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      Happy birthday, Vince Hilaire!


      Vince Hilaire celebrates his 64th birthday today – many happy returns, Vince!

      It seems like only yesterday – but actuality it was in 1977 – that a teenage Hilaire watched the Crystal Palace first-team prepare for the weekend with envy. He knew his time would come, but as the senior players boarded the coach for Lincoln City, he was, once again, watching from afar. Then, Terry Venables approached him, and his life changed.

      “I was just 17-years-old, and was told by Terry Venables that one of the lads had fallen ill,” Hilaire remembered years later. “Not for one minute did I think I would get in the 12 selected, but as we were a bit short of attacking options, I was put on the bench.

      “We were losing the game and assistant manager Alan Harris kept prompting Terry, saying: ‘Get him on, what have we got to lose?’ I wasn’t quite sure how to take that!

      “I prefer to think that he thought I might turn the game for us, as opposed to being the only option. It was a special moment.”

      Hilaire was introduced with 15 minutes remaining, but couldn’t prevent Palace from slipping to a 3-2 defeat. Nonetheless, it was the starting point for one of south London’s great cult heroes.

      Back in the 1970s, the separation between players and fans was virtually imperceptible. Goalscorers would leave the stadium and head to the local bar to discuss the 90 minutes.

      “You had as much chance to meet the fans on an away day on the train as you had of bumping into them at a home match,” Hilaire explained. “In those days it was the norm and I don’t think it was a bad thing for the fans to meet up with us all, as it costs a lot of money to go and see the team play.

      “Back then there were chances for players to be criticised in the heat of the moment, but those fans knew all the lads had given 100%.

      “Palace fans have the reputation, and quite rightly so, of being up there as the best. They are always great to me and the club has been a big part of my life.”

      Although he received an enormous amount of support in south London, there was a troubling side to his playing days. As a black player competing in the 1970s, racist abuse was commonplace.

      "You could probably say most away games for black players like myself, it would probably be three-quarters of the ground: monkey chants, Nazi salutes and general derogatory name calling whenever you received the ball,” he recalled.

      "In my early days, it was the norm. To be honest with you, because of the time, it basically didn’t bother you because you expected it. Thankfully, the majority of people over the years have been made aware that it’s not acceptable to use that sort of language by the people that have said: ‘No, I’m not having that because that hurts.’”

      Hilaire has spoken of the need for more education, and his hopes that – while the situation has markedly improved – things can get better still.

      "An ignorant person can be changed, a racist person cannot. Luckily for people in this country, there are more ignorant people than racist people and that’s a fact. That is an absolute fact.

      "You can’t have kids growing up in the world now thinking that anything other than a player playing in a different coloured shirt does not deserve their support. But if they’ve got a different colour skin, that has got absolutely nothing to do with it.

      "If someone’s a dirty player, he’s a dirty player. A dirty black player is not relevant. A skilful player is a skilful player, they’re not ‘a skilful black player’. You don’t define people by the colour of their skin or what religion they are, you define them as a person."

      Hilaire pushed on from his debut in 1977 and quickly established himself in the first-team, going on to win the Player of the Year award in 1979. It was during this season that Palace had one of their finest hours, as a record crowd of 51,482 crammed into Selhurst Park to witness a promotion clash.

      Palace went into the game in fourth, but, with the season finishing at different times for different teams, they had a game in hand, and would gain promotion with a win. Burnley were the opposition.

      “The magnitude of the game didn’t sink in until we got onto the coach and started going up towards the ground, then we understood the magnitude of the game and it did seem like a final,” Hilaire remembers.

      “The common practice for a midweek game would be to report for 5pm. But in that particular game, because of the importance, Terry [Venables] wanted us to report at around midday for a spot of lunch to get us away from the pressure.

      “We were under no illusions that it was another game. We came out of the hotel and in the coach it took us about 45 minutes for a five-minute journey because of the crowds.”

      Hilaire played a huge part in Palace’s win, but as the crowd poured onto the pitch he was in a daze. In truth, he cannot remember too much of what happened later.

      “Early in the match I took a bang on the head and the game was a little bit of a blur because I was slightly concussed,” he says. “I got two assists in the game so a few people said: ‘I think you should play concussed more often!’”

      It may have faded from Vince Hilaire’s mind, but it’s a memory that will live forever in the minds of the thousands that celebrated long into the evening. It’s why, to this day, his name can elicit a smile on the streets around Selhurst Park.