Offside, 31 October
The joy of naked animosity.
‘Hark now hear the Palace sing, the Brighton run away. And we will fight forever more because of Boxing Day.’
Crystal Palace fans still sing about going to war with Brighton despite the fact that the two teams had not met in a competitive fixture for 13 years. Until last Saturday that is, when the seasiders visited Selhurst Park. Forget Millwall or Charlton (and who the hell are Wimbledon?). This is the local derby that really matters to Palace fans.
The bad blood dates back to the 1976-77 season when Palace and Brighton met five times in the league and Cup. After one particularly acrimonious FA Cup replay, Brighton boss Alan Mullery, incensed by a number of dubious refereeing decisions, reportedly threw a handful of pound notes at the Palace fans, shouting ‘You’re not worth that, Palace’, and was famously pictured making v-signs as he was led away by police.
In that moment, a beautiful rivalry was born. On internet football message boards you will still find veteran boot-boys re-telling soldiers’ tales of the legendary Boxing Day derbies during the 1970s and 80s that invariably involved needle on the pitch and violence off it.
As we walked from the car towards the ground a police helicopter circled overhead and a police van, siren screaming, roared past in the direction of Thornton Heath. Riot police were everywhere. Just like the old days. Inside the ground the mutual animosity was palpable. Both sets of fans were goading each other and giving it the arms-spread-wide ‘do you want some?’ gesture.
And yet it wasn’t entirely like the old days. Alongside the old-fashioned passion and hatred there was also the cheesy, family-friendly pre-match entertainment: teenage cheerleaders wheeling their pom-poms, furry mascots trotting up and down waving at the supporters, and the public address system blasting out dance music to drown out the terrace war songs.
The 6000-strong Brighton support was in good voice for all of four minutes, at which point Palace took the lead. It was pretty much one-way traffic after that. After 33 minutes it was 2-0. ‘Going down, going down, going down’, roared the jubilant Palace fans. At half time, Brighton manager Steve Coppell was given a standing ovation by the home supporters as he headed for the tunnel. After four spells in charge of the club, Coppell is still a hero at Selhurst Park despite now working for the enemy. ‘There’s only one Stevie Coppell’, we sang. What the Brighton fans made of this is anyone’s guess.
The game was over as a meaningful contest shortly after half time. Palace scored a third, then a fourth, and then a fifth, and Brighton had a player dismissed, all in the space of five delirious minutes. We sang; we clapped; we laughed and we mocked the dejected Brighton fans. It doesn’t get any better than this. It really doesn’t.
Football fans are not particularly gracious in victory. But gloating is all part of the fun. ‘You’re just a small town near Worthing’, the Palace supporters chanted. Brighton fans, having seen enough, tried to leave the ground but found the gates locked. The PA announcer told the visiting fans that they would be held in the stadium after the final whistle for safety reasons. ‘Five-nil and you can’t go home’, sang the Palace supporters. Julie Burchill, Fatboy Slim, Chris Eubank, Steve Ovett, Kemp Town race course, Pinkie from Brighton Rock, can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of beating.
Palace followers are accustomed to disappointment. We’ve endured countless relegation struggles. We’ve seen our best players sold off to bigger clubs. We’ve stared into the jaws of financial extinction. We’ve witnessed far too much uninspired, artless football. Why do we keep putting ourselves through this torment? We’ve all asked ourselves this question. The answer is simple: Palace 5, Brighton 0. That’s why. Such fleeting moments of intense, unbridled joy and raw passion make it all worthwhile.
Rivalries like this cannot exist without a strong dose of needle and nastiness. It’s impossible to get excited about defeating an opponent for whom you have no strong feelings.
Sadly, the deep-seated animosity between Palace and Brighton fans proved too strong for Observer reporter Nick Callow. ‘Having waited 13 years since their last meeting, it made sense to many supporters to start the day early, with Special Brew topping the breakfast menu’, wrote Callow. ‘By lunchtime, there was heavy fighting around Thornton Heath train station and elsewhere…. There will be a few children who made their first and last trips to football yesterday.’ (1)
Over-protective parents may well be disinclined to expose their children to the unadulterated ferocity of derby-day passion, but I think that children are more likely to be put off by the soulless family-friendly atmosphere that the authorities are so keen to impose on football.
A little less happy-clappy cheerleading and a little more naked animosity is what football needs.
(1) Johnson starts Palace party, Observer, 27 October 2002
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