‘Palace are here, let the games begin’
The redeeming features of life back in the Premier League are the same as ever: boozing, singing and shouting with mates.
On Sunday, I went to my first Premier League match since 2005. That’s right. I, a so-called sports columnist, deprived of top-flight football for eight years. Crystal Palace had languished in the Coca-Cola sponsored wilderness for eight long years. For eight long years, we watched the financial chasm between the Premier League and the Championship inexorably widen. We saw our hopes of a return to the top tier steadily recede. We watched as our best players were hawked off to pay our debts. In 2010, with the club on the brink of liquidation, we feared that we wouldn’t even have a football club to support. Yet somehow, improbably, on a shoestring budget, Palace managed to get promoted. We were back in the Promised Land. But was it worth the wait?
To be honest, I’m still pinching myself about the play off victory – not to mention watching the YouTube clips of Kevin Phillips’ winning penalty every now and then. Palace’s promotion showed that romance in football hadn’t been completely extinguished; that team spirit and good coaching still counted for something. Well it still counted for something in the Championship. But do we stand a snowball in hell’s chance of staying in the Premier League? Here, money really does talk. The spending power of the top clubs has irreparably damaged the competitive balance of the league. Only three clubs stand a meaningful chance of actually winning the title. Everyone else is fighting for a European place, aspiring to mid-table mediocrity or desperately scrambling to avoid the drop. It’s a very odd sort of Promised Land.
Palace haven’t exactly been big spenders over the summer. We paid a club record fee – reportedly £6million – for Peterborough striker Dwight Gayle, while Spanish midfielder José Campaña cost us £1.7million. Invariably, Palace are the bookies’ favourites for the drop. Most pundits have already written us off. No shit, Nostradamus. Tell us something we don’t know. We know it’s going to be a long, hard season. We know that victories will be as rare as hen’s teeth. We’re braced for Hansen and Lawro mocking our lack of quality on Match of the Day.
But, you know what? Let them all sneer. We’ve got nothing to lose. No one expects us to survive. If we go down, we’ll still have £60million in parachute payments – a financial boost which we would never have enjoyed if we hadn’t gone up. We could – whisper it – become a yo-yo club again as we had been in the 1990s. It’s what dreams are made of.
All those years in the wilderness have fostered a chippy, outsider mentality among Palace fans. On the eve of the play-offs, a vocal minority of supporters were exhibiting the classic symptoms of promophobia – promotion anxiety. They were afraid to step out of the comfort zone of the Championship. They felt alienated by the commercialism of the Premier League. They feared that we’d be out of our depth in the top flight.
You could see this outsider attitude in the pre-match choreographed display in the Holmesdale Stand, which featured an image of Jigsaw, from the Saw horror films, beneath a banner which declared: ‘Palace are here, let the games begin.’ If it was meant to be intimidating, it had no discernible effect on the Spurs players. By contrast, as the Telegraph match report observed, ‘it was the home players who suffered stage fright’.
If the performance was bereft of quality and belief, how was the match-day experience? Selhurst Park isn’t what you’d call a state-of-the-art stadium. Frankly, like much of the surrounding area – South Norwood and Thornton Heath – is a bit dilapidated. ‘Selhurst is a shit-hole, I want to go home’, visiting supporters frequently sing. And few would argue with them. But even down-at-heel Selhurst Park had tried to scrub up well for the visit of Spurs. The stadium was adorned with the logo of its new sponsor, 12Bet. There was a gleaming new TV gantry, the numbers on our seats in the Holmesdale Stand had been repainted, the rickety old wooden seats in the Main Stand had been ripped up and replaced and there were new ‘handmade’ pies in the catering outlets.
More importantly, the stadium was near to capacity – a rare sight in recent years. I keep hearing that Premier League grounds are hushed and soulless, Maybe that’s the case at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates, but the whole of Selhurst Park was rocking on Sunday. Nor were the prawn-sandwich munching ‘plastics’ much in evidence. There were a few ‘day trippers’ of course; tourists who had come for a taste of the world-famous ‘EPL’ (as it’s known in non-footballing circles). But on the whole most of the newcomers were lapsed fans rather than nouveau fans. These supporters had understandably become disillusioned and had drifted away after years of mediocrity.
What’s baffling is not why they stopped going to Palace but why the rest of us continued to endure the misery. It’s a question my wife often asks. And, to be honest, it’s not easy to answer. But, if there is an answer, I think it’s this: It’s drinking with your mates. It’s being part of a raucous, boisterous crowd. It’s the devotional ritual of singing, cursing and shouting yourself hoarse. Despite all the petty rules and regulations, football crowds are still passionate, unruly and gloriously vulgar. As a sporting contest, the Premier League might be a rich man’s game, but the match-day experience is recognisably the same. You can still enjoy the visceral pleasure of boozing, swearing and singing. And that’s why we keep going back.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.