Crystal Palace Chairman Steve Parish On Selhurst Park, Twitter and His First Game

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Julie: How did you get into Crystal Palace?

Steve: At around four or five years old, I loved football. We used to play out; it was all we had to do, play in the back garden. I was born three doors down from my best mate, then we moved to the same Close after that, and I was with him every day for about fourteen years, playing football. So one day I was sitting on the edge of my bed and my dad came in. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had posters on the wall of different football teams and I said: ‘who do I support, dad?’ and in those days your dad wasn’t going to take you to Manchester, the car would never make it, you wouldn’t be able to get petrol after midnight… so he said: ‘you can support Palace or Millwall’. And I just thought Palace had a better kit.

J: What was the kit?

S: It was a Don Rodgers kit, which is a white kit with claret and blue, because it was an old Villa director that started the club, bit like the kit that we just got promoted in, white claret and blue with two stripes down the front.

I went to my first game against Chelsea. Dad took me, he wasn’t a football fan, his dad was a Millwall fan. I always thought later when I bought the club and he came to Millwall games that sort of deep down he was a bit torn, but he wasn’t that bothered about who I supported.

J: How was the game?

S: I remember it as one of the most terrifying experiences, right in the depths of football violence, before the ecstasy generation and everybody got loved up in the stands. In the seventies it was terrible, and it was Chelsea. They let too many people in, there was no real crowd control, and I was tiny, I thought I was going to get crushed. And the swearing! I had never heard anyone swear before, my dad didn’t swear, and the language was just… incredible.

J: Where did you sit?

S: I sat in what is now the Arthur Wait stand, cos that was where you would go if you weren’t season ticket holders, or you would just stand at the front, but I think we sat. We won. It was Jim Cannon’s debut and he went on to play nearly six hundred games for the Club. We got relegated that year, as we always do. I remember leaving at the end, still thinking I would be getting crushed.

J: That’s an exciting first game. From then on were you hooked?

S: Yes, but I couldn’t go every week. I had periods where I would go a lot, but my dad wasn’t that into it and there was always something else. By the time I was sixteen there were girls and nightclubs…

J: Were you still playing football when you were sixteen?

S: I played every single moment of every day when I was a kid. I was striker, winger. I wasn’t very good. Once it got to organised football, I was very small and skinny and not really strong. I was all right.

J: You were wiry.

S: [Laughs] Yeah let’s go with wiry.

J: Any other favourite players growing up?

S: After Don Rodgers, we had a fantastic team in the eighties, Terry Venables was manager. Malcolm Allison had come, changed the colours, changed ‘The Glaziers’ to ‘The Eagles’. Allison made Palace sexy. There was a TV programme; ‘Team of the eighties’ and a player called Vince Hilaire - one of the early black players he was one of my favourites, and he still comes down to the club now, great bloke. Ian Wright is my favourite ever player.

Malcolm Allison did something that most don’t do, he changed the image of the club, he had page three girls, it was all very rock and roll, and that’s been there ever since. I only found out later that the Eagle was meant to represent a phoenix rising from the flames, I just thought that he thought an eagle would be better than a glass house [laughs]. But we’re the Eagles now, and the fans chant the nickname.

J: How would you describe your bond to your team?

S: Football is an incredible bond. People don’t understand it. You don’t understand it yourself. When you fall in love at four years old, before you know about anything, the first thing you fall in love with is a football team, it’s an undying love. It can’t be broken. You can’t change football teams. I don’t know anyone who’s ever done that. When we were kids footballers were Gods, you didn’t have this access to famous people that you do now. You didn’t have this broad range of people famous for being, well, Kim Kardashian or somebody like that. You had to do something. Pop stars were massive too, because they were untouchable and you never met them. Everybody is so accessible now, there’s no real mystery anymore.

J: Would you say that there’s a stronger connection between the Palace fans and the club versus other fans and their clubs?

S: No I don’t think so. Probably one of the things that Palace hasn’t got going for it is that it’s not the name of a town. People have an unbelievable bond to their clubs, especially if it’s the name of a town and every football fan will think that their bond is the strongest. Being a football fan of any club is a relationship that was formed very young.

J: Why did you step forward to buy the club?

S: It was in trouble, you know, it was in administration.

J: Why you though?

S: Because nobody else was going to do it.

J: In the build up were you waiting for someone to step forward or were you always contemplating?

S: I think, I don’t know whether you post-rationalise things. I get a sense now that I knew that one day I would be involved in owning it. I don’t know why. I just always thought it. It wasn’t managed brilliantly over a long period of time. If you’re that interested in something and you’re built like me, you’ll always think: ‘I think I could do that better’. So when it got into trouble, and people approached me, I was worried about it, because I understood exactly what’s involved in it, the financial risks, all that kind of stuff, but I didn’t want to do it on my own. I work quite well in groups of people, you know, it gives you that extra layer, if you’re worried you’ve got that double check… I wanted to try to get some other people involved. If somebody had come along and said ‘I want to buy it and I want to turn it into the biggest club in the world’, I’d have said, ‘yeah, I’ll buy a box, I’ll come along, enjoy the ride’.

