Following Palace From The African Bush Is A Testing Experience

The response to what is now known as the ‘Lockdown Diaries’ has been fantastic and there is more to come. Here is Dean Finnie with his story of following the mighty red and blue from afar.

My love affair with Palace started in 1979 when I began secondary school. We had just moved to Oxted in Surrey from Sevenoaks in Kent and this turned out to be a blessing because I might have ended up as a Charlton Pathetic fan.

At secondary school it appeared that people chose a football team according to how hard they thought they were. Palace appeared to be somewhere in the middle of the list of options and had the coolest name, so Palace it was.

I say that’s when my love affair began, but in reality I did little more than loosely follow. I grew up in a very anti-football environment in which all fans were seen as hooligans and so when in 1982 I eventually managed to get to my first ever game at Selhurst, I was just a bit overawed by it all and just a little scared to the point that I cannot even remember who we were playing. All I remember is a crazy day with some good mates that involved a lot of underage drinking on the way home in the Porter & Sorter by Croydon Station. As I recall, we started and finished the day in there.

Sadly it wouldn’t be until 1997 that my love for Palace truly sparked. That was the year my wife and I were living near Manchester with great jobs and earning well when we were called to serve overseas, so we ended up going to Tanzania for three weeks over summer to look at a couple of projects working with street kids.

We were sold and made plans to move to Tanzania in January 1998. We let our house out and moved down to spend a few weeks with the wife’s family before heading off and spent quite a bit of time in the village pub. What a blessing it turned out to be, the landlord was a bonkers Palace fan and once he heard about what we were going to do he sorted tickets for us to go and watch Palace take on Everton at Selhurst. This game I remember everything about! Finally the embers of my love for Palace had been stoked into a proper fire and have been that way ever since.

Trying to follow Palace out in the African bush is a testing experience, especially back then before the proliferation of mobile phones and internet. We would gather round a long wave radio on Saturday’s tuned in to the BBC World Service desperately waiting to hear the results, which sadly by that time were not great news. One of my highlights of 1998 was watching the World Cup final with a couple of Catholic Fathers at a nearby Seminary, one of the Fathers was French and he’d been sent a bootleg VHS of the final game and so one brilliant afternoon in early August I got slightly drunk with the priests as we cheered on his beloved France.

Sadly, we experienced some major problems with the organisation that had sent us from the UK (apparently not everyone realises that colonialism is a thing of the past) and so we ended up returning to Blighty at the end of the year. We were hooked now and after a year at Bible College in 2000 we were off to Zimbabwe for three years working with a street kid project in Harare. This was a brilliant time right up until we were deported at the end of our three years when I was held in prison for 27 hours, but that’s a whole different story!

Trying to follow a Championship club in Zimbabwe was another testing experience, but at least by this time the internet was a bit more developed and the brilliant CP-FRIS was up and running. Remember that? What a lifeline it was!

Two memories of my time in Zimbabwe remain very precious. The first was raising some awareness of the famous red and blue. I was appalled to see so many Manchester United and Liverpool shirts being worn by people without a clue so I decided to do something about it, and contacted Ray Bateup of the old CP-FRIS. Ray got a few others involved and Shirt Aid was born. In the end we ended up with two or three shipments of Palace shirts which we merrily dished out to as many people as we could. The best bit was the boys football team at the street kids shelter changed their name to Crystal Stars in honour of Palace and played in their Palace shirts every game. Ray and Neil Witherow collaborated and ran a double page spread on the whole thing in the Palace Echo, it was brilliant.

My second memory is a funny story involving Andy Cole. There was another street kid centre in the city and somehow they had a link with United which in 2002 resulted in Mr Cole visiting their project. Our shelter were invited to attend and unbeknown to me, the matron of our shelter had decided that the kids should all wear Palace shirts for the event.

It was a great day and Mr Cole was treated to some amazing displays of African singing and dancing and just generally treated like a god for the day. Late in the afternoon whilst our kids were performing, Mr Cole was talking to my friend next to me and he was clearly puzzled by something which eventually turned out to be the mystery of why so many street kids and staff were wearing Palace shirts. My friend announced loudly to him that it was “because of Mr Dean” to which I gave him a knowing smile and a wink and walked off.

I have never been in a position to visit Selhurst regularly and by some standards could probably be declared a ‘plastic’. But growing up in an environment that’s hostile to football isn’t helpful and then moving away as soon as possible didn’t help either. Much of my early adult life was spent in Sheffield and Stockport, but occasionally when opportunity has allowed I’ve been to an occasional game at Selhurst and even once sat in with the Sheffield Wednesday fans when Palace were playing away at Hillsborough (ten years ago to the day, in fact!).

In 2003, my son was born and I felt it was my duty to indoctrinate him in all things Palace and in 2008 I took him with his Grandad to Selhurst for his first ever match which he adored. I’m proud to say that he is a lifelong fan even if like his dad it has to be from a distance.

In 2004, we moved to South Africa where we live to this day and continue to cheer on the mighty red and blue from afar. Thankfully, these days it’s really easy to keep up with all the news since we’ve been back in the Premier League. We have only missed a couple of games for which we could not find a streaming link.

We had a lot of fun too in 2015 meeting up with a load of Palace fans for the inaugural (and last as it turned out) Cape Town Cup. It was great too to bring along a few local friends and let them experience the passion of the Palace fans. We owned Cape Town Stadium for those few hours!

Today, we might live over 6000 miles away from the hallowed turf of SE25, but we are very much Palace ‘Til We Die.

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