CJ Kaplan watches his favorite football* club bounce another team out of the Premier League and experiences an emotion he’s never felt as a Boston sports fan.
* As most sports fans know, what Americans call soccer is what the rest of the world calls football. Since I’m writing about a European club, I’ll stay true to the football moniker.
I am a Crystal Palace fan.
Not the gigantic iron and glass structure dubbed The Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. That would be weird. I am instead referring to the Crystal Palace Football Club, a member in good standing of Britain’s Premier League.
Actually, that’s only slightly less weird.
Becoming a Crystal Palace fan was not an easy trick, especially for an American college student who was spending the fall of his senior year in London and who had never been to a professional football match. When most non-Brits choose a Premier League club, they’ll pick one of the teams whose fame extends beyond England’s borders—Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and, more recently, Manchester City. These are easy clubs for a first-time fan to get behind. They win a lot and always contend for domestic and international titles.
However, unless you grew up in or around the Croydon section of South London (or have an odd fetish for iron and glass exhibition halls), it is unlikely that you would choose to be a Palace fan. I, myself, fell into it quite by accident.
It was a pleasant September Saturday in the Bayswater area of London, where I sharing a flat with three of my fraternity brothers for the semester. On the previous Saturday, all three of them had gone to an Arsenal game and become instant fans. I hadn’t been able to join them because on a previous commitment, but the atmosphere they described sounded so electric that I was determined to go to a match as soon as possible.
Arsenal were away that Saturday, but there was a match scheduled at nearby White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham Hotspur. At the time, Tottenham had English star and noted wild man Paul Gascoigne (a.k.a. Gazza), whose wizardry on the field was nearly matched by his exploits off it. Even better, Spurs were Arsenal’s archrival and that meant my roommates and I would have fun going back and forth at each other all semester.
Hopping off the Tube, I ambled up to the stadium ticket window and asked for one seat on the home side.
“Sorry, mate,” the guy behind the window said, “home side’s sold out. There are a few seats on the visitor’s side, though.”
“Okay,” I replied. “Who are we playing?”
“Palace,” came the answer.
“Uh, one for the Palace side, I guess,” I stammered, having no idea who (or what) Palace was.
It turned out that Palace were the Crystal Palace Eagles (once known as The Glaziers because of the glass connection to the actual Crystal Palace, but quickly changed to the Eagles because going up against a bunch of window-fitters didn’t seem particularly daunting). Taking my ticket, I grabbed a pint of lager, sat myself down in the middle of red, blue and yellow clad Palace cheering section and soaked up the atmosphere as well as the alcohol.
The Palace supporters weren’t shy about making their voices heard although they were easily outnumbered four-to-one. They sang songs about ancient triumphs and players I’d never heard of in language so colorful it would have made David Mamet blush. In the early 90s, Europe’s soccer hooliganism was at its apex. You could find yourself in a brawl just for wearing the wrong jersey in the wrong place. I quickly decided that, despite my initial intention to root for Tottenham, it was in my best interest to pull hard for Palace. Which I did with unfeigned vigor.
It may have been the beer or it may have been the friendliness of my seatmates, who welcomed the newest Palace fan into the fold by teaching me the dirtiest football songs they knew. But, in any case, I was a full-blown Palace supporter by the time the match ended in a 1-1 draw two hours later.
Being a Palace supporter for the last 28 years has been an up-and-down affair with far more lows than highs. This is largely because of a feature in European football called promotion and relegation, which I will attempt to explain.
The Premier League is Britain’s highest division of football (the major leagues, if you will). It consists of twenty teams who play each other twice, home and away, over the course of a season that runs from mid-August to mmid-May Teams receive three points for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss. The team with the most points at the end of the season is declared the champion. No playoffs, no seven-game series, no Super Bowl. In the event that two or more teams have the same number of points, goal differential is the tiebreaker.
Now, being a member of the Premier League is by no means a lifetime guarantee. It is, in fact, a tenuous year-to-year occupation. If, at the end of the season, you find yourself in the bottom three of the league, you are demoted to the oddly named Championship, which is the second tier of English football. In return, the top two teams from the Championship and a third team that survives a 3rd through 6th mini tournament are promoted to the Premiership.
Imagine the Yankees finishing with the worst record in baseball…
….hang on, I’m still imagining it…
…okay, I’m good.
Imagine the Yankees finishing with the worst record in baseball and then being forced to play the following season(s) in Triple A until they could work their way back into the majors. That would certainly put an end to the tanking phenomenon that’s ruining American sports.
The other thing you should know about the Premier League is that it is made up of two classes, as my friend who is a Chelsea fan put it—The Brahmins and The Rabble. The Brahmins—those internationally famous teams I mentioned earlier—are owned by sultans and tycoons and captains of industry who pour cash equal to the GNP of most nations into their football clubs. These teams almost always finish at the top of the table and rarely, if ever, have to worry about relegation. From 1992 to the present, Manchester United has won the league 13 times, Chelsea 5 times, Manchester City and Arsenal 3 times apiece. The two outliers are the Blackburn Rovers, who won in 1995 with England star and 34-goal scorer Alan Shearer, and Leicester City, who won in 2016.
Blackburn were a pretty solid club in the early 90s (though they only recently made it back to the Championship division), so their title was surprising but not ridiculous. On the other hand, I cannot overstate the improbability of Leicester City finishing at the top of the table. It’s not like the Cubs finally winning it all or the Cleveland Browns capturing a Lombardi Trophy. There really is no American sports equivalent. The only thing I can think of is if the Toledo Mud Hens were somehow given leave to compete at the major league level and then went on to win the World Series. It was that insane.
