Ok, I know I should be used to this by now. The disappointment, the frustration, the incredulity at watching the club you love steal oblivion from the jaws of stability – it was always included in the ticket price. And yet…I can’t think of a calendar year where the blows have kept on coming with such brutal regularity. In amongst the shitstorm of discontent this has prompted, one of the most alarming features has been what appears to be a growing disconnect between club and fans. Recently, it seems you can’t access social media or (heaven forbid) take a cursory glance at the BBS without being hit with a deluge of posts bemoaning the death of Crystal Palace FC as we know it. So what’s going on?
Ask the naysayers, and you’ll no doubt be regaled with the party line of the moment - ‘we’ve lost our soul!’ Soul - in the last few years, Palace fans seem to have developed something of an obsession with it; whether it be the HF making a point of telling Manchester City quite how much of it we’ve got, or the recent anguish at its apparent disappearance, it’s a right up there in the modern day SE25 buzzword bingo list.
Problem is, I’m not sure any of us really know what it means any more. Light shows, tourists, player salaries, ticket prices – just some of the things that have been held up as irrevocable proof that the club has reached the crossroads and made a deal with the devil.
The issue here is that in many cases fans are blaming the club (whether that be Steve Parish, the Americans, or both) for the inescapable realities of being a Premier League club of several years’ standing. Player salaries are a great example. Fans will point to astronomic wage packets as undermining the cohesiveness of both the inter-squad and fan/player dynamic, but will in the same breath demand ‘progression’ or ‘ambition’ (translation: get yer wallet out Steve) as soon as the transfer window circus rolls around.
During the drawn-out summer pursuit of Christian Benteke, the clamour to level ‘cheap’ accusations at Steve Parish reached feverish levels. Fast forward six months and Benteke has, in some quarters, become a poster boy for the much-maligned Crystal Palace 2.0, symbolic of a club turning its back on a proud ‘South London & Proud’ heritage in pursuit of the grubby Premier League dollar. At some point, as a fan base we have to ask ourselves – what do we actually want? If it’s truly about local lads and £300 season tickets then fine, but that ain’t gonna be in the Premier League.
Another problematic part of this debate is the implicit suggestion that things were always better in the past. Certainly, the constant upward trajectory of the last few years has generated an atmosphere and a cohesion quite unlike anything many fans have seen before. But even if we go back a decade, were they really the halcyon days that many fans seem so certain that we’ve lost? Personally, I wouldn’t count being able to hear a pin drop in a half empty Selhurst, watching us labour to a 0-1 defeat to Coventry as being something I’m particularly keen to re-live – not just because it was bloody miserable, but because it was as bland and as uninspiring an experience as you could get. Give me today’s ‘soulless’ experience over that any day.
In truth, I can’t help but wonder whether the whole ‘soul’ argument is a bit of a red herring. In what has been an agonising calendar year, it’s become a convenient vehicle for the near impossible levels of frustration that all of us have been feeling. There are only so many home defeats that you can sit through before you start to look for something – anything – to blame. Over the course of our recent mini-revival, I haven’t heard it mentioned once. That’s telling. Losing games feel crap, but it doesn’t mean that the fabric of our club has unravelled. Witness the superb atmosphere in the stands for both the Middlesbrough and West Brom games; the goal celebrations wild, the noise unrelenting.
Really, when we talk about ‘soul’, isn’t that what it’s all about? The love for the club, and that desperate desire to succeed? As long as that stays intact, then surely the club will never lose the S word. Light shows, tourists, t-shirt cannons (*shudder*); not something most of us would choose to be part of our match day experience, but ultimately just window dressing. We may have a little more money these days, but we still got the soul. And make no mistake – we’ve rarely needed it more than we do now.
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