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FIFIELD ON PALACE, ALBION AND TOP-FLIGHT SURVIVAL

6 March 2019

Paul Hazlewood
Dominic Fifield
Dominic Fifield, the London football correspondent of The Guardian, might easily have grown up in Brighton as an Albion fan. Instead his parents opted to buy a house in a different part of the country and he started supporting his local team – Crystal Palace. As the poet Philip Larkin said, ‘They **** you up, your mum and dad.’
 
“My parents came back from abroad when I was two and a half and we stayed in Belsize Park up in London,” he said. “But they were looking for places to buy and it came down to a straight choice between Brighton - somewhere in Preston Park, I believe - and a place in South Norwood. 
 
“They went with the latter, actually a few streets from Selhurst Park. You can see the Holmesdale from upstairs and you can see the house from the upper deck of the Holmesdale. So Palace were very much the local club. But yes, I might have been a Brighton fan in a different world.”
 
However, despite following that lot up the road since the 1980s, he is seldom seen wearing a black hoodie and rarely brings flares into the press box, even at the Amex, where he is a frequent and welcome visitor. Whisper it quietly, but Albion and Palace fans in the media get on pretty well most of the time.
 
“I love going to the Amex because the people are so friendly,” he admits. “I get on well with Paul, the press officer, and have done interviews through him. I would hope that he treats me in the professional sense as a non-Palace fan. Well, I know he does, although there is inevitably laughing and joking and ribbing. After the Amex game in December he said ‘Bad luck’ with a big smirk on his face, but that’s fine. It’s just a football match. 
 
“I admire Brighton and their supporters and one of my best friends in journalism, Paul Hayward, is a fan. Brighton were up against it in a way that Palace fans should be able to empathise with after their financial troubles in 2010 or 1999, and it’s good to see that they found somewhere to build this sparkling new arena and rebuild the club. The Lancing training facility is the envy of a lot of clubs, certainly of Crystal Palace. 
 
“They have made brilliant progress and have a fan in charge whose heart and soul is in Brighton and Hove Albion, which is what every fan wants for their club. So there is a lot to admire there but it doesn’t make the rivalry any less serious. In some ways, welcoming Brighton fans to what they perceive as 'crappy old Selhurst Park' and sending them back defeated is even more special when you think of the progress they have made in recent years!” 
 
Back in 1980s Norwood, football crept up on the Fifield household. “Neither of my folks were at all into football and they were a bit shocked, having bought the house in summer, that a few months later all these people turned up on a Saturday afternoon and the roads were suddenly all clogged up with traffic. 
 
“Having said that, my mum is now a season ticket holder because she was Simon Jordan’s dentist and he very kindly bought her a season-ticket. Well, I suppose it was kind. But, having Charlton and then Wimbledon sharing Selhurst, it meant that there was traffic every weekend. We had a few run-ins with Millwall fans during the groundshare with Charlton – the greenhouse never recovered. 
 
“We caught the tail end of the big crowds who were going to see the so-called team of the eighties, then as crowds declined generally, it was 8,000, or 15,000 when they were in the top division. But for a schoolkid it was quite good. On a school night when I wasn’t allowed to go, I could open the window to get the atmosphere and have Capital Gold on so that Jonathan Pearce could tell me the grim news. 
 
“I’ve been going since the mid-eighties and there have never been any tedious spells. There has always been something happening – a promotion battle or a relegation struggle or facing financial oblivion. It has never been dull, and I presume Brighton fans would say the same, about the same period. 
 
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“I was lucky enough to see Steve Coppell’s team that finished third in the old first division, Wright and Bright, Gray and Thomas in midfield, Young and Thorn, Shaw and Humphrey, Nigel Martyn – playing pragmatic football, but good enough to make the top three. Then the roller-coaster kicked in, really from the moment the sold Ian Wright to Arsenal in 1991.” 
 
Coppell left in 1993 after Palace were relegated with 49 points, still a Premier League record. Four promotions and as many instant relegations followed, as well as two periods of administration.   
 
“I worked for Palace for a year post-university during one of those Premier League seasons, as programme editor and press officer, and all the talk was of how we were going to go places under Mark Goldberg, who was buying the club that year. He was going to bring in Terry Venables, big-money signings, there was going to be a link-up with Juventus – all that manner of nonsense. The most ridiculous things happened, from making Attilio Lombardo manager to signing an overweight Thomas Brolin. 
 
“And then, the next thing you know, you are in administration for 18 months. Surviving and staying up at that time was probably as big an achievement in its way as finishing third. From a distance of 21 years you can see it as a colourful episode but at the time it was dramatic. Or traumatic.” 
 
Another descent into administration took place in 2010, the resulting points deduction leaving Paul Hart’s team needing a draw away to Sheffield Wednesday to stay in the Championship. “Weirdly, it reinforces the bond there when you go to Hillsborough, knowing that if you lose you’re not only going to get relegated to the third tier but also most likely the takeover that’s going to take you out of administration could fall through. In the same way that Brighton did when they faced losing the ground and relegation into non-League.” 
 
After so many ups and downs, few people expected an extended stay in the Premier League when Palace went up via the play-offs in 2013. 
 
“I don’t think any fan thought it was going to happen that time,” Dom says. “Ian Holloway took us up but when he left in October we had lost seven out of eight league matches. They were desperate times, with goals being conceded left, right and centre. They had bought 15 players in summer in an attempt to get something approaching a 25-man squad but it was so random that they bought a French left back, Florian Marange, who didn’t even make the 25. 
 
“Unlike a Brighton, Palace had no structure in place. They had been taken over in 2010, spent the first year fighting relegation, the second in mid-table mediocrity, then suddenly Dougie Freedman and Holloway conjured this promotion from nowhere, based on Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie and a load of journeymen, including a prolific Glenn Murray, of course. 
 
