A couple of days ago I was clearing though a whole load of disks in my office. With the current trend towards usb drives they're not really needed any more, and as they were taking up a significant amount of space I decided to work my way through them. What I wasn't expecting was to end up on a nostalgia trip that took me back ten years.
The first spark of this was a letter I'd written. It was actually written in 1997 and saved in a really strange format, but it was a reminder of the previous eighteen months. 1996 was probably the worst year of my life. No deaths in the family (like 1991), no personal letdowns piling up one after another (1995), just umpteen different things which totalled a horrendously bad year.
1996 just didn't start well for me. On Christmas Eve of 1995 I'd been diagnosed with a hernia. In the week before 1996 started I had become used to living with it, to the point where I actually went on a ninety-minute walk on New Year's Day (all because I had to get to a train station to get to a Palace game).
However comfortable I became with living with it doesn't compare with the hassle I went through trying to get it sorted out. I was at university at the time, so I was registered with a doctor in London. However for some reason or other (that I don't remember) I never had the operation in London. I moved back to Portsmouth to live my parents after finishing university and went to the back of their waiting list! Not fun.
As my hernia trouble followed my Dad's hernia trouble my Gran was quite concerned about it. She insisted I should get it sorted out as soon as possible. However I had a reading week break which I was determined to spend in Scotland, and as my hernia had stopped me doing any more agency work I was going to start going to more Palace games as the money I had saved wouldn't get me to California (my post-graduation holiday).
Of course my Scotland trip was basically a disaster (it is amazing I ever came back) and Palace didn't start the year especially well. Thankfully at least Palace started to turn things around, nearly getting automatic promotion. The highlight of the run was a 4-1 win at Millwall, which my friend Scott and I attended sans colours. We walked back to New Cross station repeatedly muttering "Stop laughing!" to each other under our breath, giddy at dispatching our local rivals with such ease on their own patch.
So when Palace made the play-off final against Leicester City we thought it was a formality. Scott and I were joined by old friend (and Wembley hugging partner) Matt. Small problem - Palace just didn't play well on the day. It was overcast, the Palace end was somewhat subdued. Leicester equalised our early goal and then snatched victory when Steve Claridge caught a volley off his shin which looped past Nigel Martyn in the dying seconds of extra time. The Leicester end went mental. I specifically remember their then manager Martin O'Neill sprinting from the Wembley benches and celebrating on the pitch.
I was in shock. "Did that just happen?" I asked Scott and Matt. The full-time whistle blew almost immediately. Instead of applauding the team for a season's hard work I just wanted to vanish. "Shall we go?" I asked, as the three of us upped and left. It felt like I glided out of the stadium, as if my legs weren't my own. It was unreal, and as stupid as it sounds it cast a shadow over my whole summer.
Not that a Palace win would have made my summer much better. I didn't have a job of any kind. I was still trying to find a long-term career. I was still waiting for my operation. Furthermore I was having big women problems. I asked one girl out, she knocked me back and then proceeded (from my flawed perspective) to throw herself at anything else that was male and breathing (always the ultimate insult).
Scott seemed to be doing better on that score. He called me up one night to report on his progress:
Scott: "I've got good news and bad news. What do you want first?"
Me: "I'll always take the bad news first."
Scott: "We're not any longer."
Me: (confused) "Okayyyy. What's the good news?"
Scott: "Me and [name] are going out."
Me: "Great!" (thinking) "Oh..."
And so carried on our summer of wondering what to do if you're in your early 20s and can't pull to save your life. It was the only salvageable part of the summer, two guys commiserating and becoming really good friends in their shared misery, just like Beirut hostages from the 1980s.
There are so many stories from the time Scott and I spent together that summer that just wouldn't be fair to him to tell here. To summarise for my personal memory here are some words that serve as instant reminders for the best moments: stressball, tassels, Southsea sea-front singing and telephone coin-flips (don't ask, I'm not sharing).
You know how bad 1996 was? I can't fit it all onto one week, so part two will be up here this time next week.
Have a good week!