Offside, 21 October
One can only feel pity for a football club that nobody hates.
‘No one likes us, we don’t care’ is Millwall’s famous ‘fuck-you’ anthem. The truth is that Millwall fans do care. They care a great deal. Not being liked means an awful lot to Millwall because it is a twisted form of flattery. Millwall might not be a force in the footballing sense but, thanks to the fearsome reputation of their hooligans, they have acquired an exalted bogeyman status which, as the ‘no one likes us’ chant attests to, they wallow in. Imagine if nobody gave a toss? ‘Millwall? Nah, not really that bothered?’ Now that would be infuriating.
Enmity is an integral part of the passion that animates football. Of course football fans will generally seek to mock and goad most opponents, regardless of whether there is any particular grudge against that particular club. But it’s hard to generate much passion when the visitors are Crewe or Walsall and their travelling support could comfortably fit into a couple of minibuses. Look at any of the great rivalries in football: Celtic and Rangers, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Inter and Juventus, Spurs and Arsenal. Underlying each rivalry is a deep-seated history of mutual loathing. If you removed the vitriol and got everyone to link arms and sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ it would diminish the drama.
One can only feel pity for a club that nobody hates. A club like Charlton Athletic, for instance. Nobody really dislikes Charlton. Look at how they are written about in the press. Charlton are always described as a ‘well-run club’; a ‘model of fiscal prudence’; a ‘family club’, a club ‘rooted in the community’, and so on. Charlton fans would love to be loathed like Millwall, but nobody has any strong feelings about them. Somewhat pathetically, Charlton fans have attempted to contrive a rivalry with Crystal Palace but their animosity goes largely unrequited. Palace fans reserve their real hatred for Brighton and Hove Albion, a hostility undimmed by the fact that the two teams have played only two competitive games in the past 15 years.
This week’s Championship clash between Palace and Brighton was a typically bad-blooded affair. Before kick off, gangs of fortysomething hoolidads roamed the streets looking for a ‘row’. During the match opposing fans pelted each other with coins and afterwards lines of riot police struggled to keep the rival fans from fighting. Brighton won 1-0, which was depressing enough, but what incensed the Palace fans far more was the home team’s inexplicable absence of spirit or passion. The fact that not a single Palace player was booked said it all. Did the players understand what this fixture meant to the fans? Evidently not.
Even Andy Johnson, who became an overnight Palace legend by virtue of his hat-trick in the 5-0 drubbing of Brighton two seasons ago, couldn’t see what the fuss is about. ‘Even to this day I don’t understand it too much’, said Johnson recently. ‘I don’t know if there’s a bad history or past, or if it has always been the case. They are down by the sea and we are south of London, so I can’t understand why there is such a rivalry.’
It’s hardly surprising that the players don’t understand the rivalry. Most of them, even the homegrown players, are too young to remember the violent encounters between the two sides in the 1970s and 80s that is the stuff of hooli-legend. The rivalry has its roots in a series of bad-tempered clashes between the two teams in the mid-1970s. After one notorious game, Albion manager Alan Mullery, incensed by a series of controversial refereeing decisions, threw a handful of bank notes at the opposing fans screaming ‘You’re not worth that Palace’ while making ‘v-signs’. (Note to younger readers: v-signs were considered offensive in the 1970s.)
Younger Palace fans are themselves often nonplussed by the degree of animosity towards Brighton. Some have even opined heretically, on internet message boards, that Millwall or even Charlton ought to be considered Palace’s rivals now. Invariably they are brought into line by older fans, veterans of the violent Boxing Day derbies, who take great delight in recounting their war stories and patiently explaining to the youngsters the correct etiquette towards wannabe rivals like Charlton. It is acceptable to ridicule them, to call them ‘clowns’ and ‘pikeys’, but they can never really be classed as ‘scum’. That accolade is reserved exclusively for Palace’s true rivals Brighton.
On the final day of last season a Charlton equaliser nine minutes from time consigned Palace to relegation. The Charlton supporters celebrated as if they had won the Cup (and in one sense they had – beating Palace is pretty much the pinnacle of their ambitions). Of course it was a terrible day for any Palace fan. The memory of Charlton fans singing ‘We’re going to send the Palace down’ to the tune of ‘Is this the way to Amarillo?’ is not easily forgotten.
But is it sufficient to forge the kind of bitter rivalry that the Addicks crave? Even though Palace chairman Simon Jordan described the Charlton fans as ‘morons’ for revelling in his team’s relegation, most Palace fans steadfastly refused to express any animosity towards Charlton. Extremely irritated, yes, but hatred? Sorry chaps, but we don’t care that much.
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