Palace has never placed higher than third in the Premier League, ironically in the season I started rooting for them. In the following quarter-century plus, they have been relegated to the Championship on four separate occasions (a league record!). They’ve managed to bounce back to the top division all four times, although not without flirting with being relegated to the division below the Championship, League One. And let me tell you friends, it’s a long way back to the Premiership from League One.
Relegation is devastating for fans, players and ownership alike. Along with the drop to a less prestigious division, teams lose out on lucrative TV revenue and sponsorships. As a result, it’s harder to pay their best talent who usually bolt for top tier clubs that can afford their services. So, now the team is thrust into a situation where they’re playing with a depleted squad in front of fewer fans against teams who are fighting tooth and nail to get into the league from which they were just unceremoniously dropped. It can take a club years to recover from relegation. Some never do. And the fall to the lower leagues is precipitous.
For most of this previous autumn, I had been preparing myself for Palace’s fifth relegation in the history of my fandom. They opened the 2017-18 campaign by losing their first seven games in a row while giving up 17 goals and scoring a grand total of zero (another league record!). Even though there were still over 30 games left in the season, it seemed unlikely that the Eagles would recover from such a disastrous start.
To their credit, Palace did not resign themselves to their fate. They brought in new manager Roy Hodgson, a Croydon-born footballer who played for the Eagles in his youth. Hodgson’s even-keel demeanor and solid tactical approached played well with the team and slowly but surely Palace climbed out of the relegation zone. After a 5-0 drubbing of former champion Leicester City in late April, they were all but assured of maintaining their place in the Premiership for another year.
Thus, it was that I tuned in early last Saturday morning to watch my beloved Eagles take on struggling 19th place Stoke City at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium. Palace required only a draw to guarantee safety while Stoke City desperately needed a win to maintain any hope of staying up heading into the last week of the season. A loss would seal Stoke’s fate.
The game started well enough for Stoke. They took a 1-0 lead into halftime on the strength of a gorgeous free kick from Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri (whose name is worth 40,000 points in Scrabble). But, Palace came out strong in the second half and scored the inevitable equalizer on a precision strike from midfielder James McArthur in the 68th minute. As the clocked ticked toward the 90-minute mark, you could feel the apprehension of the Stoke fans. That nervousness spilled over onto the team and anyone could see they were no longer playing to win, just not to lose. In the 86th minute, Palace gained possession at midfield. Speedy winger Wilfried Zaha advanced the ball down the right side and aimed a crossing shot at two Palace players who were streaking toward the net. In an attempt to deflect the ball out of harm’s way, Stoke center back and captain, Ryan Shawcross, inadvertently tipped the ball directly in front of the net to Palace’s Patrick van Aanholt, who slipped the ball under the Stoke keeper for what would be the eventual game-winner.
I was overjoyed. The three points Palace had secured not only made them mathematically invulnerable to relegation, it actually created the possibility for a Top Ten finish. That’s how much a single game can swing the standings in the Premier League. However, my delight was quickly tempered by the scene that was unfolding in the stadium.
As the game ended, several of Stoke’s players wept openly on the field. In the stands, supporters stood and applauded and took a long last look at their team before the Premier League patch was literally ripped from their uniforms. Stoke is a gritty burg in England’s midlands, whose quarter-million citizens have seen the coal and steel industries come and go, leaving behind only slag heaps as souvenirs. And while the creative economy has bolstered Stoke’s fortunes, it remains loyal to its working class roots. Pride runs deep and wide in Stoke and the city’s identity is reflected in its sports teams. So, this relegation didn’t just rock a football club. It crushed an entire metropolis.
Watching those athletes and their fans stand together in a teary salute stirred in me an emotion that was quite foreign to this Boston sports fan—sympathy. For the first time I can ever remember, I felt badly for a team and a city that my team had just vanquished. And apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Winning goal-scorer Patrick van Aanholt tweeted the following just moments after the match ended:
Normally I like to celebrate when I score but I’d like to apologise to Stoke City and their fans, I wish my goal didn’t relegate you, but you’ll be back soon! Great club with great fans
This compassion I felt for Stoke stood in sharp contrast to the sentiments I expressed when watching the end of the Celtics-76ers game in Philly later that day. If you didn’t see it, the crew in the Wells Fargo Center released a hail of red, white and blue confetti when they mistakenly thought the Sixers had won the game on a last second shot. This gaffe was made even more delicious when they had to clean up all of that cheap paper so that the game could continue, a game that Boston eventually won in overtime. Bear in mind that Philly was trailing 2-0 in this best-of-seven series, which means they had planned to release confetti after a game in which the absolute best possible outcome was that they would be down 2-1.
It’s a Little League move befitting a city that is used to losing and it deserves ridicule from the entire world for the rest of time. And it’s why, despite a random championship or two, Philadelphia will always be a second-rate sports town! F**kin’ clowns that they are! Where’s your “process” now, suckers!?!
Wait, what was I talking about?
A few days after the Palace victory, a second Premier League team (West Bromwich Albion) was assured relegation along with Stoke. This Sunday, on the final day of the season, a third team will also fall. And my heart will ache for them.
But, another part of me will wish they could take the Yankees with them.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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