Palace v Brighton: it’s more than a game

With the teams’ ferocious rivalry, the Championship playoff semi-final will be tastier than a family bucket of KFC.

Duleep Allirajah

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Forget El Clasico or Boca v River Plate or the Old Firm. You can keep your Arsenal v Spurs and your Manchester derby. This weekend is the Big One. Crystal Palace v Brighton in the Championship playoffs. This is the most important fixture of the season for the bitterest of football rivals.

Okay, some of those other rivalries are quite tasty, but for fans of Palace and Brighton, nothing compares to this. When the two sides meet you can cut the venomous hostility with a knife. There was a 13-year period between 1989 and 2002 when the clubs didn’t play a single competitive match against each other. Yet still the flames of animosity could not be doused. Even though the teams were in different divisions you’d still hear old terrace war songs about legendary punch-ups from yesteryear. ‘Hark now hear the Palace sing, the Brighton run away. And we will fight forever more because of Boxing Day.’ That’s what Palace fans chant. They still do. Brighton supporters sing their own version with the names of the clubs swapped. If you never understood George Orwell’s description of sport as ‘war minus the shooting’, go and watch Palace v Brighton – if you can get a ticket. It is gloriously ferocious.

Talking of Orwell, the police have incensed supporters of both teams by imposing what the Daily Mail described as ‘draconian ticket measures’ on spectators. For both legs of the play-off semi-final, all away fans will be required to carry proof of identity. Any fans who fail to show their ID to police or stewards, either en route to the game or at the turnstiles, will be refused entry. Those who sell or give their ticket to another person face a one-year ban from football. It’s an astonishingly punitive set of restrictions. Successive governments have floated the idea of ID cards, but each time they have backed down. Even Margaret Thatcher abandoned plans to introduce a national membership scheme – effectively an ID-card system – for football fans.

And yet, without any parliamentary debate, the Metropolitan and Sussex police forces have suspended the civil liberties of fans of the two clubs. Ironically, the police have briefly brought Palace and Brighton fans together in common cause against the ID requirements. But, as soon as the referee blows his whistle for kick off, the policing methods will be forgotten and hostilities will resume. The matchday atmosphere will be animated by a heady cocktail of passion and vitriol that makes derby days so special.

The rivalry between Palace and Brighton frequently has neutrals scratching their heads. Even Palace manager Ian Holloway admitted he found the rivalry ‘a bit weird’. The two clubs are 45 miles apart yet Palace fans regard Brighton as their biggest rivals. Bigger than south London neighbours Millwall. And certainly bigger than Charlton Athletic. In fact, many Palace fans will strenuously deny that any rivalry with Charlton even exists. Of course, we don’t particularly like them. We won’t forget how they celebrated our relegation in 2005 as though they’d won the cup. But hatred? Nah, sorry. Charlton are irksome maybe, but it’s not hatred. We reserve that for the Brighton. The stubborn refusal to acknowledge Charlton as rivals is, of course, a thinly-veiled form of mockery. The subtext is that Charlton are a lesser club; one that’s not worthy of our hatred. That’s the way football animosities work. The flipside of the fiercest rivalry is a grudging respect. Hatred is a form of flattery. You can only really hate an enemy of similar stature.

Why, you might ask, do we hate each other with so much passion? I’m tempted to say that such things need no explanation. The hatred between Palace and Brighton is a self-evident truth. But given that so many people are perplexed by the rivalry, I guess it warrants some explanation.

The rivalry is actually relatively new. It can be traced back to the 1976-77 season when the respective managers – Alan Mullery at Brighton and Terry Venables at Palace – conducted a war of words in the press. That season, the two clubs were pitted against each other in a series of bad tempered league and cup encounters culminating in an explosive FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge. Palace won the game 1-0, but the iconic moment was when Alan Mullery, incensed by a series of bad refereeing decisions, famously lost the plot. In an interview with the Guardian in 2011, Mullery explained what happened: ‘As I was walking up the tunnel…a load of boiling hot coffee was thrown over me by a Crystal Palace supporter. So I pulled a handful of change out of my pocket, threw it on the floor and shouted, “That’s all you’re worth, Crystal Palace!”.’ In that moment a beautiful animosity was born.

In recent years, some younger, revisionist Palace fans have questioned the rivalry. Many weren’t even born when the Boxing Day battles took place. But they are in the minority. This isn’t just a sporting competition; the rivalry is now woven into the mythological fabric of both clubs. It’s an article of faith. It’s what defines us. I hate therefore I am. That’s why the playoff semi-final will be an emotional nerve-shredder. Defeat is simply unthinkable. It’s thrilling. And it’s terrifying.

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

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