Why I can’t stand football but still cheered for Palace

By - Tuesday 4th June, 2013

Football-phobic Liz Sheppard-Jones reports on how, despite the myriad negative issues associated with football, Croydon citizens should be proud their town now has a Premier League team to support

Noise builds among Palace fans prior to kick-off. Photo by Tom Lickley.

It’s been a while since Croydon had a public stoning, but I can change all that.  Before volunteering to meet my bloody end, I would point out that voicing a provocative opinion to trigger an ephemeral, headline-grabbing tweet-storm is the act of a cheap stunt merchant, but expressing an honestly held yet suicidally unpopular view – and opprobrium be damned – is one for the truly principled amongst us. Whatever follows, I will hold that thought.

On the evening of Monday 27th May, I was on a train from Willesden to Clapham Junction, which those familiar with the London Overground network will immediately identify as the smartest route from Wembley to Croydon. My journey was the purest of coincidences – a personal errand – but the train was packed with the red-and-blue army, heading home to celebrate victory against Watford and a place for Crystal Palace in the Premier League.

As we shuffled through West London, a tannoy announcement congratulated Palace on their achievement and a roar of appreciation echoed the length of the train. To my great surprise, one of the voices raised in that instinctive guttural shout was mine.

Because I don’t do football. My problems with it started young, during childhood Saturday afternoons dominated by the horrifying visage of Jimmy Hill on TV and the maddening clack of the typewriter bringing up on-screen results. Later my reasons became more serious. For all the national ecstasy of Nessun Dorma and the improvement in haircuts, my issues were no longer with style  - they were based on a substantial distaste for corruption.

A national game, for good or ill, reveals much about a country: we feel that our values, our way of life and the things which are important to us are embodied in that sport.  Wonderful examples abound - consider the brooding, cerebral intensity of Russians (chess), the rampant egotism of the USA in staging a ‘World Series’ for a sport only one country on the planet actually plays (baseball), and the Japanese delight in tradition and ritual (sumo wrestling). Unfortunately for this nation, what English football reveals is that all we have cared about, since somewhere around the spring of 1979, is money.

It was evident that whilst it was all about glory, passion and pride, it was kind-of about the money as well

Success in our national game is purchased, which is why only a tiny selection of elite clubs (aka international brands) ever win anything. Opponents are laid low and dominance maintained by the crushing weight of wonga. Crystal Palace’s victory on Monday is worth £120 million for the club.  And whilst as Premier League newbies they don’t have a prayer without the loot,  the odds are still against them. Only twice in the last 12 years have all three promoted sides managed to avoid immediate relegation the following season.

Following Twitter during the match, that money kept piping up. Not that the match had anything to do with money. No-one was thinking of the £120 million. No-one at all. £120 million could not have been further from the minds of devotees. After an hour or so of this, it was evident that whilst it was all about glory, passion, and pride, it was kind-of about the money as well. In football, it always kind-of is.

But, comes the protest, none of that is the players’ fault. And indeed it is not. It was international advertisers and TV moguls who forced young men to accept the wealth of Croesus, adulation beyond reason, exemption from the realities and responsibilities of life which foster maturity, and assurances that expectations of decent behaviour have been waived in their particular case. In such circumstances, how did we expect them to turn out?

I want my very English kids to play up, play up and play the game: to be good team members, gracious winners, sporting losers and to never give up

As a parent, I look for role models for my children and our national sport seems a natural place to find them.  Sport is a far greater good than simply fitness and health, and I want my very English kids to play up, play up and play the game: to be good team members, gracious winners, sporting losers, and to learn the lesson of a goal in the 89th minute - that you should never give up. They are boys, so I look to football for focussed sportsmen of the highest calibre, maintaining peak fitness through self-care, demonstrating strong values of honour and fairness, striving to be the best,  respectful of fans and opponents alike.  Somehow, that’s not quite how it turned out.

Where to start? There’s marital infidelity (complex and varied), racist abuse in the highest places (little wonder it’s not been stamped out on the terraces), homophobia (only one professional footballer has ever felt able to come out: Justin Fashanu, abused by his club manager as a ‘bloody poof’, who committed suicide in 1998), attacks by players on spectators, spitting on the pitch (why, just – why?)  and, infamously, Suárez biting Ivanović. Let’s just consider that last one for a moment. In our emblematic national sport, adult men bite each other like thwarted two-year-olds.  And while Suárez’ ensuing ten match ban seemed the barest acceptable minimum, it was feverishly disputed in the tabloids. For many on the terraces, ‘Does the punishment fit the crime?’ was apparently a reasonable question.

And we return inevitably to the money. Although I have been spared the bank account-draining blight of offspring gifted in sport, I know those who have not and I hear stories of parents so partisan and abusive in support of their sons (always sons, it seems) in children’s leagues that they have been banned from the sidelines. Now tell me that the prospect of a pile of loot if little Johnny makes it big has nothing to do with that.

