Ablett is a wanker.

The crowd is chanting it in unison. He may be. I have no idea. I am halfway up one of the most magnificent grounds in the world, the MCG. I don’t know what a wanker is. I don’t really know who Ablett is. My father abuses the umpire for something else. Other fans stand up and scream, “White Maggot!”. There is swearing. Casual racism. Men yelling. 

Ablett is a wanker. 

Australians are not really chanters. We prefer a passive aggressive put down, usually spoken out the side of someone’s mouth. But occasionally someone plays so well that the Melbourne crowd make an exception. 

Ablett is a wanker. 

It’s Australian rules football, not football football. Gary Ablett is Geelong Football club’s version of God. He is a hunched freak, born again Christian, coke fiend and probably one of the most gifted footballers, of any code, ever to have lived. 

Ablett is a wanker. 

This was the first big sporting match I ever attended. 

When I was at my first Test match at the same ground, Wasim Akram bowled quicker than my ten-year-old eyes could see. And when the Australian batsman somehow got the ball to the boundary, the Australian fans hit the Pakistani players with flags as they picked up the ball. They hit them hard. I was also at the ground when fans started throwing golf balls at English players. And I was there for all the Mexican waves in the nineties where it was likely in certain parts of the ground to have someone around you piss into a beer cup and then throw it into the air. 

My team, Collingwood Football Club (Aussie rules again), had a brutal home ground, Victoria Park. It was full of grim-faced men spitting obscenities at everyone who passed. Racism wasn’t casual, it was forceful. And not just about skin colour, but really any part of your ethnicity. Or your hair length. Or anything. Everyone was a “fucken poofter”. A few years after my visit there, an indigenous man called Nicky Winmar stood in front of the stand, lifted his jumper and pointed at his skin colour. 

They just kept screaming. 

It was brutal, but to me, it was sport. 

Now I live in South London. Three and a half minutes walk from my house is a fish and chip shop. It has been there for over 50 years with the same owners. It is beautifully basic. The menu board looks remarkably untouched by modern life. There is a fish tank in the corner. They don’t cook many things, but they do them all well. As far as suburban fish shops in London go, this is a prince. 

On display in the shop are a few items. There is a team flag sticking out of a vinegar box. They have a Crystal Palace team poster on the wall with the fish tank. And just by the back door they have a signed photo of Patrick McCarthy. 

McCarthy is not someone I know. I don’t know what position he plays, if he is good at it or if he is indeed famous enough to be on the wall of a fish and chip shop. I have no background in South London and have never been to a football match in my life, have no idea who is in the Premier League and only follow football when I play Fifa on my iPad. 

The McCarthy picture is not about the Premier League or even Palace – that picture, flag and poster is my childhood. Every cafe, pizza place or garage with something on their wall to say whose side they are on. The item never mattered. The colours did. 

Patrick McCarthy’s team wear blue and red. A 30-minute walk away they play at Selhurst Park. 

On a Saturday afternoon when I am driving back from TK Maxx or Ikea I get stuck in the Selhurst Park traffic. Their training ground is opposite where my kids have soft play. My wife even once lived next door to a Palace player, Neil Smillie. 

But in truth, all I know about Crystal Palace is all I know about English football in general. It is a beautiful game where money matters and there is a history of violent hatred. 

Not that I hadn’t been involved in sporting violence before. 

Half-time at a Junior College basketball game, with cocks out, was a weird place to sense violence. I was there to watch my friend play for a team that called themselves the Runnin’ Lopes. They were based in a flyover state and a drive-around town: Lamar, Colorado. 

The aggro in the toilets was not completely about the basketball match, it was also a hangover from the earlier baseball match between the same colleges. The Runnin’ Lopes’s rivals are the Rattlers from Otero Community College. Acne on one side, braces on the other, these undersexed white boys still tried to look as macho as they could while calling each other faggots. 

I headed back to my seat, kind of thinking it would all go nowhere, but less than a minute into the second half the doors of the stadium flew open and in came the fight. By English football violence standards, this was hardly anything at all. There was no glassiness or riot horses, but it stopped the games and designer jackets were ripped. 

Eventually a few of the teachers stopped it. You know it isn’t a real violent situation when it is ended with stern words and bearded men with sensible jumpers holding two guys apart. 

