Has The Fear Of Premier League Relegation Started To Outweigh The Reality?
It was only the 65th minute of Saturday’s game when Javier Hernandez worked the ball to Felipe Anderson on the edge of the Palace penalty area, but even as the Brazilian shaped to shoot there was an air of inevitability about what was coming next.
Anderson took one touch to set himself, and with one swing of his right foot sent the ball swirling menacingly towards Wayne Hennessey’s goal, the shot following the trajectory of its creator’s boot as it started outside the Palace goalkeeper’s left-hand post before bending back towards the top corner.
As the ball evaded Hennessey’s stiff, outstretched arms and nestled in the back of the net, a stunned silence descended over the away end as the rest of the London Stadium erupted in a mixture of joy and disbelief, not quite able to comprehend the turn around their West Ham team had completed just twenty minutes after emerging for the second half a goal down.
It was at this point, as the away side trudged back to the halfway line stripped of their confidence and composure, that I couldn’t help but wonder when it stopped being all that fun watching Palace in the Premier League.
It would be easy to overreact at the end of a week when the Eagles have been picked apart by their biggest rivals before folding miserably in the second half of a London derby, but at a time when the gap between the top six and those outside it is always growing, is there really that much else in the top flight to look forward to?
Palace haven’t beaten a current inhabitant of the top six since a 2-1 win against Chelsea in October last year gifted us the first three points of Roy Hodgson’s tenure. Victories against the likes of Huddersfield, Burnley and Fulham might temporarily quench the thirst for average wins over average sides, but otherwise fans of teams like Palace can only really look forward to getting one over their rivals or going on a cup run that allows them to dream of actually winning something.
So far this season, Palace have come up short in both departments. Last Tuesday’s capitulation on the south coast was preceded a few weeks earlier by defeat to Middlesbrough in the last sixteen of the Carabao Cup, ultimately passing up – with all due respect – a fairly winnable quarter-final tie against Burton Albion. The Eagles might have won at the Riverside Stadium, but played a weakened team because Premier League survival is now deemed more valuable than winning a cup competition – more valuable to the club, that is, but not necessarily to the fans.
What Palace now have to show for this season is very much what they’ve had to show at the same stage of almost every campaign since getting promoted back to the top flight. The Eagles are once again entrenched in a relegation battle, left looking around for three teams that might be bad enough to finish below them when the final whistle sounds in May. Post-Christmas miracles have come to our rescue in the past, but at what point does that stop being sustainable? At what point will we be waiting for a revival that never comes? It might be this season, it could be the next, but Palace make the same mistakes far too often for such mismanagement to go unpunished in the end.
Each new season is preceded by hope more than expectation, but the longer Palace survive in the Premier League the more that hope turns to frustration when progress isn’t being made. The problem is that nine or ten teams set out with the same ambitions as Palace, but for every club in and around us exists a ceiling for what they can achieve. The hope for those teams is that they can ‘do a Leicester’ or – perhaps more realistically – ‘do a Burnley’, breach the top ten and force their way into the Europa League. As the Clarets showed at the start of this season, however, even that can prove to be a hindrance for clubs with thinner squads.
One alternative is to stumble to somewhere close to the 40-point mark and hope it is enough to stave off the increasingly dreaded consequence of relegation. Some this season have pointed to the likes of Bournemouth, Watford and Brighton as beacons for the progress that can be made, but every mid-table team that enjoys a surge in form eventually breaks a symbolic point barrier – the one where the objective of safety has been achieved – before ending up somewhere between 8th and 16th.
The final alternative, of course, is to suffer relegation and drop down to the Championship where the schedule is more gruelling, the attendances much lower and the financial reward incomparable with the Premier League. But – and I intend this is the least sadistic way possible, would that really be so bad?
Time eventually catches up with teams that stand still during lengthy stays in the Premier League, and Palace would by no means be the first were they to suffer that fate at the end of this season. Stoke, Swansea and West Brom are the most recent examples of that happening, and before them were the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland, and even before them were Bolton and Blackburn.
Like Palace, those teams spent several seasons barely keeping their heads above water before succumbing to a fate that – even by the law of averages – felt fairly inevitable. As fans we have a tendency to underestimate just how much a relegation battle can take out of a group of players, only for them to have to embark on another one just three months later. Eventually it’s only natural that the motivation dwindles, the luck runs out, and one of the league’s perennial strugglers times their annual survival charge just a little too late.
Of those aforementioned clubs – or the ones that weren’t relegated last year, at least – none have so far returned to the Premier League. For them now, though, every win feels like it’s building towards something greater, rather than merely serving as a means to avoid something less. The latter of those scenarios is where Palace currently sit, with every triumph against a team around them simply serving to temporarily rebuild the buffer between themselves and the edge they share the same relationship with as a student does with their overdraft.
If Palace were to get relegated this season, it wouldn’t stop people from going to games – the emotions that come with being a football supporter exist beyond the realm of the Premier League. We might not get to spend £30million on players anymore, but a club’s latest recruit will be passionately scrutinised whether they’ve arrived on a free or for a record fee. We might end up watching Sharp instead of Salah, Keogh instead of Kane and Hugill instead of Hazard, but at least the gap wouldn’t feel so great – at least every three points would feel like a means to a more tangible end.
I’m in no way advocating that Palace lose every game for the rest of the season and voluntarily set up camp in the bottom three, but merely suggesting that the thing we’ve been trying to avoid for nearly six seasons isn’t the apocalyptic disaster it’s made out to be. Perhaps the financial folly of the Premier League has brainwashed many into thinking that relegation is much worse than it actually is – perhaps it is the thought, the sheer fear of going down that heavily outweighs the reality.