THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

A late summer night out in Selhurst. Manchester City breeze down to south-east London for the early rounds of the Carling Cup where Crystal Palace huff and puff against mega-rich opponents. David Stubbs reports

It’s grim down south. The freshly mint Manchester City and their supporters come down to Selhurst Park like a delegation from Italy’s Lega Nord descending with wrinkling noses on one of the more malodorous outlying districts of Naples. What a culture shock it must be for visiting fans from the regenerated and nouveau riche north-west as they emerge from Selhurst station, with its unappetisingly urinal-like walls, down a ginnel flanked with mistrustful barbed wire and as rank as the breath of an alcoholic in the afternoon.

They pass the locked doors of the probably not-very-exclusive Selhurst Railway Club and up a steep incline towards the ground, which distantly resounds to the worn, siren blast of some cassette compilation dug out of a drawer from 1986 – the Bangles, Walk Like An Egyptian, Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Selhurst Park, it seems, is the last resting place of the likes of McFerrin and the Bangles, a hulking, iron-pillared reminder of times that weren’t as good as they’re sometimes cracked up to be.

Not that things are going great guns right now. Over the summer, Neil Warnock was given precisely zero to spend on new players, thanks to a transfer embargo imposed by the Football League. City, by dazzling contrast, spent some £120 million, shifting aside some of the doughty light blue deadwood in their ranks to make way for the likes of Gareth Barry and Emmanuel Adebayor. And they are all on display tonight in what is more or less a full-strength turnout including Kolo Touré, Carlos Tevez and Robinho. It’s hard not to screw your eyes as you see them in conjunction in the warm-up – like some pick-up Rest of the World XI assembled for a testimonial. You have to remind yourselves sharply that the reason they line up here together is because of their collective zeal for the “Manchester City Project” and all that spiritually entails.

Some day, perhaps, there will be a Crystal Palace project – it’s no less likely than some of the other sugar daddy phenomena occurring across both Premier and Football League. In the meantime, however, as Bobby McFerrin and the Bangles give way to U2’s In The Name Of Love and Foreigner’s More Than A Feeling, Palace subsist at the same old flatline as of years past.

“1905-2005 – 100 Years Of Pride And Passion” read the flags fluttering outside the main reception. While there is the odd shaven-headed geezer with arms aloft en route to the ground, it’s more like so many years of ageing blokes in replica shirts with bad posture queuing patiently for burgers exchanging rueful quips about the probable fate they’re about to witness in exchange for 20-odd notes. These are the true and perennial “hardcore” fans, unlike the boors who babooned on the pitch at West Ham two nights earlier, who are the topic of tut-tutting chit-chat outside the turnstiles.

The first knockings of autumn are in the night breeze and the swirling stench of fried onions bring their own melancholy. There is a game attempt to dispel it with a little pre-match razzle dazzle courtesy of the Crystals, a troupe of adolescent pom-pom girls of varying degrees of ability. Like sherbert fizz cast into grey waters, they do their routine, which involves chanting “cam on, let’s do it!”, after which a selected Crystal is hoist atop the hands of her dancemates, where she perches on one leg. They do it outside the Bargain Bucket next to the cashpoints, they do it near a puddle by the car park railings, earning the odd wry smile for their efforts from passers by. They don’t quite bring that Shea Stadium vibe to bear on the resolutely monochrome and parochial Selhurst ambience. Moreover, their blue and red uniforms make them look like the logos of those imitation KFC outlets you see in high streets, the sort of “Americanisation” which could not be more English. But as they move from location to location, working their way around the stadium, performing the same routine some 20, 30 times, you at least admire their smiling fortitude and stamina.

Inside the ground, the atmosphere is simmering nicely, though some five blocks of seats remain empty. There is a markedly cordial greeting for the pre-kick-off announcement that the global shipping, logistics and marine services provider who go by the name of GAC have extended their sponsorship of the club. Not as bad for them as the days when, à la Rick in The Young Ones, they were forced to sport the word “Virgin” as they capered around the field.

Amazingly, the Crystals are still performing their chant/human pyramid thing on the pitch. As City and Palace emerge from the tunnel, the troupe form themselves into a guard of honour – only for the players to trot out round the side of them, led out by tonight’s referee, a Mr Deadman, who must surely contemplate on a weekly basis a visit to the Deed Poll Office.

