Leon McLeod’s Crystal Palace journey started like any other.
“My stepdad is a Palace fan,” he says, “so I always had a little bit of him jibing at me. When I was in secondary school I think was when I stuck my allegiance on Palace.”
And just like any other fan, one trip to Selhurst Park was all it took to form a lifelong attachment.
“Genuinely, the first time I started going to games there was an atmosphere,” he says. “It was when we were in the old Division One, and there was something special about it that made it better than going to Premier League games at the time.
“There was just something special – I don’t know, that sounds so clichéd but it’s true.”
After leaving school, McLeod’s life was irreversibly changed. Less than two years after joining the police force, he found himself at the centre of a terrifying terrorist attack.
“Myself and my colleague [Wayne Marques] walked into it as it was unfolding,” he remembers. “There was no one else there. He got attacked, he was shouting on the radio. It was the weirdest thing – you do feel very alone.
“I don’t think the magnitude hit me as such, because you were just dealing with what was in front of you and it took a while to sort of click and think: ‘OK, something bad had actually happened here. Something really bad.’”
Marques was stabbed in the head by the attackers, who fled after McLeod gave chase. He returned to give life-saving first aid to Marques and the other victims.
But there was no time to process what he had been through.
“I remember being back on duty on the Thursday afterwards, so like five days,” he says. “It was about a year afterwards that I realised how properly ‘not-OK’ I was. You never know what you’re going to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“You can’t prepare for some of the traumatic things you see… It chinks away at your armour a bit, the more you deal with fatalities and just horrible stuff, it does it away at you a little bit.”
During this tough period, McLeod found solace in one of the places he held closest to his heart: Selhurst Park.
“I had a message off somebody within a couple of days,” he says. “They had obviously seen in the news that I was a Palace fan – I don’t know how – and so I got invited down and got a stadium tour.
“The club were just great. It was so weird: the team you support kind of feeling like they were giving me praise – it was the backwards way of doing it! I come here and big them up, and it was weird getting it the other way.
“I’d met Jim Cannon before and he presented me with a shirt on the pitch. Going on the pitch of the team you support, having never done it before, was just unbelievable. Genuinely, genuinely unbelievable – and terrifying.
“One day I’ll be able to look back at that and be even more mind-blown than I am now.
“It was amazing.”
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