Putting the ‘boxing’ into Boxing Day

Bad-tempered derby matches on 26 December are one of football's finest traditions - and the perfect antidote to the soporific message of Christmas.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Christmas might be the season of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ for most people but for football fans it’s traditionally the time for fractious Boxing Day derbies and ‘ill will toward the scummers’ [ie, hated local rivals].

When the football fixtures are announced each year, the first date I look for is the Boxing Day game. The bad-tempered Boxing Day derbies between Crystal Palace and Brighton in the 1980s cemented a long and beautiful antagonism between the two sets of fans. There really is nothing like a bit of needle on a freezing cold Boxing Day afternoon. It’s the perfect antidote to the catatonic stupor induced by the Queen’s Speech, overcooked turkey, and the Sound of Music.

So, imagine my disappointment when I saw that this year’s Boxing Day game was away to Southampton. Now I’ve got nothing against Southampton but that is precisely the problem. The Saints and Pompey (Portsmouth) have a mutual loathing thing going on but to everyone else Southampton are a fairly inoffensive club. Consequently the only way we’re going to enjoy the game is if Palace get a result – and that’s highly improbable given the way we’re playing at the moment. After winning our first three games we’ve plummeted down the table and are now languishing precariously close to the drop zone.

But no matter how coma-inducingly turgid the quality of football, or poor your own team, fans are always able to find pleasure in other people’s misfortune. It’s the politics of hate that makes football such a beautiful game. There may be nothing to cheer about on the pitch but the half-time scores announced over the tannoy are always guaranteed to cheer us up.

You can tell a lot about football fans by who they hate. During their period of unrivalled domestic dominance during the 1990s, Manchester United came to be universally loathed by supporters of other English teams. If the tannoy man announced that United were losing there would always a big roar from both sets of fans. Part of this ‘Anyone But United’ sentiment was motivated by green-eyed envy of their success. Hatred of United was a backhanded compliment, loathing being the flip side of admiration and awe. The once ubiquitous chant ‘Stand up if you hate Man U’ was another way of saying ‘We’re shit and we know we are’.

But hating United also signified disenchantment with the commercialisation of the game. United, as the traditionalists saw it, embodied the corporate takeover and gentrification of football. Roy Keane’s famous description of United fans as being too busy eating their prawn sandwiches to cheer on the team struck a chord with those who felt that football’s ‘traditional’ fans were being displaced by middle class nouveau fans and corporate hospitality guests. United fans were widely derided as glory hunters who were more likely to hail from Surbiton than Salford. This craving for authenticity – the ‘real fan’ as opposed to the ‘plastic’ fan – found expression in the small-town anthem ‘We support our local team’.

There has been a detectable softening of attitudes towards United ever since Chelsea ‘knocked them off their fucking perch’ – to borrow Fergie’s memorable phrase about Liverpool. Last week a Liverpool fan told me that he was glad that the title race was a two-horse contest. Now that can’t be right, can it? ‘A plague on both your houses’ ought to be the attitude of any self-respecting Scouser.

Like United, Chelsea are loathed because they are rich and successful. As the club is no longer a public company but privately owned by Roman Abramovich, hatred of Chelsea does not so much express distaste for commercialisation but a fear that football’s traditions are under threat, that the family silver is being hawked off to wealthy foreigners. And as I’ve argued before on spiked the hatred of Chelsea also betrays a snobbish disdain for ‘new money’ (1). There’s a popular new terrace chant that goes ‘Carefree, wherever you may be; Chelsea have got no history’. In other words Chelsea are just vulgar arrivistes who have bought success. By implication, the monopolisation of silverware by football’s traditional aristocrats is the rightful order of things.

So Chelsea are the new United and, on the rare occasions that they lose, there are cheers all round. However, if Chelsea aren’t losing we can usually count on the Charlton score to raise a roar. Charlton aren’t especially loved in Croydon but neither are they detested. However, the Addicks really seem to despise Palace. They celebrated the 2-2 draw that sealed our relegation from the Premiership in 2005 as though it was the cup final. But it’s an unrequited rivalry. Of course their current predicament – the club are bottom of the Premiership – is the source of much amusement in SE25. Chants of ‘Dowie’s got no job’ have been ringing round Selhurst Park ever since the former Palace boss was relieved of his duties at the Valley. But in a proper football rivalry, mutual hatred is usually coupled with admiration; a rival must be worthy of hatred. The attitude of Palace fans towards our south-east London neighbours is well summed up by fact that we refer to them not as the ‘scum’ but as the ‘clowns’. We just think they’re comical and sad.

Hopefully Palace fans will have a goal or two to celebrate on Boxing Day. But, if we can’t find the net, we’ll have to find something else to cheer about. The news that Millwall are trailing is guaranteed to raise our spirits. But if Brighton are getting hammered that really would raise the roof. In the hierarchy of hatred Brighton are right up at the top. Palace and Brighton very rarely meet these days but our mutual loathing remains undimmed. You only have to hear some of the terrace songs to understand that. ‘Hark now here the Palace sing, the Brighton run away. And we will fight forever more because of Boxing Day’. Now that’s the true spirit of Christmas.

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