Why follow the match at all? These things happened because Crystal Palace – the Eagles – is my local team

So – given all this – why the guttural roar from my throat on the train on Monday evening? Why the flutter of excitement at the sight of the flag-sellers at East Croydon station earlier that day? Why follow the match at all? These things happened because Crystal Palace – the Eagles – is My Local Team. Sometime in the fifteen years of my residency here, Croydon has got in amongst me and I have come to identify with this place.

What I experienced, and what will holds us in its grip in the heady days to come, is the spirit of bygone years, struggling to stay alive in the Age of Lucre. There was once a time when Stanley Matthews arrived to play his matches on the same bus his fans caught. David Beckham grew up dreaming of playing for MU, giving no thought to how much he would earn from posing in underwear. Pride in one’s place, excitement at local success and loyalty in affliction were the real values of football then, and briefly, on a train through Kensington, I caught the echo of them. They are reverberating through Croydon now, and I hope we can hold onto them although I very much doubt that we will.

A community is a place that celebrates together, and for now, Croydon is celebrating.  We done good, we know it, and we know how to show it – everyone on the train was smiling.  While a journey with sports fans can be intimidating – cans and camaraderie are not for everyone – as I boarded that red-and-blue train home to Croydon, my community felt like a welcoming place.  Unity – a shy, elusive, winged creature sometimes glimpsed high above us amongst shadowy branches,  resisting the attempts of politicians to coax it down – had settled on Wembley and given us its beery blessing.  It looked a little like an eagle.

And so, in that uplifting spirit and as gutturally as possible – go Holloway’s Red and Blue Army!  EA-GLES!

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Tom Lickley

    Interesting article, Liz. Firstly I’d heartily encourage you to attend a Palace match or two next season – even though you aren’t a football fan there’s plenty that goes on in the matchday experience that would alter your perceptions. It’s quite something to witness 20,000 people united in support for Croydon’s club.

    As a staunch Palace fan and football fan in general, I feel duty bound to defend the sport! I hope we can have a good-natured debate.

    You firstly suggest only a tiny section of clubs ever win anything. Wigan Athletic and Swansea City, winners of the FA Cup and League Cup this season, would disagree! In 125 years of a professional football league there have only been 23 winners, and the teams which win the league now – Manchester United and City, Arsenal, Chelsea etc. had all won titles by the mid 1950s – they have always been the elite clubs, and I don’t think money has altered that – it’s simply made them richer.

    I’d also warmly encourage you to look at footballers as
    inspiration for your children. 99% of footballers are hard working, committed
    individuals. Family men, charity ambassadors (Palace’s Yannick Bolasie recently becamean ambassador for War Child after visiting his native DR Congo). Even playerswith a stigma attached to them due to their reputation on the pitch, such as
    Cardiff City’s Craig Bellamy, are heavily involved in charity work. These are
    professionals who train five days a week, playing on the other; eating
    properly, some not drinking at all, and still finding time to give something
    back. How many of the general population can say that?

    Marital infidelity is a problem throughout society, not just
    football. It is highlighted in football because they are celebrities as well as
    sportsmen (not that the majority ask to be celebrities). Marital problems
    happen, and it is unfair to expect footballers to be saints, if the rest of
    society can’t be. Yes they can set an example, many do, but the tabloids
    wouldn’t sell many papers with headlines like “Footballer celebrates tenth
    wedding anniversary”, would they?

    I can honestly say in 16 years of attending football matches, some 300 games, I
    have never heard a single comment relating to race. Not one. I’m well aware
    that it does still occur, but instances are rare. And again, when they do
    happen in high profile incidents, they are picked up and splashed across the
    front and back pages (rightly so) but this may give the impression to non-fans
    of “oh, same old football, still racist” which is not at all the case. I don’t know the stats, but I’d guess that racism may be more of a problem in general society than football.

    Intolerance of homophobia is changing. The case of Justin
    Fashanu is very sad and a poor reflection of football in the early 90s. Without
    taking away from this, that particular case deserves closer examination.
    Fashanu committed suicide after an allegation of sexual assault, five years
    after his career in English football ended. He was also shunned by members of
    his family, including fellow footballer and TV presenter John Fashanu. So it was
    not a direct cause of football.

    Other footballers have come out, too. Only recently American, and ex-Leeds United player Robbie Rogers came out and was applauded in the media. Which is perhaps part of the problem. In all likelihood there are players in the English game which are
    gay. It is my belief that the vast majority would not give any form of abuse. But the intense media coverage, albeit congratulatory, would cause huge pressure on
    the player and may affect their form, plus would give them ‘celebrity’ status
    many shun. The more newsworthy sportspeople coming out is, the less that would
    be willing to do it, I’d guess. Yes, it would set a good example, but perhaps it
    is more up to the government and religious leaders to set an example in terms of this. This isn’t just footballs problem either – instances of people coming out in any sport are very rare.

    I have to say that suggesting Suarez is representative of
    football as grossly unfair. Suarez has been involved in a string of incidents
    since his career began, to the extent that he has been offered anger management
    counselling by the Players Football Association; he is an exception. To my
    knowledge, no footballer in the English game has ever been punished for biting
    before. Other sports, boxing being one example, have far greater problems with this.