It was more like my last ever tennis match where a man said some heated words towards me when I suggested that most tennis fans weren’t fans of tennis or fans of sport but were just fans of events and liked sports that weren’t supported like real sports. Or the time when I refused to stand up for the national anthem at an NBA game. 

When I was 14 I saw my first riot, or fight at least, and also my first black man’s cock. It was my suburb Epping against our bitter rivals Lalor in an Aussie rules match. The black man in front of me was playing in the game. He was a one-time hopeful for professional football, but was now playing in front of 2000 drunks in the outer suburbs, and he was being racially abused by the crowd. It started with jokes about him giving them dark looks. It went on to them just calling him a black cunt. 

This player, deciding that the fence between him and the fans was an adequate barrier, walked over to the main racists, dropped his shorts, flopped out his cock and, as best I could tell from 20 metres away, seemed to suggest that the racist’s woman would prefer what he was offering. 

I had never been in an all-in brawl before, I didn’t realise how quickly you could go from cock to 2000 people hitting each other. The two sides of the ground met in the middle where the footballers were. I was standing there, looking around at old grey-haired men from one suburb, throwing wild punches at old grey-haired men from houses less than two minutes’ drive from theirs, thinking, ‘I hope I don’t get fucken hit.’ 

I thought about all that violence I’d seen on the field as I caught the 157 down towards the Albion with my dad. I knew that it had slowed down, that English football was no longer pure thuggery, but I also knew that the Albion had two signs. One says “Home of the Eagles” and the other “Home Fans Only”. 

I know what that means. I know it is something to do with violence. Maybe someone got glassed here once. Or many times. Or the Chelsea headhunters (they’re the violent racist ones, right?) tried to enter. Or, if my memory is right, something with riot horses, in fact, most of my childhood memories about English football seem to be about riot horses. I think I saw Craig Johnston shimmy around a riot horse in an FA Cup final once. 

But the pub looks fine. Normal. Just a corner pub, in a working-class area, with red and blue paint all over it. It probably was on a normal day. It was probably just full of old men propping up the bar with grim expressions drinking beer that should be banned from circulation mumbling half truths about news stories they very nearly remembered all the details of. 

This day was different. The main pub doors were locked. We had to go around to a door on the side, walking past the outdoor benches that were upended in front of the windows. 

My dad went in first and before he took a step inside he was stopped by the barman asking him for a ticket. Initially he thought he needed a ticket for the bar, but then realised it was for the game. We had clearly failed Selhurst Park’s first shibboleth. 

With that kind of security I expected the faithful to be in, drinking hard, talking loud. But there only were two other sets of men in the whole place. There were more staff than drinkers. The cricket was on. Maybe two and a half hours before the game was too early to get your booze on. We ordered lagers. They were given in plastic cups. Not hard plastic, but soft plastic you would give to a four year old at a picnic to throw away later. 

This annoyed my old man straight away. He’d drunk 1664 around the world but never had he had to show a ticket to receive it in a shitty plastic cup. He started whinging about the cup and ticket system just loud enough in the room for the bar staff to hear. I gestured for him to keep it down. It wasn’t his fault his voice boomed, it was the room’s. All the furniture in the place had been moved to the wall. The wooden floor, beer-soaked, tear-soaked and probably blood-soaked, was free for as many punters as possible to drink their beers. 

Eventually that space was filled by the crowd. Every third person with a seemingly different Palace shirt on. I collect replica cricket shirts. I get the appeal, even lust, for a shirt. But mostly I marvelled at how these clubs had so easily milked their fans by changing the shirt in such minor ways, or just having a new shirt, for no reason other than more cash. 

The cricket was switched off the TV for the early afternoon game. My dad took his chance to go into another rant. According to him, this ‘home fans only’ stuff was bullshit. Back in Melbourne, Collingwood fans hated Carlton fans at the ground, but then they went to the pub, sank piss together, from real glasses, and it was all OK. 

I let him rant. The pre-game rants were on all around us. Someone hated Mile Jedinak. Another thought Zaha should play higher. One bloke was sure the club had made a mistake about something or other. These were the same rants I had always heard, just different names. 

Eventually they blended into the music. They were playing a mixtape of Dido, Joni Mitchell and Tracey Chapman. It was like a film director was putting on a intentionally incorrect-sounding song to juxtapose the moment for effect. Angry men making their passionate points while Tracey Chapman explains a bad relationship by singing about a fast car. 

