Crystal Palace: Our Blood Rivalry With Man United Must Come To An End

"Many decry the lack of atmosphere at Premier League stadia but that is a small price to pay for the sake of a life."
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"Many decry the lack of atmosphere at Premier League stadia but that is a small price to pay for the sake of a life."

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Crystal Palace: Our Blood Rivalry With Man United Must Come To An End

In the feverish build-up to today's match between Palace and Man United there has been a fair bit of tension between the two sets of fans. In fact we have moved from simmering resentment through outright hostility and we have ended up with open warfare, mainly conducted through Twittersphere and other social media channels. Barbs have been flying thick and fast through the ether just as Cantona was flying through the cold January air in 1995.

The battle royal has centred around the rumour that United fans will be wearing Cantona masks to the match, lauding their former hero at the very ground where he infamously took exception to Matthew Simmons’ foul-mouthed farewell after being sent off. This show of solidarity with one of their idols would, on the surface, be fair enough but there is more to the matter than just Eric’s martial art expertise and United fans’ hagiography of Le Roi.

Three months after Cantona’s stormy exit from Selhurst Park the two sides met again in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Villa Park when ill feeling was still running high (even though Cantona was not playing, having been suspended for eight months by the FA). The enmity between the fans created a palpable tension before the game and tragically a fight ensued at a pub in nearby Walsall, which ended up in the death of Paul Nixon, a 35 year-old Palace fan.

Nobody was convicted of any offence related to Nixon’s death and there is a brooding resentment amongst Palace fans that nothing has happened since. It feels as though this whole incident was swept under the carpet and filed under ‘football violence’ and generally forgotten about, which cannot be said of the Cantona kung-fu kick, which has passed into the rogues’ gallery of football.

I was at both matches and was in a prime position to see Cantona’s sly kick at Richard Shaw that led to his sending-off. The rumpus that broke out a minute later was out of my vision but of course I caught up with the pictures both on television and the next day when they were splashed all over the front pages. It was an “I was there” moment.

The facts are that Cantona was convicted of assault and irrespective of the Simmons’ dubious character and his right wing background, he was guilty of attacking someone and that attack took place in front of 25,000 people and the world press and television. To suggest, as some commentators did at the time, that Cantona should be exonerated as Simmons was a ‘nasty piece of work’ was both naïve and puerile. However much we might be provoked, assault is unacceptable.

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At the Villa Park semi-final I remember a rumour circulating that there had been trouble prior to the game and that a Palace fan had been seriously injured. There was conjecture as to what had happened but the sense of hostility was ratcheted up a few notches and the atmosphere was poisonous. The game ended as a draw, which was probably just as well because there was no excessive celebration or sense of loss. But when the details of what had happened to Nixon did see the light of day there was a sense of numbness. It was a “I wish I wasn’t there” moment.

In March 2005 Man United fans were travelling to Selhurst Park for a league match and the concept of ‘celebrating’ the 10th anniversary of Cantona’s kick was first mooted. The Palace stadium manager banned the gesture as inflammatory and one wonders if nine years further down the line the club should do so again. The United fans claim that this is just a way of commemorating one of the greatest players of modern times but there needs to be some acceptance that it could be insensitive and irresponsible.

The idea that Palace fans would sing Munich songs/ fly paper planes in retaliation is reprehensible. There is no room in a decent fans’ soul for any ‘celebration’ of the deaths of those connected with a rival club. One unnecessary death is one too many and respect should be shown by both sides to the feelings of the other. Just as Man United fans should never sing about the Hillsborough disaster, neither should Palace fans do so about Munich.

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Shankly’s most famous quote is one that resonates as it is both funny but also erroneous and points to a line that should never be crossed. Tribalism is part of football but brutalism should not be. It is instructive to compare the rancour of today which is predominantly conducted through Twitter barbs as opposed to lethal fights in pub car parks or physical assaults over advertising hoardings. Many decry the lack of atmosphere at Premier League stadia but that is a small price to pay for the sake of a life.

Follow Richard on Twitter, @RCFoster