J: What did you think that you could do better?

S: I think the ability to say no. I’ve never been frightened to say no to people and I think in football people get killed by an unwillingness to say no. They want to please the manager or the fans, so they do things that aren’t logical, like paying big money for players. There’s another thing: your football club is a reflection of you. I think all football fans feel like that. Especially when you’re young, and things are going well – oh Palace will win! – Then things are going badly… It’s a reflection of you in terms of when you say to people: ‘Palace? Oh really?’ It’s a laughing stock at times, and the ground is run down. You feel like it’s doing you a disservice. We’re better than that. That’s how much it means to most football fans. You cannot separate yourself from it, you can’t disown it. I remember going to watch games in my thirties. I would walk in to Selhurst Park - which is a dump - and my heart would be beating, you know. You’re looking for that result, when you get involved with the game. People like Jim Piddock, Maxi Jazz, Eddie Izzard, Neil Morrissey, Jo Brand… as well as many, many other successful people in different walks of life like my partners, Martin, Stephen and Jeremy, all these people were all born in that area and have all gone to the four winds and they’re all bound by this thing, this love for this entity that represents their memories, roots, childhood and so many important things… when it wins it feels like you’re winning. It’s part of you. I remember somebody saying to me: why do you want to do this? [buy the Club] In the end I think it boils down to life doesn’t mean much, nobody knows what it means, but it certainly doesn’t mean whatever the microcosm of what you’re dealing with at the time means, but it means something to you. It has to mean something to you. If you don’t have anything that you love and care about, what have you got? You love and write about Morrissey and The Smiths.

J: They’re like my football team.

S: It’s not entirely rational, is it?

J: No, not entirely, but that’s where the real love exists. Are you just getting a chance to do what you love, at last?

S: Well, I’m not a spectacularly bright person. I was never going to get a First or be an amazing academic. I’ve met people who are astoundingly bright, but what I am capable of is caring about something. And when I care about something, and I enjoy it, it becomes so consuming for me, that I defy anybody to be better at it. If you care about something, you’ll worry about it. If you worry about it, you’ll want to get to the right answers. And you will. So it’s chicken and egg: to be good at something, I have to find something that I care about. I don’t have a choice of just going ‘oh I’m brilliant, I’ll just do that on half gas.’ Then I develop an emotional knowledge, knowledge that wouldn’t work well on a spreadsheet. I try to get amongst the problems of the Club to understand what everybody needs from it. The Club is a series of deals, whether it’s a deal for a player or paying a builder. Life is a series of deals. I care about it therefore it’s going to be something I’m good at and I will make a difference.

The beautiful thing about football clubs is that you never own one, you just look after it for a while. They are institutions, they will be going for a thousand years, so that’s great because you know that all you’ve really got to do is move it forward and get it somewhere better than where it was.

J: Are there other football chairmen, past and present, you admire?

S: Ron Noades was a controversial figure to some but hugely successful and I think very similar to me in many ways. There was a lot of cash in football at the time. He was fantastically successful with the club. Anybody can go out and spend more money than anyone else, go out and buy things, but look at Huw Jenkins in fourth division with a broken down stadium, he created something great. Make money, don’t spend all your money doing it. You have to go against popular wisdom, against all the agents that are ringing you every day, you’ve got to find your own path, be single minded. There are a few people who have achieved that over the years.

J: Do you like the direct access that the fans have to you via Twitter?

S: We’ve got two really healthy forums – CPFC BBS forums and the Holmesdale of course there’s Twitter and loads of social networks, I think it’s fantastic, yes I do like it, but it’s a double edged sword isn’t it, I suppose I’ve got a tiny idea of what it is to have any kind of public profile, how tough you have to be to expose yourself to those mediums. There’s listening to the fan base and learning what they want and how to improve things, but you’ve still got to filter the abusive side. All those things bring out the best and worst in society. With football, everything is laid bare. Emotions are laid bare. The bloke that said you were the best thing since sliced bread on the Friday then on Sunday morning thinks you’re the worst thing ever. It’s a really strange business because you’re publicly tested every week.

J: Does it get to you, or have you learned to put a barrier up to it?

S: You can’t let that not get to you. The hardest part is, when you’re trying to do so many things to move the club forward, and the thing in the end is all about the winning and losing. If you’ve lost a big game on Saturday then you have to talk about refurbing the bogs on Monday it can be hard to get motivated.