Before we went to see a footy match in Port Melbourne once my dad and his mates took me to a pub for a before the game tipple. There was a shoeless heroin addict in the corner, a toilet wall of human shit and a woman crying into her beer. Yet around them I remember a really passionate conversation about whether Billy Swan, in the 80s, or Peter Bedford, was a better shot at goal when on the run for Port Melbourne.

As the crowd came in to talk football here it looked like I had imagined an English football pub would look. Above the crowd was a St George flag. In the corner was a Christmas tree, with red baubles and blue lights. Beyond that was a red-and-blue party light. All of them bounced off the white sneakers, wooden floorboards, safe lager and the red and blue of the fans. 

We tried the next pub, a Wetherspoons. No one asked for a ticket and there were even Swansea City fans drinking right next to the Palace fans. No violence ensued. 

Jonathan Liew from the Telegraph had told me to try the Tasty Jerk before the game,  so we headed down towards the ground. We passed what I assume was a working men’s club that seemed to be promoting a regular clairvoyance event, turned into Homesglen Road, passed a girl in pyjamas out the front of her house and I left my old man to find his own seat as I walked towards meat in a box. 

I had to travel the full distance around the ground to get my chicken, which allowed me to take in the stadium in its full lack of glory. The walls of suburban football grounds often have the look of a prison wall. Selhurst’s red brick had a great jailhouse feel. 

Above the walls are the stands. They are a combination of the latest in fifties style and farm shed chic. There is nothing sexy about the ground and it’s not trying to be. It is not a modern sport facility. It isn’t a bowl. It doesn’t appear to be set up as a multi sports arena. You can’t imagine Barry Manilow coming by for a concert or the Commonwealth Games using it for archery. It shouts at you, “I’m a football ground, brah. Believe.” 

The queue for the merchandise store confirms it. Red-and-blue credit card lemmings line up to add more colours to their wardrobe. The queue is so long that I assumed it was for Tasty Jerk, until a man came out telling the queuers they were not going to get in before the game. 

I walk past the queue, past the Sainsbury’s, past the services and finally arrive at a box building with poor signage and no aesthetic charm, even when compared with Selhurst. 

Tasty Jerk seemed to fit the general ambience of Selhurst. They made good food. They cared little about the presentation of it. 

Walking back towards the ground I am chaperoned by a bunch of teenage Swansea fans who are trying to look older and tougher than they are. There is little difference between them and the soft brawlers of Lamar, Colorado. Their smell is that beautiful mix of early-afternoon lager, poor-quality cigarettes and corner-store men’s cologne. They chant and pose for selfies. It is my first ever real-life football chant, but they barely get into it before asking a bloke filling up his car with petrol to take a photo of them. 

I head on looking for my date. There is always something special about the first time you enter a sporting stadium. That unexplainable feeling of being around all that spilt beer and tears, heroes and villains, winners and losers. Even the architecture. I remember lining up for tickets at Madison Square Garden with a sports boner. The first time I walked into Nottingham Forest’s City Ground (just because it was opposite Trent Bridge, and their gate was open) I felt it. I didn’t even really know what a Cloughie was, but you could feel something had happened there. 

When I went to see Oakland Athletics play I spent the first 30 minutes just walking round with excitement around the back of what is, to a non-sports fan, a pretty ordinary-looking building. I was so excited that I never even took my seat, I spent the entire match watching it from different vantage points. I was even excited being at the Cleveland Cavaliers arena, and this was before LeBron James had left high school, when saying you watched the Cavaliers brought on memories of Mark Price rubbing his face. 

Here I know practically nothing. I don’t know what Palace have won. I don’t know who their legends are (unless Neil Smillie is a legend, and I kinda doubt he is). I know their captain, Mile Jedinak, because he is Australian, and Patrick McCarthy. I don’t know what kind of team they are, what they stand for. I know they are the Eagles, but if it was a pub quiz, I’d probably take a while to get that right as well. 

None of that matters. Not really. A place like Selhurst Park is beyond your memories, it is the collected memories. A sporting church. You can feel you are at something special, even if you don’t know what that is.

Mind you, as all these romantic thoughts of what will be inside enter my head, I am shooed away from the first gate because it is for away fans only. I try to make a joke about their being no neutrals gate, but the joke doesn’t land. 

