellent Wallington Cycles, http://www.wallingtoncycles.com). One of my fellow cyclists lives in Hampshire and had had a look at my planned route. He’d advised me to make some changes to avoid cycling through Eastleigh. I’d meant to take his advice, but never got round to re-planning…
That was a mistake. The traffic in Eastleigh was a nightmare; frequently at a standstill with no room for a bike to get past. At one point, when I was carefully filtering alongside the stationary traffic, a bus decided to pull out without signalling and almost forced me into the oncoming cars. But other than that, I pedalled through the final stint without incident and arrived at my friends’ house to a very warm welcome.
After a pleasant couple of hours in their company, I got back on the bike for the final couple of miles to the ground. Arrangements had been made for an official from Southampton to meet up with me for some photos outside the ground. However, some missed phone calls meant that didn’t work out. No matter: a friend snapped a photo of me with the Southampton mascot; and the club more than made amends when a steward presented me with a voucher to pay for a burger, chocolate bar and a drink!
After the euphoria of Stamford Bridge, Palace came back down to earth with something of a bump. Despite Palace taking the lead, two late goals gave Southampton a 3-1 win. The efforts – and injuries – at Chelsea had taken their toll, as did losing Yohann Cabaye to injury at half time. In some respects, Palace were unlucky on the night: there was a clear foul in the build up to Southampton’s equaliser, and Palace twice hit the post. But Southampton could also point to two strong penalty claims in the first half and they were good value for their win.
There was no better way to get over the defeat than a blast on the bike in the sunshine the following day. My hosts had plied me with goodies (croissants and chocolate biscuits) so with 47 miles done, I stopped for a picnic lunch in Pirbright. Even better, I was joined for lunch by a very cute family of ducks (at least I think they’re ducks – I’ve not seen markings like those before).
It was barely mid-afternoon by the time I made it home. Still plenty of time to head out to the park with the kids for an ice-cream.
My original plan for the Arsenal game – since its rearrangement and our revised holiday plans – had been to travel home from the New Forest by train, ride to and from the game as normal, and then get the train back to the New Forest on Tuesday morning. I had, however, enjoyed the Southampton trip so much that I became very tempted to ride to Selhurst from the New Forest.
I decided to ask twitter what I should do. Which, in effect, meant I’d decided to ride – I was pretty sure what the outcome of the twitter vote would be. In the event, it was closer than I expected, but 53% said I should ride from the New Forest, so the plan was decided.
We had a lovely drive down to the New Forest, and enjoyed a glorious baking hot day on Sunday, before I set off back to London on Monday.
Thankfully, Monday was not as hot as Sunday: I would have melted. It was lovely cycling weather – sunny, dry and not too hot – with only a slight headwind to hinder me. I had a late-ish start and ploughed through 66 miles before stopping for a late picnic lunch. My afternoon ride again took me through Pirbright. I didn’t stop, but as I passed the pond I was delighted to catch sight of the duck family. I was tiring by the end of the day – 108 miles was one of my longer days in the saddle – but made it to the Pawsons Arms for a pre-match shandy shortly after six o’clock. I tried not to think about the fact that I’d have another 8 miles to ride post-match.
The game against Arsenal was the stuff of dreams. Palace had previously only beaten Arsenal three times in their history. The last time was in 1994 (I was there). The only time we’d won at Selhurst Park was in 1979; I’m embarrassed to admit that the nine year old me didn’t even support Palace. And yet we didn’t just win: we hammered Arsenal. Leading 1-0 at half time, I was hoping we could repeat our feat at Chelsea and hold on. But instead we scored two more and Arsenal didn’t even manage a shot on target in the second half. We had won 3-0: it was so surreal that I was even disappointed we hadn’t managed a fourth!
Before we played Chelsea, I had said I’d be delighted if we were still outside the bottom three by the end of the Arsenal game. But those two brilliant wins meant we were six points clear of the relegation places.
I don’t normally head to the bar after matches these days, but an exception had to be made! As a result, I didn’t make it home until nearly half eleven. I then had to stay up to see the goals on Sky Sports News at midnight and even when I eventually made it to bed I was too excited to sleep well.
As a result, I was pretty tired when I set off the following morning. I had planned on a very early start – on the expectation that I’d have had no cause for celebration and would have been home in bed before 11pm. That went out of the window, though I was still away by five past eight.
With the lack of sleep, the ride back was hard work, though still enjoyable. I split the riding fairly evenly: 53 miles before lunch and 47 after. As I rode the final mile or so through New Milton back to the holiday camp, I was overtaken by a familiar looking car with a couple of kids’ bikes on the roof. The kids themselves were fast asleep, so missed the chance to see daddy in action.
The rest of the holiday was lovely (so much so, that Janet ended up buying a caravan) including a very enjoyable afternoon in the company of the family I’d stayed with the previous week.
Back home it was back to normal for another home match, against Leicester City. The only deviation from my usual home routine was to arrive early for a very quick cup of team with my Leicester supporting friend, Jeremy, and his daughter.
It would have been unimaginable a few weeks previously, but both Palace and Leicester had turned their seasons round and this was a match between two of the country’s most in-form teams. Both teams had won five and lost one of their previous six matches. It was perhaps, therefore, no surprise that the game ended in a draw.
For Leicester, the match was sandwiched between the two legs of their Champions League quarter final. We hoped that would be a distraction for them, but they resisted the temptation to make major changes to their team and by early in the second half had established a 2-0 lead. Palace pulled a goal straight back and drew level with 20 minutes to go. Despite chances at both ends, that was how the game ended: 2-2.
A lot was made in the post match analysis of Palace’s new found resilience under Sam Allardyce. In reality, though, this was more like the performance under Alan Pardew. Three times this season under Pardew, Palace had come back from a two goal deficit (albeit they still managed to end up losing two of those games). The goals conceded against Leicester were also reminiscent of the worst of the Pardew regime. Terrible marking from a set piece for the first; and a breakaway from a Palace corner for the second. Nonetheless, a draw from 2-0 down – especially combined with defeats for other teams in the relegation battle – felt like a victory.
Palace now face two very difficult matches, away at Liverpool and at home to Spurs. Before the Chelsea game, you would have said that if Palace only managed to get one point in total from the Southampton and Leicester games then we’d be in dire trouble. But the brilliant and unexpected wins against Chelsea and Arsenal – combined with an awful run of form from Swansea – mean we’re seven points clear of relegation and edging towards safety. Palace fans of a certain age (ie including me) will never count chickens in relegation battles; and can be heard darkly muttering about ‘Oldham’*. Nonetheless, a seven point cushion over Swansea – who have just five games left to play (Palace have six) – is a great position to be in and one that was unthinkable after the Sunderland debacle.
For me, I have just six more trips. Three are at home; the other three are long away rides – to Liverpool and twice to Manchester. I estimate that’s somewhere between 1,400 and 1,500 miles to go.
[* In 1993 Oldham Athletic won their final three matches, including an away game at title chasing Aston Villa, to send Palace down on goal difference. A recent Telegraph article rated Oldham’s win at Villa as the eleventh best away trip in the history of the Premier League.]