Palace, get over your promophobia
Some Palace fans are quaking at the thought of promotion to the Premier League. They should grow a pair.
On Monday I’ll be going to Wembley for the Championship play-off final. Those words sound good don’t they? ‘Going to Wembley’. Que sera sera. It’s the stuff of dreams. For the past week, I’ve been telling anyone who’d care to listen that I was going to England’s iconic stadium. In short, as you’ve probably gathered, I’m stupidly thrilled about it. But not every fan shares my excitement. Some Crystal Palace fans are showing signs of promotion anxiety – promophobia to use the correct medical term.
The play-off final is a high-stakes game. Some would argue it’s a bigger prize than the FA Cup. It’s a brutal, winner-takes-all duel for a Premiership golden ticket. Billed as the most lucrative fixture in club football, it could be worth as much as £100million to the victor. So why are some Palace fans saying they’d rather not get promoted? Yes, seriously. They’re scared of going up. Peruse the message boards and you’ll notice a recurring sentiment: anxiety about what might happen in the top tier. These are the classic symptoms of promophobia, a curious modern syndrome which afflicts fans of promotion-chasing clubs.
Palace fans have thoroughly enjoyed the club’s resurgence this season. The attacking football we’ve played at times has been a joy to behold. The promotion chase has been unquestionably thrilling. Beating winning 2-0 at Brighton’s Amex Stadium in the play-off semi-final was frankly better than sex. And Wembley will, of course, be a fantastic day out. But what happens if we beat Watford? A significant minority of fans would prefer to stay in the Championship. Ben Wilson, fellow contributor to the excellent new Palace fanzine, Flying High (yes, that’s a plug) argues that ‘it’s the thrill of the chase that makes promotion enjoyable, rather than what happens when you reach the promised land’.
Why opt for the Championship when you can compete in ‘best league in the world’? Well some fans have stopped believing the Premiership hype. The truth is that many fans are disenchanted with the soullessness and commercialisation of modern football. They fear that promotion will mean extortionate ticket prices, rescheduled kick-off times, mercenary players, sanitised stadiums and getting thumped every week by clubs bankrolled by overseas oil tycoons. Our games are more likely to be televised, but a few cursory minutes at the fag-end of Match of the Day is hardly a mouth-watering prospect.
‘I was there last time out, in 2004-05. Every game, home and away. It was expensive. It was exhausting. And it was, for the most part, miserable’, says Ben Wilson. And he has a point. It’s difficult to envisage any scenario other than a morale-sapping relegation scrap if we go up. As one fan, posting on the Holmesdale Online message board, put it: ‘Can you imagine going to the Etihad, Emirates, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane, with our current crop of players? I think most of them would end up with PTSD after the game at the Emirates!!’
There was a time when I believed that Palace could survive and even prosper in the Premier League. In the 1990s, we were a yo-yo club, alternating between the top two divisions. There seemed to be no reason why we couldn’t establish ourselves at the top table? The last time we were promoted in 2004, fitness coach John Harbin said, with no trace of irony: ‘We are in the big league now and some people are talking about fighting for survival but our goal is a five-year plan to play in Europe.’ Sure, it’s easy to ridicule the hubristic ambition to turn Palace into an European power. But at the time it didn’t seem quite so preposterous. After all, Ipswich had been promoted through the play-offs in 2000 and qualified for the Uefa Cup the following season after finishing sixth in the Premier League.
However, those dreams seem much more fanciful today. The financial gulf between the Premiership elite and the rest has been steadily widening. The takeover of clubs by foreign oligarchs combined with lucrative TV deals has made the Premiership fat cats positively obese. It’s harder to be a yo-yo club these days. Financial restructuring after relegation, even with parachute payments, is extremely challenging. Over the past 15 years, Palace have been more ‘oh no!’ than ‘yo-yo’. Twice we’ve gone into administration after relegation from the Premiership. The Football League is littered with similar casualties. Coventry, Portsmouth, Leeds, Ipswich, Leicester, Derby, Bradford, Southampton and QPR – all these clubs flirted with financial ruin after relegation. Do we really want to overreach ourselves while chasing the dream and face bankruptcy as a consequence?
Well sod it, yes. I fancy giving it a go. Why the hell not? Sure, the current Palace squad is some way short of Premiership quality. Yes, we could well get beaten most weeks. Victories might be as rare as rocking-horse shit. We’ll have to endure Alan Hansen smugly pointing out our inept defending (as if he’d just discovered penicillin). And, if I was a betting man, I’d put money on us going straight back down. But there’s a chance we might beat the odds. We have no prospect of competing with the elite clubs barring the discovery of oil in SE25. But the quality gap between the bottom of the Premiership and the top of the Championship isn’t so wide. If clubs like Norwich and Swansea can stay up without oil-rich sugar daddies, then why can’t we? Difficult yes, but not inconceivable.
Frankly, I don’t buy the argument that the Championship is where you’ll find ‘real football’. Selhurst Park will be full every week. Awaydays will still be fun. In the Premiership, it’s usually the travelling fans who make most of the noise. Win, lose or draw, the fun of a matchday lies in the ritual of sinking a few pints with your mates, indulging in a bit of banter with the opposition and singing rude songs. We’ll do that whether we’re playing Arsenal or Yeovil Town.
If Palace had missed out on the play-offs, I’d have been disappointed but not devastated. But now that we’re at Wembley, I want to go up. I have no fear. I’m not gripped by promophobia. Mine eyes have seen the glory of Sky Sports Super Sunday. And I want another taste of the Promised Land.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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