The thing about sucker punches is that the devastation is maximized by how unexpected the blow is. Think of the way the air got pulled out of your system with “The Red Wedding” on GoT or “Memphis” on This Is Us (the weepy Red Wedding, if you will). The way your mind melded with the turn of Arrival or the twist of The Sixth Sense. Or, my personal favorite, the utter terror that a PG-13 film could unleash - thanks, Insidious. The gravity of the blow is exponentially increased by how much we underestimated the threat.
Almost four years ago, I made such a mistake as a Liverpool fan as I walked into the Palace match nervous, but unprepared for what was to happen. Yes, the match took place the week after Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip. The loss to Chelsea coincided with City dispatching their most difficult remaining opponent on the season, but, Liverpool’s destiny still, generally, remained in their own hands. Win out and, at the very least, it would force the tie-breakers into effect. And of Liverpool’s remaining opponents, Palace seemed the surest bet for 3 points, what with a 3-1 win to the Reds in the reverse fixture.
The bulk of the match kept to the script: the Reds notched a goal in the first off of a Joe Allen header (more on that later), and then dropped two goals early in the second (courtesy of Suarez and an own goal that, in retrospect feels like it actually belongs to Sturridge. Regardless, with a little over 10 minutes and stoppage time left, the Reds were in a commanding 3-nil lead.
But, as the oft used maxim goes, 3-nil is the most dangerous of leads.
Beginning in the 79th minute, Palace clawed their way back into the match. First, with a thunder strike from Damien Delaney (owner of the own goal). Then, the surprise one-two: a Dwight Gayle brace and, within 9 minutes, Liverpool saw their title hopes disappear.
Bereft is a good word. Gutted another. Tragicomic perhaps. All of these words sewn together would likely come up often in the collection of pieces written about that match. It was an absolutely unexpected result and devastating to Liverpool fans across the globe. On the pitch, the disappointment was obvious: shirts pulled over faces, close hugs and reassuring head pats. It was a let down.
And it was then, for me, that Palace cemented itself as a bogey team. I cringe whenever we have to play them and its part of why, even now, I still overbid on Dwight Gayle as a utility forward on my fantasy team (coincidentally, my team isn’t doing so hot). The effects of this game absolutely bore into me and I am sat here, in queasy anticipation of the weekend.
The worst of it all, though, is that this result squandered one of the most beautifully rare gifts in all of my Liverpool fandom: a headed goal by equal-parts scrappy and diminutive Joe Allen.
Watching the highlights and being awed in the pre-implosion play, it was easy to see why the result snuck up on me: Suarez, Sturridge, and an scintillating Sterling at the peak of their powers was enough to bully back any defense. But the cracks were also there.
Regardless, Palace won’t catch me unawares this go around. I’m wiser now. A bit more cynical perhaps. I know that no draw in the vaunted English Premier League is easy and won’t get fooled again. So, bring on the weekend, I’ll have my celebratory or consolation whiskey handy. I’m not afraid of no ghosts.