30 metres away is a home gate. The security guard asks me where I think he is from. I say Africa and he smiles, apparently the guy before said Turkey. It was not the first moment I expected walking into a football match. I move past the proud African and hand over my ticket. The man sits in a dungeonish booth and beneath him is a great turnstile. It’s old, heavy and red. It’s rubbed the groin of thousands of football fans with a heavy cold touch and a metallic groan. 

When I finally get through it, I am as I should be, a sports tourist, confused, looking around for sporting magic, not sure where to go and having a true fan bump into me impatiently. 

Inside is a small corridor and nothing else. It is cold, dank and beautiful in its ordinariness. It makes the rest of Selhurst Park look like the Versace Palace. People are camped out, huddled, watching Bolton v Blackpool or some two places I’ve never been. I get two beers, full-strength beers, something that has been banned in the MCG for so long I can barely remember when they changed it. I am shocked in this place with so much violence, or at least historical violence, that you can just get a beer. But then I see the signs stopping beer from the stands, my dad will have to miss out. Maybe drinking in a crowded hallway is better than in a stand. 

I watch the other fans as I drink the not-as-expensive-as-I-thought beers. Most are Palace people. But there are also many young Chinese and Japanese fans, based on what I overhear, and Americans. Some might be hard-core fans, but it seems like most are like me, just here to experience what the hell this is. 

When I reach my old man he is deep in conversation with some Palace fans about the kind of turf the match is being played on. He seems more interested in that than the giant upright between us and the pitch. There is also scaffolding hanging from an old shed style grandstand. Television broadcasters sit there, meaning our view will have men’s arses and a pillar in it. 

Then the cheerleaders come out. As pointless as cheerleaders are at any sporting event, you have really to appreciate them being in the middle of a ground at least 50 metres from any man that is supposed to be lustfully ogling them. In the programme it says you can sponsor the cheerleaders. Everything is for sale. 

The teams run out. “Be loud, be proud, be Palace” hits the speakers, which is one of those corporate chants that in no way is as inspiring or real as the actual chant from the fans. 

The game starts. The noise starts. Someone plays drums. There is chanting as well. No one in my section of the crowd sits down, except my dad. He seems to believe they will all soon sit down. My dad asks the guy next to him why they don’t sit, the guy just shrugs and calls them daft. The rest of our stand is sitting, except the Swansea fans, who are cordoned off behind a security barrier. My dad stands. 

They start chanting “Alan Partridge’s red-and-blue army”. It occurs to me shortly after that this is probably “Alan Pardew’s red-and-blue army”, which makes it less funny but more accurate. Another chant says that this is South London’s number one club. There is one that just seems to say South London, La, La La. And that Palace are the red-and-blue army. 

One guy always adds to that, bring your vodka, bring your charlie. He seems to have come from the eighties. 

Of course, the whole thing feels like we are in the eighties. All I know of modern football is a slick TV corporate package. This is real. Where the cheerleaders felt far away, the players feel very close even at the back of the stand. The chanting isn’t a soundtrack, it’s part of the game. The standing makes it feel more intense. The stand feels like it is one close game from collapsing. The pillar. The television gantry. It is all real. I have seen football on TV most of my life, but this is my first football experience. 

What happened to the multi-billion dollar entertainment package? I’m at a football game. 

Cunt. 

Fucken cunt. Fucken faggot. Your wife sucks cock. You’re not at Newcastle now, you wanker. Shut up you Welsh fucken cunt. Arsehole. Fucken scum. Are you having a laugh, cunt. You fucken sheep shagger. You’re useless, worse than fucken useless. You fucken scum. You childless cunt. 

It’s possible I misheard the first part of the last one, but I didn’t mishear faggot. Or cunt. 

Cunt, cunt. Shagger. Wanker. Arsehole. Cock. Prick. Fuck, fuck.

There are families here, there are corporate partners, sponsors, warning signs about anti-social behaviour, hashtags, the BBC and yet it’s all blown away in a cuntnami. 

These almost exclusively white men stand two in a cramped aisle, arse to balls with each other. And they swear. They swear at time. At calls. At non-calls. At Mile Jedinak. At someone who has done one to Mile Jedinak. They swear at the Swansea fans who are 60 metres from them. The Swansea fans swear back, you would assume, at a ground full of people who have been separated from them as carefully as possible. They swear while a Chinese kid tweets a pic with “#selhurstparkstadium”. Others only stop swearing to take selfies. Others never do. 

