Sport

A football season to remember

spiked’s resident Palace fan discovered that the Premier League isn’t as tedious as it was cracked up to be.

Now that the domestic football season is over, it’s time for a quick emotional health check. How am I feeling? Relieved? Exhilarated? Exhausted? All of those things. But, for once, I’m not glad the season’s over. In fact, I wanted this particular season to go on forever. For Crystal Palace fans, the last 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride in which we lurched from the euphoric high of the Play-off Final to the depths of despair and somehow, improbably, clawed our way back up to the giddy, delirious heights of eleventh place. Mid-table mediocrity never felt so good.

The 2013-14 season has changed my perception of the Premier League. Over the years, I’d become increasingly disenchanted with the so-called ‘most exciting league in the world’. I hated the steady erosion of competitive balance which meant that a small handful of mega-rich clubs scrapped for the title. I hated the hushed and soulless all-seater Premier League stadiums with their killjoy stewards and ‘mind your language’ behaviour codes. And I hated the Premier League’s preening self-regard; the arrogant assumption that the rest of the nation was also in thrall to the Premier League. It was as if the other 72 Football League clubs didn’t exist. Of course, one enjoyable season in the top flight hasn’t rectified all the Premier League’s flaws. It’s still overpriced and overhyped. Money still talks but, as Palace have demonstrated this season, coaching and team spirit still count for something in football.

Incredible as it sounds Palace fans had mixed emotions on the eve of last year’s Play Off Final. They were afflicted by a condition known as ‘promophobia’ – a deep-seated fear of being promoted. They feared that a team of Championship journeymen would be completely out of its depth in the top flight, that every game would be a humiliation. And, for the first three months of the season, their worst fears seemed to be confirmed. When Tony Pulis took over in November, Palace had scraped together a paltry four points from 11 games. The players huffed and puffed manfully but lacked quality and self-belief. Football pundits and diehard Palace fans alike agreed that we were doomed. Not only going down but also condemned to Pulis’ brand of functional, route-one football.

What none of us had reckoned on was that Tony Pulis is more than just a safe pair of hands; he is a football genius. I’ll say that again: Tony Pulis is a football genius. He walks on water. He’s not just a prehistoric discipline-and-graft merchant. The Welshman is a tactical wizard who out-thought as well as out-fought opponents. Pulis not only defied the bookmakers’ odds – we were nailed-on relegation certainties – he confounded the aesthetes’ expectations by forging a brand of counter-attacking football that, by the end of the season, was genuinely thrilling to watch. To guide a team with the smallest budget and wage bill in the Premiership to eleventh place is to achieve what one football writer described as the ‘Croydon miracle’.

Off the pitch, too, we discovered that, in spite of the relentless march of sanitisation, there still remains a kernel of that old-school, foul-mouthed, drunken and irreverent terrace culture which simply refuses to go away. You can find it in Spurs fans’ chant of ‘We’ll sing what we want’, a defiant riposte to the morons who want to outlaw the word ‘yid’ no matter the context or intent. You can find it in the flares, flags and tifo displays of European-inspired ultra groups who are trying to reclaim fan culture from the tyranny of piped music. You can find it in the chants, which rang out from the Etihad to Selhurst Park, celebrating Steven Gerrard’s fateful slip against Chelsea: ‘Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse, he gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.’ As long as there is still schadenfreude, we can be reassured that the old terrace culture hasn’t been entirely extinguished.

It’s a well-worn cliché to describe a football crowd as the ‘twelfth man’. As metaphors go, it’s felt increasingly anachronistic in the Premier League. The raucous intimidating crowd of yesteryear has, it seems, been supplanted by prawn sandwich-eating, jester hat-wearing customers who only sing and clap when a goal is scored, accompanied by a deafening blast of Pigbag over the Tannoy system. But Palace fans have shown that the twelfth man isn’t dead, merely dormant. They’ve proved that it’s possible for fans to be actors in the sporting drama rather than just passive consumers. They’ve made a racket home and away all season, drawing plaudits from pundits and opposing fans alike. ‘They’ve been the best fans this season by a million miles’, enthused Gary Neville. ‘I don’t know what they’re putting in the water there. They’re mad.’ As I explained on spiked earlier this year, the chanting is led by an organised cadre of fans who model themselves on European ultras, stand together in one corner of the ground and sing relentlessly for 90 minutes. It’s terrace Bolshevism in practice.

So what of next season? I’m under no illusions that it will be easy. My instinctive pessimism, the default factory setting for most fans, hasn’t gone away. But Palace will start the new season with a sense of self-belief that was conspicuously absent last August. Now we know what it takes to compete in this division. Now we know that the improbable is possible. We’ve proved that it’s possible to gatecrash the Premiership party. It’s possible to defy the odds and stay up on a shoestring budget. It’s possible to outwit clubs with far greater financial means. And above all we’ve proved that romance in football hasn’t been snuffed out. And everyone, not just Palace fans, should take heart from that.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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