English Football

Don’t build the Palace on sand

Palace (450x199)It wasn’t that long ago that Crystal Palace were on the brink of collapse,  but thankfully, the club turned things around and returned to the Premier in the summer. It’s good to see, although their stay in the Premier may be fleeting. In most people’s minds, Palace are a yo-yo club and in a crowded metropolis will always be eclipsed by the big four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham. Cutting into the club’s so-called catchment area of 700,000 will always be hard when you can latch onto Stamford bridge quite easily from South London.

Palace are talking about taking the capacity of Selhurst Park to 40,000 in order to snare more fans from the near three quarters of a million latent supporters roaming around the area. It’s a little misguided and very much a “chicken and egg” argument. Do Palace really need a 40,000 stadium? The short-term answer is “no way”, but the club’s Chairman, Steve Parish, eyeing how Swansea City have flourished since moving to a new stadium and setting a new benchmark for middle-ground success, believes that Palace need a bigger capacity to survive in the Premier. That may be true, but a less-than-half empty 40,000 ground is no use to anyone.

While it’s true that Swansea is a modern success story, Parish may be underestimating the size of the task when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of metropolitan football fans who have plenty of alternatives to a trip to Selhurst. There is a reason why clubs like Millwall, Palace and Charlton have never [consistently] broken through the hegemony of London football. It’s largely to do with the power of the bigger clubs and the changing demographics of London. And to further complicate the issue, youngsters in London don’t just support local clubs, they are roaming around in Manchester United and City and Liverpool shirts too, not to mention Barcelona and Real Madrid. Palace, and their South London neighbours are just not too sexy for their shirts, despite their similarity to Barca!

Palace should be given credit, however, for wanting to invest some of the windfall they will receive, for being part of the rock and roll circus that is the Premier, on their stadium. Too often it goes straight into the [offshore] bank accounts of the players. But at the same time, building a ground that far exceeds current requirements – Palace’s average crowd last season was 16,933 and in 2013-14, it will undoubtedly be in excess of 20,000 –  may be a little foolhardy. Over the club’s entire history, Palace’s attendances have averaged over 20,000 on only 10 occasions with the golden period between 1969 and 1974. The highest-ever average is 30,167 in the 1972-73 campaign. Most importantly, in an era when gates are a lot higher than they were 20 years ago, the past decade has seen Selhurst Park attendances average little more than 17,000. Would it have been higher if the capacity was higher? No – you’ve seen the figures, Selhurst has not always had a sub-27,000 capacity, 51,000 is the record attendance at the ground.

Parish and his colleagues should also be complimented for revealing they will not gamble on spending big sums of money on players now they are in the Premier. This suggests a commonsense approach, but will surely accelerate their return to the Championship. They have looked at QPR’s spending spree and come to the conclusion that a huge (and speculative) outlay doesn’t always mean survival.

The club is not putting a timeframe on the redevelopment of Selhurst Park, so it could be that they will “test the water” in the Premier and take it from there. They would be wise to do so. But set the bar lower – 30,000 would be more than enough for a club that has, traditionally, only (at best) 60%-filled its home ground.

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