Supporting Crystal Palace can be a deeply personal experience, and for Tony Dobson, the return to Wembley is one of redemption.
A lot can change in 26 years. As a club we've seen that ourselves. In those 26 years we've changed badges twice, ownership three times and managers more frequently than we would like to count. Life changes as well, and I'm going back to Wembley in altogether different circumstances than I did in 1990.
I became a Palace fan because I started going to games with my Dad. He went with his Dad before him, although my Grandfather died when I was too young to have had any memories of him. My parents divorced when I was a baby, and since that point my Dad and I had an awkward relationship. We had little in common, and he was someone who intimidated and frankly frightened me. My opinions were always wrong and nothing I ever did seemed to be good enough for him. Somewhat because of him it took me far longer than it should have for me to be comfortable being just myself.
When I started going to Palace games in my early teens I quickly came to love the matchday experience, the atmosphere, the excitement and the anticipation of each. We went with a group that varied in size from fixture to fixture, but overall there were a good group of guys, including a friend just a few years older than me who I liked, respected and genuinely loved being around. Additionally he was an effective bridge between myself and my Dad, about the only person who really brought us together before I started going to watch Palace.
It also helped that I got in at a good time. Freshly promoted to the old First Division and embarking on that F.A. Cup run, a place in the game I watched avidly every year along with every schoolboy beckoned. My Dad then did the best thing he ever did for me, going onto the black market and getting us into that Cup Final. Sure, we were in the United end, but that was before the ugliness that came years later and I would say that we were actually treated well by those around us.
As I got older I became more independent, and leaving home for university meant I wasn’t dependent upon Dad to get to games. I moved to Scotland in 1997, shortly after our play-off win against Sheffield United. I didn't have a goodbye trip to see my Dad. I had hoped in some subconscious way that our goodbye that day, still gleeful about David Hopkin's dramatic winner, would be an apt happy memory to remain with us. Circumstances and family events conspired so that wouldn't be the case. He had hurt too many people close to me, and it just reached a point where I couldn’t take the high road any longer. I don't have the first clue if he will be at Wembley for our second final appearance. If he is, I hope our paths do not cross.
The funny thing is though that fatherhood is a lot more than just buying Cup Final tickets and taking someone to Wembley. I was naturally closer to my Mum, and my Mum thought I was naturally closer to my stepdad. While he wasn't a football fan he remains to this day the best man I know, the person who invested time and love into my life, the person who built me up and didn't tear me down, the person who put other people's needs - especially mine - ahead of his own.
I began to discover this for myself just before Christmas in 2005 when my first daughter, Chloe, was born. Having spent months fearful of what kind of father I would be I found myself rapt by this beautiful girl who just seemed to love me. I didn't know exactly why my Dad and I weren't close, but I knew that if I had a similar detachment from my children it wouldn't be for lack of effort on my part.
I also came to experience something else in fatherhood and aging, namely awareness of my own many flaws. Sometimes it has been through things Chloe has struggled with, and at other points it has come to me in a moment of rare self-awareness. While I couldn't let my Dad back into my life it provided food for thought on many occasions and empathy that would perhaps be better served elsewhere.
As Chloe grew older my wife returned to work, and I threw myself into all the things Dads do in this era. I especially loved the toddler years when I would pick her up from childcare, come home and watch sports on TV with her. Usually she would be exhausted from a day of playing and fall asleep while cuddling me, and for me that was perfect.
Throughout her early years Chloe had a succession of Palace bibs, vests, sleepsuits and the like. My in-laws are wonderful people, but I suspected they were merely humouring my interests. When I signed Chloe up for junior membership I don't think they were thrilled, as football isn't a traditional interest for girls, at least from their perspective. Chloe loved the pack the club sent her, and I kidded on that she would be the one pushing my wheelchair into Selhurst Park in my later years, something she always said she would be happy to do.
Soon enough it would be her turn to visit Selhurst Park, but when you live 400 miles away it isn't a simple arrangement. Furthermore attempts to plan her first trip happened amid an awful time for the family. Weeks before the game my wife broke her wrist. Days before the game my wife's ill-fortune struck again as a vomiting bug ended up putting her in hospital again. We had to postpone our trip. I was devastated, and I wasn't alone in feeling like that. Chloe was too.
I wouldn't claim that Palace are the be-all and end-all in life, but there does appear to be a peculiar thing which takes place whereby when life is miserable Palace go and do something brilliant. In this case Palace got promoted, and although none of the family were at Wembley that day in 2013 it was a momentary respite. Chloe finally got to her first game, took in her first away trips, and even got properly frozen at Wigan, a day she somehow still said she enjoyed. An actual win for her was much longer in coming, making me thankful for patience that clearly doesn’t come from me. Why would a girl living in the west of Scotland love Palace? I can't properly explain it, and I'm not sure I want to make sense of it, I'm just glad she does. It happens to be something which is special to both of us that brings us closer still.
It isn't just her allegiances that make me proud of Chloe though. She's got a lovely sense of humour, works hard at school and has one of the kindest hearts I could ever imagine. Furthermore she really doesn’t ask for much. How can you not want to do everything for a child like that? She's already had her dream of being a Palace mascot, and now I've got mine of being able to go to an F.A. Cup Final with her. For all the many friends (including my best friend of 22 years) who I've gone to Palace games with there is nobody I would sooner attend a game with now.
Reaching the final means that this is no longer a once in a lifetime experience, but until we see otherwise we certainly have to treat it as once in a generation. Whatever happens at Wembley it will be a special day for us, and hopefully someday we'll be back for a major final when her little sister is old enough to join us and make it a full family occasion along with their Mum.
This F.A. Cup Final is going to be a special day for anyone who is part of the red and blue army, and for those of us who were there in 1990 it will be a day where you can't help but think of those you went with then. Whether they be friends, family or just familiar faces, there is reason to be remember them and what has happened in the intervening years. For me though there is redemption to be had, and it has nothing to do with the final score.