Offside, 3 June
Palace fans need to lose their fear of Premiership heights.
After six wretched seasons, during which we flirted with financial extinction, stared into the jaws of relegation, endured spirit-sappingly lacklustre football, and witnessed a farcical managerial merry-go-round, Crystal Palace are finally, ecstatically, deliriously slightly disbelievingly, back in the big time.
I’ve had my fill of Palace being a laughing stock among journalists – and God knows I’ve written enough self-deprecating articles myself about Mark Goldberg’s financial incompetence, or Ade Akinbiyi’s goal-avoidance, or Simon Jordan’s latest managerial sacking. I’ve seen the best fans of my generation destroyed by the relentless misery and mediocrity at Selhurst Park. Some have taken up gardening or DIY, others have opted not to renew their season tickets and, in one tragic case, a good loyal fan has even moved to north London.
But in one sun-kissed glad-all-over afternoon in south Wales all the ghosts of the past few years were laid to rest. Of course, we’ve seen too many false dawns in the past to be bullishly over-confident about our prospects in the top flight. As former manager Alan Smith put it: ‘Every time this club looks as though it is on the verge of good things, we seem to shoot ourselves in the foot, revert to the volatile, slightly spivvy reputation we have sometimes deserved over the years.’
We shot ourselves in the foot so many times during our last ill-fated spell in the Premiership that, by rights, our metaphorical feet should have been amputated. We failed to win a home game until March. We wasted shedloads of money on foreign players who – with the honourable exception of Attilio Lombardo – failed to adapt to English football. We watched aghast as Tomas Brolin, a once-potent striker who had subsequently run to fat, waddled around haplessly in our famous red-and-blue jersey. We groaned as Lombardo, who had never coached and could barely speak English, was put in charge of the team.
No one in his right mind would want to go through that hellish season again. But that’s no excuse for not wanting promotion to the Premier League. Yet on the eve of the play-offs, some Palace fans started to question whether promotion was such a good thing. ‘Going up’s miserable’, admitted comedian and celebrity fan Kevin Day. ‘All you do is come down again.’ (1)
On the Crystal Palace Bulletin Board some supporters echoed these sentiments. ‘I prefer the Nationwide to the Premier League’, declared one fan. ‘In my opinion the Premier League is Murdoch marketing at its worst. Tickets are hard to come by and the prices extortinant [sic], the players are on ludicrous wages and show no loyalty at all.’ Other fans agreed. ‘I love the excitement of getting to and, possibly, winning the play-off final, but would be happy if we were then given, and accepted, the option of staying down’, said another. ‘I’ve always enjoyed the grounds, fans, and games more in the Nationwide.’
Palace has always been a club with lofty aspirations – remember Terry Venables’ much-vaunted ‘Team of the Eighties’? In fact, aspirations were all we ever had because, unlike other teams, we have never had a glorious past in which to take refuge. Now it seems that even those ambitions are diminishing and that some of our relegation-scarred fans would prefer the comfort zone of Nationwide League to chasing the dream in the Premiership. I guess that’s what happens if you spend too long in mediocre company. Eventually you start to think like a forelock-tugging underling yourself.
The bookies have already made Palace odds-on to go straight back down. Fair enough, I’d probably have a punt on us to go down if I was a betting man. I’m under no illusions about next season. It would be a major achievement if we managed to beat the drop. But if we go into the top-flight thinking we’ve no right to be there, then we’ll be relegated before a ball has been kicked. Frankly, I’m not interested in going up to enjoy the Premiership ride while it lasts and then go back down. Nor am I there merely to gawp in awe at the international superstars who will be performing at Selhurst Park next season. I want to see Palace go up and stay there because that’s where we belong.
Dream on, I hear you say. But is that any more unrealistic than believing that a club that was fourth from the bottom of Division One at Christmas could end up winning promotion? Of course not. Now bring on the Arsenal.
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