Football’s longstanding tradition of change

From Leeds United’s all-white strip to terrace chanting, many of the traditions fans take for granted are not so very old.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Are you a football traditionalist or a moderniser? In the political sphere, those who cling to tradition and heritage are usually regarded as conservatives, whereas modernisers are radical and progressive. In football, the opposite seems to be true. The modernisers are viewed as the problem – commercialising, sanitising, gentrifying – whereas the traditionalists are the good guys.

Look, I love many of the game’s folk traditions, particularly the offensive chants and terrace banter, but I’m all for the modernisation of stadiums and innovation in coaching methods and tactics. Not everything modern is good, however. I’m implacably hostile to players wearing tights or gloves and I despise piped goal-celebration music. Oh and, for the record, bring back proper tackling, too. What does that make me? Probably a lapsed traditionalist.

If you’ve read The Invention of Tradition, a collection of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, you’ll know that many of the traditions we assume to be centuries old are in fact relatively modern constructs. For example, Scottish clan tartan was not an ancient tradition but a nineteenth-century invention. The same is true in football. Many of the fan rituals that we assume to have existed since the game was codified in the nineteenth century are, in fact, comparatively new phenomena. Terrace chanting, for example, first emerged in the 1960s. Even local rivalries aren’t as ancient as we might think. Before the Second World War, it was common for football fans in Manchester to go to Old Trafford one week and Maine Road the next.

Supporters are often up in arms if a new kit is introduced that departs from club traditions. However, kit changes have been a feature of football for decades. If you study the website Historical Football Kits, you’ll struggle to find a club that retained the same kit or colours throughout its history. Last week, I watched my club Crystal Palace take on Leeds United. If you squinted – and overlooked the technical deficiencies – you could be forgiven for believing this was Barcelona versus Real Madrid. You might scoff but the two Spanish giants provided the inspiration for the kits of both clubs.

In 1961, Leeds manager Don Revie changed the old colours – blue shirts and white shorts – and adopted Real Madrid’s iconic all-white strip. Similarly, in 1971, Palace coach Malcolm Allison ditched the historic claret-and-blue colours and adopted Barcelona’s red and blue stripes. Some Palace prefer the late 1970s’ white strip with red-and-blue sash – for my money the most stylist football kits in the history of the game – but, either way, there is no clamour for a return to the pre-Seventies kit.

Why are certain traditions – such as club colours – sometimes fiercely protected but elsewhere junked with scarcely a murmur of discontent? It probably depends on who is breaking with tradition and why. Newcastle fans were quite rightly appalled when Mike Ashley announced that the stadium name would be hawked off and, until a sponsor was found, St James Park would be called the Sports Direct Arena. If fans don’t trust the owner it’s a racing certainty that any tampering with tradition will be ferociously resisted.

However, it doesn’t follow that fans will always oppose change. Before Don Revie took over, Leeds United was an unsuccessful provincial club that had spent most of its history outside the top flight. In the 1920s, Huddersfield Town was the major power in West Yorkshire. Revie transformed the club into a dominant force in English football and presided over the most successful period since its foundation in 1919. The all-white trip he introduced is associated with Leeds United’s glory years and, consequently, is now regarded as the definitive kit.

At Selhurst Park, another club tradition is now about to be consigned to history. The owners have decided to modernise the club crest and asked fans to vote on six designs options – which can be found on the club website. There’s a lively debate on Twitter and internet boards about the merits of the respective designs. While a small number of fans oppose change, most seem receptive to it. One of the front runners – Crest E – was designed by a supporter and added to the shortlist as a result of clamour on social-networking sites. My personal favourite is Crest D, which has a sleek modernist feel (though some think the eagle looks more like a pigeon). Crest F bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi emblem – an eagle on a swastika. Attracted as I am to the strapline, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Palace’, I can see why a Nazi-style eagle might not work for everyone.

One of the reasons fans are more relaxed about change is that the crest itself has been revised many times throughout the club’s history. The symbol of an Eagle was first incorporated into the club emblem in 1971 at the same time that Malcolm Allison changed the kit and club nickname from the Glaziers to the Eagles. Palace fans are probably more willing to accept a new crest because they trust the owners. The new crest is not a commercially driven decision dictated by a corporate sponsor. There is no Faustian pact here. CPFC2010, the company that took the club out of administration 18 months ago, is a consortium of local Palace-supporting businessmen who are eager to listen to the fans. Co-chairman Steve Parish has broken the mould of aloof club owners; he has run Q&A sessions on fan messages boards and interacts with fans via Twitter.

Change is unsettling when it is out of our control. But the new club crest and, more radically, the proposed move to a new stadium in Crystal Palace Park, are not changes that Palace fans find threatening. We will embrace change if it leads to a brighter and better future. Okay, redesigning the crest isn’t going to win any trophies, but a makeover seems fitting for a club that wants to project a dynamic, forward-thinking image. As a club without a particularly illustrious past, we have no choice but to look to the future. Come on, you Pigeons!

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside

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Topics Politics


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