There’s heartache for the visitors as survival hopes are dashed – but have we just been brainwashed into thinking that being in the Premiership is all that matters? Taylor Parkes finds out

First – and this isn’t unusual – a team owned by a very rich man won the title. People who don’t know what the term “Russian oligarch” actually means, who have probably never heard, say, the exciting story of the race for the governorship of Chukotka, will think nothing of it, or applaud, because the money “must be good for football” and, after all, who cares where money comes from? There he is on television, look, sitting in the stand. Half-smiling. He looks a bit like Harry Enfield.

Meanwhile, another team is being bought, albeit effectively on HP, by another very rich man. Not the most popular team among other fans and, historically, no more of a bulwark against capitalism than Ken Bates’ Chelsea, so many will think nothing of it, or applaud, because it’s just another load of pretend money changing hands, and who cares where the money came from anyway, or where it goes – isn’t it funny to see those guys at the mercy of some mutant offspring of Donald Rumsfeld and Uncle Scrooge McDuck? An editorial in the Wall Street Journal makes fun of the “tattooed, insult-chanting... working-class fans” who have “utterly failed to accept the realities of capitalism”.

Finally, a young Nigerian footballer, whose penniless father sold “power of attorney” over his valuable son to an agent he had never met – and who has ended up in a hollow place somewhere between these two teams – sits shaking in a hotel room, playing for no one, talking to no one, contemplating freshly lodged death threats. Or perhaps – he is, after all, a religious man – pondering the nature of morality. If not the realities of capitalism.

These are just some of the things I’m thinking about to escape the fathomless tedium and raw incompetence of much of the first half of Charlton v Crystal Palace, but it strikes me that they’re relevant to this game, relevant to how very bad it is, beyond the incidental excitement of local pride and the thrills and chills of what will turn out to be the most exciting last-day relegation battle in years. In fact, if you take your eyes off the game, glance around the reassuringly old-school splendour of The Valley on a sunny Sunday afternoon, there’s plenty of entertainment. The Charlton fans, happy enough today just to send the Palace down, dust off the decade-old songs in honour of Eric Cantona and bang their drums in tribute to schadenfreude. In the Jimmy Seed Stand, under the looming block of council flats known sarcastically as “Charlton Village”, the Palace masses are nervous, however thickly they have daubed their hair and faces with inexpungible shades of red and blue. Both deserve better than to chew through this gruel.

To be fair to Charlton, they have managed some reasonable football this season, although that form was more or less washed away with the first flush of spring; this late-season floomph into cosy mediocrity is something of a Charlton trick. Palace, too, were briefly snarling, for a few cold weeks in winter (a different side when playing with the yellow ball – perhaps, like small children, they were roused subconsciously by its friendly colours and happy stripes). But this is just pathetic: a home team playing not to get hurt (not this close to their summer holidays) and an away team who don’t fancy relegation but can’t muster the performance to prove it.

It’s Palace who take the initiative, but despite the constant success of their simple diagonal through balls past creaking Charlton defenders, they manage just one decent attempt on goal before Charlton, on their first attack, put one past the hapless pyjama-clad Gabor Kiraly to raise the volume, if not the temperature.

Like a lot of people, I now watch Premiership football almost exclusively on television. I was priced out of the stands long ago, then just as surely priced out of the Sky Sports “package”, so as a result I don’t so much watch the Premiership as consume it, bite-size at that; unlike the lower-league games I’m more familiar with first-hand, this is sold to me in “highlights”, a circus of 35-yard curlers, triple step-overs, super-rich hunks with sensational injuries, electronic perimeter advertising. Not being deranged, I was never expecting Danny Butterfield or Radostin Kishishev to mesmerise for 90 minutes, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how damn bleak some of this was going to be.

We’re not talking about the grit and gore of a London derby – God knows, both blood and thunder are in short supply down there. And it isn’t some dour tactical battle – neither side appears concerned with anything so complex or disciplined as tactics. When Charlton bring on Dennis Rommedahl with only a few minutes to go, and being the only man on the pitch who can really play, he picks up the ball in his own half and goes on a 45-yard run past three or four Palace defenders before being hacked 30 yards from goal, you start to wonder what’s going on here.