City have the best of the opening couple of minutes, almost immediately carving out a chance for Tevez but, much as he was cannoning them hopelessly wide in the warm-up, so he does now. Suddenly you’re aware of how short a man he is, as the derisive barracking rains down from the Palace end. It’s Palace, however, who then get the wind at their backs, with City standing about like aristocratic thoroughbreds puzzled at a pack of stable dogs snapping at their ankles.

Palace defender Clint Hill comes quite close with a header, but then, in a splendid example of un-total football, trots immediately back to his left back sentry post even as Palace maintain the attack. Micah Richards, who these days looks twice the man he used to be, especially around the waist, is sufficiently put out to pick up a booking.

Palace continue to charge, though all too often it’s with no thought as to what they’ll do when they reach the opposing penalty box, as they figure they’ll probably have been dispossessed by then anyhow. But still they press and harry, with Darren Ambrose coming close with a long-range shot. City put together the occasional bit of approach play but are thwarted by Palace’s offside trap and the heroic, last-gasp intervention of blotchy British thigh.

Adebayor, who for much of the half has been in breach of Football League rules about spectators on the pitch, eventually troubles Palace keeper Julian Speroni with a shot. Shaun Wright-Phillips puts in a cross that demonstrates just how much taller he perceives his team-mates to be than himself – they must look like 10ft 7ins giants from down there. However, it’s Palace who come closest, in a thrilling but ultimately comical spell of play involving a high ball, an empty net and a confused Freddie Sears. Certainly, City’s defence has an “under construction” feel about it – indeed, a cement mixer and wheelbarrow would slot well into their back four on this showing. Half-time and Palace can feel they’ve had the better of things.

However, five minutes into the second half, with the inevitability of a winning noughts and crosses game, City find themselves with a man over in attack and work the ball to Wright-Phillips who duly smashes home. With the same player hitting the bar following a beautifully woven move a minute or so later, you suspect City are about to fill their boots. But the purple storm is weathered and back come Palace, with Ambrose almost taking advantage of an opportunity, wanting only belief – belief, in this case, that the ball is actually at his feet.

Touré ventures up front, as if unable to take the heat in the back four kitchen, and Palace reassume the initiative, with Victor Moses blasting over the bar. But then Tevez, whom at one point the Palace players were taking turns to kick, redeems a not over-distinguished performance with a headed conversion from a cross, and it’s goodnight from him. A wave of substitutions follows, with Craig Bellamy taking to the field to put in a somewhat peripheral quarter-shift. Wayne Bridge deservedly earns the enmity of the Palace crowd with a pointlessly nasty challenge on Moses which shows the edge the best players have – one steel-tipped with obnoxious over-competitiveness.

As the second half drifts towards the inevitable the plump personage of Neil Warnock on the touchline increasingly takes the eye. Warnock is more than an irascible Championship manager – he is a veritable one-man show. The technical area, about which he paces, stomps and pads, is his stage, the dugout his proscenium arch. Throughout the second period, every gesticulation, every wobble of his girth has a Shakespearian expressiveness. He is like King Lear, expending futile rage across the blasted heath, a colossus of rage. Yet there is also something about him of the air of a man wearing an invisible giant chicken costume. Occasionally, Mark Hughes emerges from his seat, grey-haired and suave, like the Russian impresario in the Powell/Pressburger film The Red Shoes. He is more discreet, but aware that in him the real power lies, not the jester in the spotlight.

Two last chances for Palace – one falls, unfortunately, to pub bloke-resembling Palace favourite Shaun Derry, who scuffs it wide the way you or I would, while Joleon Lescott, who’s been pretty dependable, slips in a patch of grease as he tries to tackle Sean Scannell, only for Scannell to slip over in the same patch. Warm applause from the Palace fans for their team at the final whistle, who acquitted themselves decently against a Man City team who were imperious but not impervious. Palace are defeated, Palace are ramshackle, Palace are potless. But like the hits of the Eighties, Palace will survive, of that you can somehow be sure.

From WSC 272 October 2009

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