An Arsenal view of a different London derby
Occasionally, I wonder how the Football League must appear to supporters of Premier League teams. Particularly the better ones. Particularly the one renowned for its glorious, technically superior football.
So who better to pass judgment on Neil Warnock’s return to Selhurst Park with the current best team in the entire Football League than Arsenal fan Julian Harris, the man behind the excellent Gingers For Limpar blog.
Queen’s Park Rangers supporters – there is a comments section at the bottom of this article which you may wish to utilise to get some things off your chest after reading this. Enjoy.
I am a traitor. Let me explain why.
Born in Camberwell, schooled in Dulwich, I was raised south of the Thames, roving around salubrious and exotic parts such as Norwood, Penge and Beckenham. As much of a Saaaf London beginning to life as one could feasibly imagine.
My first ever experience of live football occurred, predictably, at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace 0 Nottingham Forest 0, about 20 years ago. Us kids were allowed in a standing zone alongside the pitch, from where we gazed at its luminous, flood-lit green, and marvelled at the mud being flicked into the air by Gary Crosby’s studs as he sprinted along the touchline.
In spite of the lack of goals, it was a fantastical, romantic beginning. It was the first time I ever heard the booming, threatening male chorus of “the referee’s a wanker”; a song which my mate’s dad, displaying a bizarrely liberal attitude for a middle-class, married Asian doctor, actively encouraged us to sing in the car on the way home.
During that era Crystal Palace reached the FA Cup final, and a late spring blossom of red and blue ribbons decorated cars and houses as far as my little eyes could see. The optimism was electric, especially for a football-obsessed boy without the experience of decades of disappointment and drudgery. The dream was on, and everyone was part of it.
So, naturally, I started supporting Crystal Palace, right?
Wrong. I was already an Arsenal fan, and I still am.
Why? I don’t really know. I can’t remember the exact moment I chose Arsenal, and I’m wary of people who claim to have found their team from a sudden epiphany now stamped into their memory. Is that really how it happens? You may as well ask “when did you first want to slide your hand up a girl’s thigh?” I don’t know. It was more of a gradual thing, a developing interest.
Admittedly, snubbing Palace was not a big deal. Most kids at school “supported” Everton or Liverpool, but while they grew up to lack any real association with their supposed clubs (or, in some cases, later swapped them for more local teams) I at least supported a London side.
The capital, like the world, was becoming a smaller place with increased technology and wealth. A bus to Brixton, tube to Highbury Corner, and for under a tenner I’d be in the East Stand watching Merson, Wright, Adams. Two weeks after my A Level exams I moved all my teenage paraphernalia into a dingy bedsit in N5, and my defection was complete. I had crossed the divide. Swapped sides — physically, tribally, emotionally, like Ayn Rand’s migration from Soviet Russia to Freedom USA. Kind of.
Such is the gap between my Islington home and that of Crystal Palace that it took almost two hours to get to the strange, rainy outpost where a group of us had decided to watch the home game against QPR. Arriving a couple of minutes late, we stormed into a heaving, raucous away section, with hundreds of the thousands of QPR fans standing and bellowing.
A wonderful start, and most impressive as we fought through to our seats next to my mate’s QPR-supporting brother-in-law and nephew. We were with an Irish friend of ours who, like a man possessed, had flown over that morning just to see his boys in hoops. Don’t ask me why he supports QPR. No idea. Maybe something to do with sliding hands up nice Irish girls’ thighs.
The atmosphere was traditional and impressive, yet also reminiscent of the culture in the top flight — booming away support facing off a single block of loud home support. The Palace block next to the away fans was extremely loud (with a drum and everything) but the rest of the ground seemed dreary, with notable splodges of empty seats.
At half time the concourse was crammed full of fag-puffing West Londoners, casually ignoring the Draconian anti-smoking laws to the same degree that they’d dismissed the anti-standing regulations. Top stuff.
On the pitch, meanwhile, things had been less impressive. The last time I watched a game from the Arthur Wait stand was around 1995 for Wimbledon v Arsenal. The quality of football in this game was roughly on par with the Sunday league style hoof-fest that I witnessed back then.
First observation: Adel Taarabt looks fat, and certainly runs as reluctantly as a fat man. Moodily lumbering on the left wing, there was no evidence of the “frightening” talent than ‘Arry Redknapp had claimed to see in him. The only frightening thing about him was a lingering concern that he’d fall on a ball-boy.
Soon he swapped positions with supposed hitman Jamie Mackie, who had displayed the proverbial first touch of a rapist when presented with two early chances. And a particularly bad, clumsy rapist, at that. Such indelicacies went largely unnoticed, however, as the average first touch in this game went so far that you half suspected that it was a pass. A pass to the other team, of course.
As the drizzle drenched all around, the players indulged in classic kick-and-rush, with the shiny turf offering unlimited opportunities to slide in on the frequently loose ball, drawing cheers from the crowd. QPR increasing looked to the wings, pursuing the classic cross-and-head tactic in an effort to take the lead.
Palace, meanwhile, were just as bad yet far less organised. It took 40 minutes before I could figure out what formation they were playing — an apparent attempt at a 4-3-3, yet with a collection of youngsters who clearly haven’t understood how it works.
If it had worked, Palace could have dominated the centre of the pitch, but instead most of the loose balls fell to ex-Palace man Shaun Derry, QPR’s “veteran” midfielder who looks like he’s 50 and plays like he’s 65. Is this really the midfield quality that it takes to top England’s second division? Shaun Derry? Really?
The mediocre nature of QPR’s play was staggering, given their rapid ascent this season. “What exactly are they good at?” I enquired to my colleagues, and received no more than shrugs. Then suddenly through the drizzle came elucidation — an Edgar Davids back-pass was weighed down by the rain and pounced on by Mackie and Taarabt to make it 1-0 to QPR.
“That’s why we’re top of the league” boasted the away fans — and they were right. They’re top of the league because that is how bad the other teams are. Tragically, the same fans were soon singing “Ole!” when their team completed five — yes, FIVE — passes to feet. I counted. And they weren’t singing it ironically, either.
As the game went on and Palace exerted more pressure, my mate’s brother-in-law repeatedly shouted “KEEP THE BALL!” at his hooped representatives, seemingly unaware that this team are entirely incapable of and indifferent towards possession football.
He was right, at least, that this is what they should have done, and they paid the price for their lack of sophistication when Palace equalised with a nice bit of trickery from Zaha (presumably an American version of Saha … sorry) and a pull-back for Cadogan to score.
Quietly, I welcomed the goal — Palace under George Burley are at least trying to play good football with young players, and 1-1 seemed the least they deserved.
But QPR, for all their faults, have the steely determination of a Neil Warnock side and it wasn’t a huge surprise when target-man Helguson beat the not-very-tall Speroni to a hoofed-in cross and sent those around me into delirium.
Fair enough, fighting spirit is important, and QPR play to their strengths. But when the whistle blew I couldn’t help chuckling at the chorus of “we’re by far the finest team the world has ever seen.”
Sorry, QPR, but you’re really not. On that display, you’re not even in the top thousand.