    Finally, you yearn for the days of players still taking the
    bus on the way to a match. Personally, I have seen a former England
    international on a train, and he was only too happy to talk to people.
    Recently, the England national team took the train from their Burton training
    ground to their hotel in London before a game. Many teams travel on trains and
    planes to matches. England manager Roy Hodgson was caught travelling on a tube
    recently; some innocent comments he made were recorded and sold to a newspaper,
    which were then turned into a spurious story. I’d gather this is the reason most
    players don’t take public transport; people are looking to make a quick buck
    for themselves by feeding off a player’s politeness in talking to strangers.
    I’m sure many are told by their clubs not to engage to protect themselves; in
    the same way many companies insist on their employees writing ‘views own’ on
    social media accounts. This is the paranoid and schadenfreude society we live

    Stereotyping football in this way is, to me, as bad as the
    national media stereotyping Croydon as a grim concrete hellhole with nothing to
    offer; we both know different. I believe football truly is the beautiful game;
    don’t let the newspapers’ spotlight on the blemishes alter your perceptions.

    • Anne Giles

      The article is very good, but nothing on earth would convince me to go anywhere near a football club. Hate the sport. Used to live close to Arsenal and there were problems all the time with yobs, plus everyone used to double park in my street, so I could never get out. I don’t mind rugby or cricket, although my favourite sport is polo and I like the boat races – Oxford vs Cambridge, for example. Went to Henley Royal Regatta once too, but the people were awful and the dress code was impossible – jacket and tie on a really hot day. Hubby not impressed at all. I think footballers earn far too much money, though. Many people work equally hard and earn very little.

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Hi Tom. Thanks for such a thought-provoking response, and I take some of your points. Decent people far outnumber indecent ones in all areas of life, and I’m sure that is also true on terraces and in dressing rooms. Which begs the question why, when one views football from an outsider’s perspective, does one not see decent values represented? (You might argue that image should matter less and reality matter more, and I might agree with you – but it’s all about the headlines. The stable door hinges are broken and that nag is already five miles down the road).

    Sport is a passion and a joy to many, but to a minority it is about wealth and social collateral. Guess which of those two groups controls it? And money, as Cyndi Lauper sang, changes everything. It’s not just football – it’s the empty corporate seats at the Olympics, the marquees at Wimbledon packed with Pimms-guzzling freeloaders during key matches while Centre Court seats go un-used. And once sport is about Big Money, values are eroded: thuggish footballers do not receive long suspensions since to do so would jeopardise team results and hence the wealth of clubs, and put advertising contracts at risk.

    So modern football’s message to kids is that the rich can do as they like. Fair enough, perhaps – you’re never too young to learn the truth. But like other dubious organisations, these teams are too financially bloated to fail, which does great damage to football and causes great annoyance to me.

    Just as well I’m not a fan, or I’d be even angrier. I have no remedy to suggest for any of it other than that we unite and storm the Bastille. Fancy coming along?

    • Tom Lickley

      I, and many other fans, would agree with the majority of what you say about money – the balance has shifted too far in the way of corporates rather than real fans. For instance, and using Palace as an example again, the entire middle tier of Wembley was not made on general sale to either Palace or Watford fans – it was reserved for those who had bought long term tickets to Wembley (known as ‘Club Wembley’.. Given both sets of fans sold out their allocations rapidly, and there were many complaints about people not getting tickets, it does beg the question as to why the FA allowed it to happen.

      I would also argue however that money has allowed football to become a more family-oriented game for supporters – by spending money on stadia and infrastructure, football has become a more welcoming environment for a family day out, and enables people of all backgrounds to attend games. Again, there is a risk of the balance going too far – fans are now being priced out of matches because ticket prices are too high.

      What you say about football clubs being too bloated to fail is correct – but I don’t think it will be for much longer. Not only are Financial Fair Play regulations being brought in to stop clubs accruing too much debt, but also as seen in the case of Rangers F.C in Scotland, they were expelled from the league and disappeared (the current Rangers F.C, who won the Scottish Third Division last season, are a different club run by different owners, but who bought the rights to the name, badge, stadium etc.). So I think the era of clubs being allowed to to what they like in terms of finance are over.

      So I’d suggest that we may well see change in football over the next decade or so. Whilst a lot of emphasis is currently on money at the moment, hopefully this will change and although vast amounts of money will still be pumped in, I hope it will be used to improve infrastructure and lower prices for fans. Football’s come an awful long way since the bad days of the 70s and 80s and I can see it continuing on an upward trend.

      No need to storm the Bastille just yet!

      • Ray West

        Even though we are proud of Crystal Palace achievements there is another local football team at the grass roots level who need support – Croydon F.C. – who play at the Croydon Sports Arena and are celebrating their 60th anniversary this coming season. No money involved with this club just volunteers trying to keep the club going.
        Ray West

        • Tom Lickley

          Hi Ray – if you’d like to write something for us about Croydon F.C, please get in touch via the ‘Contact the Citizen’ section below, I’m sure we’d be interested in publishing it.