Offside, 27 March

The misery of family fun day at Selhurst Park.

Duleep Allirajah

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Last Saturday was ‘family day’ at Selhurst Park. Thousands of children were admitted free of charge to watch Palace entertain Walsall (I use the word ‘entertain’ loosely here).

God knows whether the children enjoyed it because it was torture for the rest of us. Still, what do you expect from an event sponsored by Croydon Council? This was municipal entertainment at its miserable worst.

Some bright spark at Palace seems to think that the best way to attract a new generation of young fans is to turn the football stadium into a theme park for the day. Consequently we were treated to face painters, a steel band, a balloon sculptor, stilt walkers, a Mr Wimpy mascot, and even a couple of poor sods dressed up as Laurel and Hardy (who wouldn’t have looked out of place in our back four, such was the slapstick nature of the defending at times this season).

In the build-up to kick-off supporters were cajoled into taking part in a Mexican Wave – a particularly unpleasant example of the kind of orchestrated jollity that blights the modern game – and then an abseiler descended from the roof of the Holmesdale Stand to deliver the match ball to the referee. It’s a pity nobody told the players that they were supposed to be entertaining us after kick-off.

Maybe I’m too old and cynical but, for argument’s sake, what if the young punters were seduced by all this razzmatazz (I use the word razzmatazz loosely here)? What if they returned to watch Palace play Rotherham (another glamour fixture) expecting fireworks and circus performers only to find just Pete and Alice Eagle trotting around followed by 90-minutes of unadulterated tedium? Before you could open your mouth to chant, most will have defected to Arsenal or Manchester United.

When I first started going to football matches in the 1970s there was none of this kiddie entertainment malarkey. In fact, there was no pretence that a football match was family entertainment at all. It was an adult sphere to which we were being admitted and therein lay its appeal. If we had wanted clowns we would have gone to the circus. Instead we wanted in on the grown-up world. Before piped music became the norm the pre-match entertainment was created by the rival fans chanting and hurling insults at each other. There was swearing, drunkenness and the occasional whiff of crowd violence. And it was thrilling.

Much of the boisterous, edgy atmosphere has been excised from the modern game. For the best part of Saturday’s match the home support was subdued. Palace toiled gamely but struggled to create chances against a limited Walsall side. Even the award of a penalty to Palace, which Dougie Freedman converted, failed to raise the noise levels. We leapt to our feet, cheered, clapped along with the burst of piped music for a minute, and then sat down again.

As the match dragged on I started asking myself those big existential questions that periodically confront all football fans. What am I doing here? What is the point of all this? Why do I endure this rubbish season after season? What’s for dinner? Wouldn’t it be more entertaining to watch paint dry? Then, with an hour gone, the game unexpectedly burst into life. Walsall needlessly conceded another penalty. Tommy Black’s spot kick was saved but a minute later Walsall had a player sent off. Uproar. As the miscreant trudged off fans of all ages screamed abuse at him.

But, despite the extra man, Palace still struggled to kill off the game. The home crowd grew increasingly disgruntled and jeered every misplaced pass. Walsall, however, were intent on self-destruction and had another player sent off, much to the amusement of the home supporters. With two minutes left on the clock Palace finally bagged a second. We roared more in relief than triumph. Although we’d won 2-0 the final whistle was greeted with a chorus of boos from the home fans.

The official Palace website declared that the family day had been ‘a great day and a great success’. True, the attendance had been swelled to over 19,000, but how many of those children will ever set foot in Selhurst Park again? For kids who’ve been reared on a diet of Premiership and Champions League football, this must have come as something of a culture shock. Forget the beautiful game, this was for the most part tedious, artless and frustrating.

If those children do return it won’t be down to the circus performers. No, it will be because, when the Walsall players were sent off, the rowdy spirit of old football had momentarily ruptured the stifling, family-friendly ‘sit down, shut up’ culture. And they loved it.

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