Distance is relative for London's neighbouring clubs
“Depending on if you’re coming from Thornton Heath or Norwood Junction,” my friend’s text to me read, “you’ll approach a Sainsbury’s or a stand that I thought was a supermarket.” It was then that I realised my mistake. I was making my way to Selhurst Park for last Saturday’s Palace-Norwich game and had complacently assumed that boarding an Overground train to Crystal Palace would get me to the ground. Knowing that my friend had been to Selhurst Park before, I had consulted him about what the experience might be like. Considerate person that he is, he offered directions too and so I became aware I was travelling on entirely the wrong line.
Another friend — an old schoolmate and south London-based Norwich fan whom I had arranged to go to the game with — was looking at a map as he waited for me at the station. He was also aware of my mistake. After straightforward trips to see Leyton Orient and Barnet earlier on this season I had been lulled into a false sense of security about the proximity of London clubs to the stations that share their name. Whereas Underhill is visible from the train that carries you into High Barnet station at the end of the Northern line, and Orient’s Matchroom Stadium is a mere stroll from the stop for Leyton on the Central line, Selhurst Park is a considerable hike from Crystal Palace station.
As my friend had advised, both Thornton Heath and Norwood Junction are close to Selhurst Park, but the home of Crystal Palace is one-and-a-half miles from the eponymous railway station (I looked it up). I began to ponder that relatively trivial statistic even as Palace and Norwich contested the decent goalless draw that would lift the latter into the top two. It was the first time I had seen Norwich play under Paul Lambert and, although depth perception was a problem from a seat in row two, also a welcome opportunity to witness the manager’s famed diamond midfield. The away side moved the ball around impressively but Wes Hoolahan’s tendency to drift in from the left to take the ball off Henri Lansbury’s toes allowed Palace to attack the Norwich full back, Adam Drury, when the Eagles regained possession. In an open second half that the home side probably shaded, Palace failed to convert any of the several chances they created, even after introducing teenage tyro Wilfried Zaha (maybe he’ll have a blog named after him in fifteen years’ time).
Whether it was my mind’s way of fighting encroaching delirium brought on by the cold conditions — by now I was shivering violently against the wind buffeting the seats at the front of the Holmesdale Road stand — or not, though, I kept returning to that distance between ground and stadium. I wasn’t sure if 1.5 miles, in a conurbation such as London, was a significant expanse or not. Considering there are so many clubs competing for fans in the capital’s constituent boroughs, though, I suspected it could be.
On that subject, a map appeared on a Queen’s Park Rangers messageboard last year that attempted to colour-code London according to each part’s dominant football contingent. The exact methodology behind the Football Supporter Map of London’s creation is not divulged although “some guessing” is confessed to, meaning that what it portrays is more a starting point for debate than the result of exhaustive research. The result is described as a work in progress and, as such, the map’s appearance will more than likely change. Nonetheless, in quite an attractive way it shows how the city’s bigger clubs predictably enjoy more sprawling fan bases than their smaller rivals. For example, Chelsea’s following straddles that of Fulham, QPR, and Brentford in the west while West Ham hold sway across the capital’s eastern boroughs north of the river — save for an island with shades of support for Dagenham & Redbridge.
Returning to the troublesome distance of 1.5 miles, however, that at first inconsequential figure actually seems to convey a particular resonance for the club caught in the middle of the argument over which side (if any) will have the right to occupy the Olympic stadium in Stratford after the 2012 games. Leyton Orient face the prospect of either Spurs or West Ham playing their home games around one-and-a-half miles away from the Matchroom Stadium should either club’s proposals eventually get the go-ahead. The distance between Crystal Palace station and Selhurst Park, then, is roughly the breathing space that Orient could soon be afforded between themselves and a more dominant neighbouring club. Spurs’ supporters would appear to be strongly opposed to a move across the city but that is unlikely to enter the club’s thoughts as they build for an era of Champions League football. Furthermore, even if West Ham were to be relegated this season and still be in the Championship when their residency at the Olympic stadium began, their fan base would inevitably make more noise in the area around Stratford than Orient’s.
I have developed a soft spot for the Os because they were the first club I went to watch after moving to London. However the Football Supporter Map of London was drawn up, then, I sincerely hope that neither Spurs nor West Ham get the move they’re seeking. The solid portion of orange that currently denotes the League One club’s stronghold in east London should remain free of both claret and blue for some time to come.