Maybe I would have paid less attention if the game was in any way good, but it wasn’t. I am no football expert, but I have seen enough to know a terrible game and this is it. I see a friend at half-time and he tells me that this is particularly bad. On the way back to my seat I hear an English guy tell an American woman, “Yeah, wait till they score a goal, that’s when you can really say you’ve been to a game.” We won’t see any goals. 

But I feel like I have been to a game. I feel I am having an experience. The actual sport itself might be terrible, but this is obviously what Selhurst Park is like. I wanted an authentic experience and the ground has given it to me. The ref has never been right. The chants are never-ending. The abuse is thick and refreshingly distasteful. It was exactly not what I see on the TV. Football had been what I expected it to be. 

Then a player falls over. 

The Palace fans know he is faking, you get the feeling they would even if he was bleeding out an open neck wound, and they let him know by calling him a cunt, then a sheep-shagging cunt – obviously none have checked the match-day programme to see he is from France, fuck the match day programme and its bullshit about redevelopment and corporate messages, we don’t care about new American owners, or what Jedinak thinks, this is the football and this Swansea cunt is fucken cheating and we’re gonna fucken tell the world about it, because we are Palace and we won’t be cheated. 

So they chant. 

“Let him die.”

I watch a guy next to me chant this. He is well-dressed, jeans and a T-shirt. He is white. Early 40s. Well groomed. And here is he, chanting for a bloke to die, because he may be faking an injury. Let him die. His voice is the same as I hear from my next-door neighbour when Chelsea play. It’s the same I have heard from my father. My uncle. Myself. The words are different, the message is different, but the scream, the howl, is the same. It’s not a Palace scream, it’s a football scream. It doesn’t happen at other sports the same way. But football drags it out. All the codes. Gaelic, American, rugby. Let him die. It’s not from the opiated masses, it’s the rage of the common man. The wail of the masses. Let him die. He loves chanting it. He has been cunting, shagging and fucking the entire game, but now he has a real glee in his eye, football blood lust. It doesn’t matter if this guy is hurt. It doesn’t matter if this guy is Welsh. It doesn’t matter if this guy is a cunt. He has waited all week to stand among his kind and let all this out. Get the world off his chest. Forget his mortgage, his job, his commute, his car troubles, his Sunday trip to Ikea, his arsehole neighbours, his daughter’s boyfriend, his war with the fucken dog who shits on his front step, everyfuckencuntything. 

Let him die. 

It was my first game, but it wasn’t my first time. I had felt at home most of the game. There was more standing, more chanting and more cunting than I was used to, but this is my sporting background. It might have been angrier, and richer, than I’d had. But I know white angry men, pissed off with a world they think has shat on them, standing and being cunts to people whose wage is paid by their anger. My youth was spent among guttural senseless white-man rage. Angry at life, angry at everything. Letting their inner cunt flag fly in the safest way a middle-aged white man can, by paying for a ticket and shouting. 

Let him die. 

They don’t think it through, not then and there. It is “football banter”. All just a good bit of fun. They are not an arsehole here. They are just one of the red and blue army. Sure their wife, manager and neighbour might disagree, but this is a safe place. Their Selhurst. Unless you are the injured sheep shagger. 

Let him die. 

No one shushes them. No one calls them politically incorrect. No one shakes their head. No one fines them. No one takes their ticket. No one rolls their eyes. No one tells them what to do. They just shout that a man who might be faking an injury should die and the game continues. 

It gets scrappier. Worse. But more exciting. That late 0-0 tired sprinting starts happening. Selhurst is at its loudest. The chanting and cunting is at top volume. It is the first time the game has excited me more than the experience. But at the 86 minute mark I notice something odd. The biggest screamers. The biggest chanters. The biggest cunters. Leave. The ones in my area, but also in many areas, leave. My dad gets angry again, he cannot believe anyone would leave with at least four minutes of game left and the score tied. 

But many of them have done what they need to do. The scream, the hate, the anger, the cunt, has been released. They are not here to win. They are here to howl. 

Ablett is a wanker. Let him die. 

They howl. The football howl.