On Sunday, I went to my first Premier League match since 2005. That’s right. I, a so-called sports columnist, deprived of top-flight football for eight years. Crystal Palace had languished in the Coca-Cola sponsored wilderness for eight long years. For eight long years, we watched the financial chasm between the Premier League and the Championship inexorably widen. We saw our hopes of a return to the top tier steadily recede. We watched as our best players were hawked off to pay our debts. In 2010, with the club on the brink of liquidation, we feared that we wouldn’t even have a football club to support. Yet somehow, improbably, on a shoestring budget, Palace managed to get promoted. We were back in the Promised Land. But was it worth the wait?
To be honest, I’m still pinching myself about the play off victory - not to mention watching the YouTube clips of Kevin Phillips’ winning penalty every now and then. Palace’s promotion showed that romance in football hadn’t been completely extinguished; that team spirit and good coaching still counted for something. Well it still counted for something in the Championship. But do we stand a snowball in hell’s chance of staying in the Premier League? Here, money really does talk. The spending power of the top clubs has irreparably damaged the competitive balance of the league. Only three clubs stand a meaningful chance of actually winning the title. Everyone else is fighting for a European place, aspiring to mid-table mediocrity or desperately scrambling to avoid the drop. It’s a very odd sort of Promised Land.
Palace haven’t exactly been big spenders over the summer. We paid a club record fee - reportedly £6million - for Peterborough striker Dwight Gayle, while Spanish midfielder José Campaña cost us £1.7million. Invariably, Palace are the bookies’ favourites for the drop. Most pundits have already written us off. No shit, Nostradamus. Tell us something we don’t know. We know it’s going to be a long, hard season. We know that victories will be as rare as hen’s teeth. We’re braced for Hansen and Lawro mocking our lack of quality on Match of the Day.
But, you know what? Let them all sneer. We’ve got nothing to lose. No one expects us to survive. If we go down, we’ll still have £60million in parachute payments - a financial boost which we would never have enjoyed if we hadn’t gone up. We could - whisper it - become a yo-yo club again as we had been in the 1990s. It’s what dreams are made of.
All those years in the wilderness have fostered a chippy, outsider mentality among Palace fans. On the eve of the play-offs, a vocal minority of supporters were exhibiting the classic symptoms of promophobia – promotion anxiety. They were afraid to step out of the comfort zone of the Championship. They felt alienated by the commercialism of the Premier League. They feared that we’d be out of our depth in the top flight.