J: When you get down to watching the games, are you watching as a Chairman or as that little boy?

S: It’s a combination. There’s the passion of the fan, but there are differences because I know things. I know some of the secrets of football, which is there are no secrets [laughs]. The psychology of a football team - what the players are thinking - is a lot more important than other things. I’m a realist. I can overcome what I want and believe the evidence with my own eyes. I get quite irritated with fans who don’t see the reality, the ref’s decisions etc. During the game I feel the tension and the excitement gets to me. If it goes wrong, I just think: ‘I’ve got to do something, what am I going to do?’

J: You’re in the public eye, now more than ever. How do you cope with that?

S: Every time you get it wrong, you publicly get it wrong, and people remind you. Imagine you’ve gone to a meeting to pitch a bit of business, lost, gone home and know that you screwed it up. It’s not just you and the three people in the room that know. Everyone on Twitter is telling you you’ve done it wrong, people are ringing you up to tell you you’ve done it wrong… the forums are telling you…

J: Well you’re clearly not doing it wrong because in May you watched the team get promoted. Tell me the story of your experience that night.

S: I was at the game, in the Royal Box. Brilliant. The whole thing. On the back lawn I would relive the great games at Wembley, now, suddenly I’m in it. This kid from South London is taking a team to Wembley! Where shall we go training beforehand, what colour suits should the players wear, chatting to the manager about what we’re gonna do. In whatever way, I’ve contributed to them getting there. All my friends, Mark, Michael, Phil, Richard, my great mates from advertising, my daughter, her boyfriend, Neil Morrissey, Elton John, Eddie Izzard. An incredible day. If you had that dinner party, can you imagine? Throw in the people that have meant the most to you in your life, chuck in a few celebs, that alone would be an amazing day! Now your team is walking out at Wembley in front of 80,000 people. A team that you know – you know those boys, this one on a free transfer, that one from Norway for three hundred grand, you know them, remember the day they signed, you’ve got intimate knowledge of them. The whole day, building up to that tension of the game. We played really well. Jim Piddock at full time was like: ‘how are we not in the Premier League already?’

Then in extra time the penalty goes in, and time stands still. I was watching thirty-five seconds, and it took an hour to get to thirty-six seconds… and I’m thinking things, for the club, what a difference it makes, every minute is a ten million quid minute then one goes off the line and it looks like they’re going to score… and Mark Bright is sitting next to me, a great mate, a hero of mine when he played with Ian Wright for Palace, and he sits next to me every game. I said to him, ‘Brighty, I can’t breathe. I literally cannot breathe.’ And you know that the cameras are on you.

Some days just don’t have a ‘yeah but…’ There was no ‘yeah but’ to that day. It was completely magical, as a football fan the only downside was that I could cry for the Watford fans, even now… I can’t watch that penalty in case he saves it. There’s a bit of me that thinks, it didn’t really happen, he gets really close to the ball… Two lovely clubs. That could have been Palace, and I know it’s crushing. But it’s poignant for me because the Championship is hard. Stephen Browett’s working hard trying making fifteen grand for a beer festival, Kevin Day’s doing a comedy night for the academy, and make some money for Children In Need. It’s those things that are getting you by, existing on that. Suddenly some bloke from the Premier League hands you a bit of paper and says: ‘we’re going to give you x million on this day x million on that day .’

J: How are you going to change the Club?

S: We can change the Club, we can transform the Club. When I took it over, nobody expected anything. I want to improve the ground, bring in exciting players. I want to do something that will hopefully excite the fans. The problem I’ve got now is I’ve watched the Championship for over thirty, forty years. The stage we’re at, I describe as the difficult third album. Most pop stars have got the first album, then enough for a second one…

J: Now you’ve got the deal with EMI…

S: I’ve got to smash it out now. But it took me ten years to write my first two! [Laughs]. I don’t really watch the Premier League; it hasn’t been relevant. By the time you watch all the games then watch league one and league two to see if there’s a decent striker… there’s no time. So we’re in unchartered waters.

J: Will you spend some money on the Palace ground?

S: Absolutely. We have got to redevelop the ground. It’s a legacy for the Club. We need a modern facility. People won’t’ accept cold, wet, cheap food. They won’t take it anymore. We’re all spoiled now. There’s so much to do in London. In Bromley and Croydon we’ve got 900,000 people. Putting that into perspective you’ve got somewhere like Middlesbrough with 120,000 people. We’ve got a huge catchment. We need to build a stadium that will keep a lot of them in there, and that will take time, money and effort to make it matter. This is where it gets tougher.

J: I would love to talk more about football. How about a ‘part two’ interview half way through the season to update on your achievements with the Club?

S: I’d like that, yeah let’s do that.

This extract was taken from Julie Hamill’s interview with Steve Parish, originally published here

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