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Chelsea, Palace highlight disparity
Over the past two years, I’ve been travelling regularly to London, trying to see as many games at as many stadiums as I can. I’ve sat in the Tommy Johnston Stand at Brisbane Road, been frozen inside the Wendy House at Griffin Park and watched cheerleaders the Crystals take the field from the depths under Holmesdale Road. I’ve wandered around the old BBC headquarters on my way to Loftus Road and stopped at Queen’s Market on my way to the soon-to-be-razed Upton Park. Craven Cottage has the most cramped seats, Stamford Bridge has the tastiest food and the staff at the Emirates is probably the best in the game.
This weekend, I pulled a double, seeing Chelsea beat Everton in an early afternoon thriller, before fighting my way across the city and south to Crystal Palace, and their 2-0 loss to Manchester United. The atmospheres couldn’t have been more different, illustrating some of the major challenges the Premier League is going to face over the coming years.
Stamford Bridge used to be one of the roughest stadiums to attend. When I first started going to games in the 1970s, getting in and out of the terraces meant passing through a line of police on horses. Once, a fight broke out on the Fulham Broadway platform between fan groups, and a policeman grabbed my collar and pinned me against a wall. The concrete was slick with blood, and the police responded by simply beating the fans into subway cars.
Today, the Bridge is about as upmarket as it gets. Tickets are around £60 ($102) on average and the food is catered by Chicago’s Levy group. There were young policewomen on horses outside, but they seemed to be there mainly for young children to pet them. Everyone was friendly and cheery, and the crowd – which was once overwhelmingly male, white and working class, was now very mixed. There were fans from America, Japan, India, Malaysia and Africa on the Tube riding in, and almost everyone had a large blue plastic bag, evidence of a visit to the team shop.
What has changed is money: Chelsea previously didn’t have any and now they have a lot of it. The area around the stadium – once grotty – has undergone a massive face-lift. Jose Mourinho may have his charges playing a muscular style, but the surrounding area is distinctly easy and bourgeois. Families now sit behind the dugouts along the East End, and the once fearsome Shed End is now positively sedate by comparison. The Old Stamford Bridge used to be cavernous and loud; today, it is bigger but quieter, a peculiar contradiction. Yet there’s no arguing the overall experience is far, far better.
Selhurst Park, in the tougher south London neighborhood of Croydon, has resisted gentrification. Crystal Palace is a club always on the edge: not really monied enough to play in the Premier League, but with a large fan base and big dreams. They have never finished higher than third in the top-flight, and that was almost 25 years ago. They have been bankrupt twice and are currently making a strong effort to connect with their fan base in a bid for survival.
Intriguingly, transport decisions in London are rarely made in concert with football teams, so on this day, some genius had decided that two of the three rail stations nearest to the park should be closed, funneling everyone through tiny Norwood Junction. Police lined the streets as Manchester United fans, wearing Eric Cantona masks to commemorate an infamous incident here, marched on the grounds. There were plenty of families to be sure, but this was a crowd much closer to the English game of old, and there was an undercurrent of menace. (As it happens, Palace required the United fans to surrender their Cantona masks before entering; they responded by singing his name throughout the game.)
But there also was a real feeling of community. Some of it was of the cheesy fun-fair variety, with the Palace cheerleaders outside signing autographs and Kayla the eagle bopping about; some of it was genuine. Everyone seemed to know each other, and when the post-match press conference was set up in the middle of the refreshments stands and fans huddled to watch, well, it seemed all very natural. (I’m not sure I can see Mourinho putting up with that.)
Selhurst Park is also much, much smaller than Stamford Bridge: in fact, of the London clubs in the top-flight, only Fulham’s ground holds fewer people, and not by much. The fans around me groused about how packed it had become – one offered the opinion that life had been better in the Championship because then at least you got a seat – and there was a black-clad stand of so-called 'ultras' at the far corner. They pelted Wayne Rooney with coins as he took corner kicks, and the club is likely to be sanctioned for it. A fight broke out just underneath the press box and stewards were forced to wade in. And, of course, United won.
All 25,000 fans then were funneled to a single train station, watched by lines of yellow-clad police, and made to wait in the gloom and cold. They complained bitterly, and they had a point – I don’t recall stations near the Emirates or the Bridge getting similar treatment. I made it home around 11, about 15 hours after I had started my day.
Chelsea and Palace sit at extremes: one club is chasing the top prizes in the club game, the other is scraping just to survive in the top-flight. Both have their charms, but one feels like modern, top-dollar entertainment; the other has nostalgic charms but also feels as if it is quickly being left behind by a world that watches most of these games on television. It is hard to imagine the same horde of international visitors that descends on the Bridge or the Emirates to embrace a team like Palace or Queens Park Rangers. Like it or not, global television has made the Premier League immensely wealthy, but in doing so has sharply widened the gaps between the haves and the have nots.
There’s no easy answer to this problem, and some might argue convincingly that there is no problem at all. But looking at what leagues have done in America with salary caps and revenue sharing, designed not just to level the playing field but to create consistently top-tier entertainment experiences, makes one wonder when the Premier League will do the same.
If they do, yes, some of the grit that makes English football special might be lost. But what it would gain can be seen just off Fulham Broadway.
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