Mark Steel: Palace life is all about losing on penalties

So began the sickening pain that compels you to stare into the middle distance for two days

I've read a bit about the Cuban missile crisis, when for a few days the world wobbled on the edge of nuclear war. But I bet it was a doddle compared to the nerves of being a Crystal Palace fan in the days before Tuesday's second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Cardiff City.

Supporters of the richest clubs may not understand this, as they're so used to semi-finals, but for a club like Palace it's one of the few moments when we suddenly feel nationally important.

The match was on BBC2, so people wanting to watch something about galaxies and stuff couldn't, because of us. Alan Hansen would have to learn our players' names and pretend he knew about them so he could make insightful comments such as "That lad's looked decent this season".

And it mattered because two years ago the club was in administration and almost folded, and because to get to the semi-final we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford. My teenage son went to that game and I'd spent two weeks ensuring there would be no disappointment by squashing any faint hope he had that we might win. "Enjoy it as a brilliant day out, but don't even imagine, not for a second, not as a flickering dreamy possible scenario in a parallel universe, that we might win."

And then we won, and it was gloriously joyously magnificent and for a few days Jeremy Clarkson could have been made Minister for Foreign Affairs and I wouldn't have cared because we'd beaten United.

One United player that night, Dimitar Berbatov, was bought for a sum that could buy our whole club, and now our team, many of which are local lads, had to beat Cardiff to get to the final. We won the home leg 1-0, so watching the second leg in the bar at Palace's ground was tense. But so were the players, and they barely had a shot in the whole game. Cardiff scored to equalise, then for nearly two hours the ball hit our bar, our post, went just over, just wide, and probably just under, until all our nerves and organs were reduced to gibbering mush.

Somehow it got to penalties. At this point I considered leaving, not looking up the score, buying a ticket for the final, so only when I saw which teams ran out would I know how the penalties had gone.

Even now it seemed impossible we'd go through. We'd been so outplayed even if we won the shoot-out the linesman would flag our penalties for offside. Three Palace attempts were woeful, and so began the sickening pain that you know is irrational but compels you to stare into the middle-distance for two days unable to take solids. In that time if you met a Somalian peasant who told you his troubles you'd say "Yes, but at least you didn't lose a semi-final on penalties."

But unlike some fans of the richest clubs, who feel winning cups is their entitlement, everyone accepted this as part of the Palace experience. No one complained about the players, the manager, or the club, all of which are still revered.

On the website yesterday a fan asked for advice, as his eight-year-old was "inconsolable" and hadn't slept. Someone replied: "Tell him if he looks after himself he can look forward to another 80 years of nights like that." That's why it's worth supporting a team like Palace.

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