The last few weeks have been anything but enjoyable for fans of Crystal Palace FC. Without a win in the league since mid-December, losing our last five games in a row, it’s fair to say that the heady days of Autumn are now a distant spec in the rear-view mirror. Allow me if you will though, to speculate on something of far greater importance than our recent form.
Before I get up too much of a head of steam, I should say that my motivation for writing this piece was stimulated by two separate appearances on social media from Merseyside’s two biggest clubs, Everton and Liverpool.
The first, was a video shared by Everton’s official Twitter page lasting more than nine minutes, showing fans singing a song about home-grown star Ross Barkley on the concourse behind one of the stands at Goodison Park. The second was an article published on the website of Liverpool’s current owners entitled “Transforming fans into customers”. I’m sure the smart ones amongst you can already see the direction in which this is heading.
Whilst they remain totally separate entities, the vastly different tone to both instances, prompted me to take stock over the direction in which our club has decided to travel over the last 18 months, in the hope of “kicking on to the next level.” Perhaps it’s an emotion that has been stimulated by the talk of redeveloping Selhurst Park, but the recent efforts made to smarten the club up, could well be having an invisible yet lasting impact upon the characteristics that give us our unique identity in the tapestry of English football.
It has often struck me, that were I to have grown up on Merseyside, my immediate instinct would have been to plant my feet firmly on the blue side of the footballing divide. From afar they have always felt more authentic; happy to revel in their collective passion without desperately pointing towards former glories as the sole reason for their existence. It is a feeling that flows from the fans all the way up to the boardroom, where Bill Kenwright, despite coming in for minor criticism from time to time, retains a deep-rooted connection to the heart of their fan-base, quite the opposite from the ethos that aims to turn those who turn up week in, week out into “customers”.
With that, I am drawn to look inwards, at a football club who, after gaining promotion in 2013, are starting to show signs of being swallowed up by the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Premier League’s corporate machine, where balance sheets and “globalised support” is king. There will be plenty who suggest that we must look to constantly evolve, for fear of being left behind, but there is another school of thought to counterbalance the death march towards conformity, based solely around our geographical placement in the country’s capital city.
Whether we like it or not, South London has always been the gritty, urban cousin of the more cosmopolitan North and West. It’s an identity we (along with the likes of Charlton and Millwall) have embraced for as long as anyone can remember, so much so that it has become an undeniable strength. Ask any visiting fan and they will moan like hell about their trips to Selhurst Park, the traffic, the ground, the view; it’s a well-known stick with which other supporters try to beat us, but it’s also worth pointing out that, without it, a large chunk of what has allowed us to battle against the odds for so long is almost certain to disappear for good.
I can completely understand why Steve Parish and co. have looked to secure investment from US billionaires Josh Harris and David Blitzer in the aim of improving Selhurst Park. In essence, it makes sense, but if, in the reconstruction of our creaking old ground, we lose track of where we’ve come from, it will be bordering on impossible to reverse the changes. Cast your thoughts forward to next season for a moment or two, when Manchester City’s new boss Pep Guardiola will (survival permitting) visit SE25 with his merry band of multi-millionaires, only to be confronted with an old changing room, tiny tunnel and hostile atmosphere that we as supporters create when at our best. It will almost certainly make a lasting impression on him, just as it did on Chelsea’s now former manager Jose Mourinho. We must never lose that, willingly or accidentally.
The recent NBC documentary series on the club, which is now one week from concluding on US TV, was an attempt by those behind the scenes at Selhurst to allow anyone and everyone to peer behind the curtain and see what goes on at Palace, but my overriding emotion throughout most of it to date has been to question how authentic it all is. Knowing the club as I do, I can’t but feel as though we’re putting on a show for a one-off encounter with new faces, rather than being completely open. It’s almost as though we’re using the documentary as a vehicle for us to present a figurative dating profile to potential matches; take your best picture, put on an expensive suit and smile, without admitting that you often fart unexpectedly in your sleep or hog the duvet cover. It may get a few hundred extra paying “customers” through the door, but it won’t do much to energise the fans who are already here.
We have always traded upon having an unbreakable bond between players, fans and more recently, our owners. Whilst we’re still a long way off from shifting our focus away from that and towards the Liverpool owners’ management ethos, we must actively look to ensure that we go no further down that path in the years to come. Should we do so, the Crystal Palace FC we all know and love risks being lost forever, and I for one, don’t want to see that.