In Italy over the past few seasons, many smaller sides have adopted a more attacking approach, often a 4-3-3 formation, on the reasonable logic that you’ve got a better chance of putting a goal past a top Serie A defence if you take the game to them. In England, we’ve seen the opposite: more and more sides adopting 4-5-1 with a subsequent contraction in the quality of attacking play. It isn’t just caution – many of these teams have previously tried an aggressive style and been picked off on the break by expensively bought, pacy forwards. It doesn’t work so well here, because – whisper it – most English sides (even some of those who play in Europe) are still tactically inept, and particularly useless at defending – “two banks of four” being as subtle as it gets. We used to blame the insularity of the English game. Now what’s the excuse?

Just before the hour, Palace try to chip a simple ball through to substitute Dougie Freedman, but it’s too weak, badly hit, and looks set to land smack on the forehead of Charlton’s Jonathan Fortune. Instead, Fortune allows it cannon off his cranium and spoon behind him, falling nicely for Freedman, who produces a rather out-of-character chip to equalise past Dean Kiely. About ten minutes later, Freedman tries to cross from the left and this time Fortune misjudges the flight, slides in to intercept and lets the ball rebound off his forearm, conceding a penalty from which Andy Johnson scores.

No pressure, no panic, just rank bad defending in yards of open space, twice in ten minutes. Everyone’s allowed a duff game, of course, and Fortune isn’t even the worst defender in London, but it’s amazing how much clearer and cruder everything looks from up here, high in the home end. The same errors, later on TV, flash by at pitch level, one more example of high-tempo excitement in the World’s Greatest League.

This might not seem to have much to do with, say, “controversial” owners of very big clubs. Charlton enjoy a pretty good relationship with their fans, by British standards, and while the same isn’t necessarily true of Palace, they probably don’t feel like they’re supporting a faceless corporate entity either. And while the overall quality of football in the Premiership may be lower than it was five years ago, it’s surely better than around the time it ceased being Division One. The problem isn’t that hyper-commercialisation has torn the heart from every club – it hasn’t – or even that the widening gulf in wealth between top and bottom has lowered the quality of smaller top-flight sides – because they were never that good in the first place, lest we forget.

It’s more that their status as “survivors” (in a major European league, in an economic jungle) seems to convince them that “surviving” is all they can do. Horizons are narrowed, ambitions are gelded, something happens to the vision of football clubs that neither bloat nor implode, something like weariness, or fear. These clubs have even less to gain from football’s new financial order than cheerleading pundits or short-termist supporters, but they will remain silent, out of respect for money and the modern reluctance to question money, as their spirits rot, their traditions crumble, and they begin to lose those “tattooed, insult-chanting, working-class fans”.

Though this might sound like paradise to Crystal Palace, about to prove yet again that “survivors” is exactly what they aren’t. Norwich emit a pitiful whimper at Fulham, Southampton clatter downstairs, and The Hawthorns will burst with improbable joy – once the day’s final irony is played out here. With Palace minutes from safety, Charlton win a free-kick out wide, level with the Palace box. Jerome Thomas hits the simplest, easiest-to-defend ball lazily into the melee, it sails over everyone’s head and is easily headed home by... Jonathan Fortune. Kiely, who’s been sending goal-kicks into touch all afternoon to well practised jeers, gets to make one late, blinding stop from (listen to this) “the dangerous Dougie Freedman”, and Palace are down. Charlton’s season ends on a high, albeit the lowest kind.

Walking away from the ground through the leaves and cracked stone of SE7, there’s birdsong and late-afternoon sunshine; families in football shirts file past smiling policemen. Lowry would suck his teeth, and grumble that he just couldn’t do anything with it. Even on the trains back to central London, supporters mix silently, scarlet and maroon-and-blue, brushing acrylic. Some Palace fans blink back tears, pretending they’re shielding their eyes from the sunlight slanting through the carriage, others sit and sing gallows humour; a Charlton-shirted tot pipes up that “we sent the Palace down!” and is quietly reminded by her dad that they probably don’t want to be reminded of that. You could be forgiven for laughing at the idea that – right now – a smirking Russian oil magnate is selling plutonium to Dr Evil, while a ginger Floridian slumlord hacks the top off an orphan’s head and starts guzzling the brains with a spoon.

So why do I almost feel worse for Charlton than Crystal Palace? I mean, they’ve got a pre-season friendly against Lazio to look forward to. Perhaps old boy Paolo Di Canio will give them a little salute. And then, after that, another year in the greatest league in the world. Who could ask for more?

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month

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