“The trouble was that we’d sold Zaha to Manchester United in January 2013 and borrowed him back for the remainder of the season but as soon as we won promotion he was off to Old Trafford, and Murray, after scoring 30 goals, got injured against Brighton before we got to the Premier League so he didn’t play at first. 
 
“They had no right to stay up but did so because Tony Pulis came in after Holloway and made them difficult to beat. But what is remarkable is that although they have stayed up ever since, they haven’t done it with any security in the manager’s position. They have constantly changed. There was Neil Warnock, Pardew, Sam Allardyce came in, Frank de Boer and now Roy Hodgson.
 
“In the same way that Chelsea have thrived on change, Palace have in their own way as well, although they haven’t changed the style so much. They now realise that their forte is still defensive organisation and counter-attacking football. And they have the tools to hurt people that way, even in the Premier League. It’s the longest we’ve ever stayed in the top flight let alone the Premier League and I don’t think anyone saw that coming at Wembley in 2013.”
 
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So after all this time at the top, is Selhurst Park ever going to be upgraded? 
 
“History suggests that I have to be slightly cynical about it all. When I worked there, there was a model of what Selhurst had been going to look like under Ron Noades in the reception area. It was fantastic, it looked a bit like the Stadium of Light. But it was never vaguely close to happening. 
 
“The Arthur Wait stand, as Brighton fans will know, is still pretty dismal as an away supporters’ area and the main stand is pretty poor too - better than it was, but with pillars in the way of the view from a lot of seats. It’s not what Steve Parish and the board want the experience to be like. 
 
“But I like the plans. If they could just get them through the planning process, that would be the legacy of this stay in the Premier League. We have brought amazing players to the club but that is all short-term these days. The training ground has improved, they have just bought a site for the academy, which they will need to fall back on when times inevitably turn hard again, but the stadium has to be developed. It has to show signs that the club has been in the Premier League. 
 
“What they want to do is magnificent, but they will have to start on the Arthur Wait very soon after that, because it is not fit for purpose. The problem with all long-term projects is that they rely on short-term success and to buy short-term success, Palace are spending an awful lot of money. 
 
“The wage bill is astonishing for a club of Palace’s size, but I don’t think they are overspending to the extent that Portsmouth did, and they have assets too.  When you produce a player from your academy who goes into the Premier League and excels to the extent that Aaron Wan-Bissaka has, then you’ve got a £50m player and technically that would finance a chunk of the stadium rebuild. It’s a difficult balancing act but they are in a better position to redevelop Selhurst than they have ever been so it looks as though they could actually do it.”
 
Zaha Palace 2018.jpg
 
In all the time he has been supporting Palace, who is his favourite player? Please don’t say Wilfried Zaha. “Wrighty was always my hero because he was incredible to watch, such raw talent. He had an incredible eye for goal and could shoot from any angle. He personified that team that rose from the second division to finish third. But Zaha has eclipsed him.”
 
You had to spoil it, didn’t you?
 
“In an age where south London is a difficult place to live and for kids to grow up, I think he is an inspiration to a lot of people. I know he is vilified by opposing fans up and down the country but he is just really, really good. Palace have a proper talent in their ranks, a player who could get into any Champions League team and make an impact.”
 
For how long? “I have long since taken the view that I am just going to enjoy it while it lasts because I can’t see how they can keep him much longer. Even with his occasional shows of petulance, he has just been thrilling to watch and to think that he is home-grown adds to it all. He personifies this team and what they have achieved in the past six years as Wrighty did the other one.” 
 
If Zaha could get into any Champions League team, why does he think it didn’t work out for him in Manchester? “I don’t think he was ready for it. He was from a family that had come over from the Ivory Coast into that south London melting pot, in some ways a very difficult area, where you have to be strong, a certain type of character, and you need a support system. But suddenly he was taken away from all that. 
 
“He was 20 when he left but still a kid and he was deposited at the other end of the country, at one of its biggest clubs, where the manager [Alex Ferguson] who signed him had just left. I don’t think a lot of people understood him at the time. He needed to be indulged and still is indulged at Palace. But he wasn’t at United because he was a small fish in a big pond. 
 
“Strangely, I think that Roy Hodgson, who is in his 70s and has worked all over the world, does get Zaha. He does understand where he’s coming from, certainly in a football sense, and United never did. I suspect someone at United curses their decision to let him go for a pittance really. He has proved that, with a bit of love and, yes, a bit of indulgence, he is a top-quality player.” 
 
 
Which brings us to this weekend’s A23 Classico, with Palace no doubt thirsting for revenge after their 3-1 defeat at the Amex. “It will be a spiky affair,” Dom says. “Whatever your views on whether the rivalry has been manufactured or not, it does exist, it is there, and that is all that really matters. It is very evident if you attend a game between the two clubs. If people think it is fabricated because of the distance between the clubs, then Leeds – Manchester United is fabricated as well.”
 
And there has been no discernible pattern to the four matches played over the past two seasons.  “The game at Selhurst last season could easily have finished 3-3 or 3-4 or 4-3. It was a game between two clubs who had forgotten how to defend on the afternoon despite it being their forte for the rest of the season. 
 
“The contrast between that and the rather drab, cautious nil-nil at the Amex was extreme. But the game there this season was bizarre, the way Palace capitulated despite being up against ten men. It all started with a very dodgy penalty to you though.”
 
That, of course, is a matter of opinion. But all agree that we want more derby controversy next season and many more after that.
 
“We both want to be competing against each other in the Premier League and let’s hope that happens next season. I think Brighton will be absolutely fine. I genuinely believe that the bottom two have gone and that Cardiff will follow them.” 

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