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Features

The Decaying Dream Factories

Words by Josh Warwick
Illustration by Philippe Fenner

There is something reassuringly shite about Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park; reassuring in the sense that it’s old and decrepit but that’s ok because, let’s be honest, modern grounds are miserable and spirit-crushing and have an annoying smugness in the way they always offer unobstructed views of the pitch and easy half-time access to the locally-sourced burgers and craft beer.


Not Selhurst. It’s a relic, a proper shit hole, the very personification of a club that has lurched helplessly between the divisions so often that long-term development has never been a possibility. Barely touched by the riches of modern football, it’s the perfect antidote to the gloss of the Sky Sports era. In fact, the only gloss in this grubby corner of SE25 is the shimmer of the stinking urine reservoirs that gather on the floor of the men’s bogs on a match day.


Without being too Nick Hornby about the place, watching football there is a welcome reminder that, despite everything, the game still appeals to our most basic, tribal desires and that no, actually, heated seats and big screen replays don’t count for anything. So it seems entirely appropriate that glorious, awful Selhurst Park was the setting for the Premier League’s least watched game. On January 26, 1993, 3,039 people with, literally, nothing better to do filtered through the turnstiles to watch Wimbledon lose to Everton.


Looking back at the footage from that midweek encounter, it’s the echoes of occasional lonely shouts you notice first – that and the pitch, which looked like the Somme on a rainy day circa 1916.


The game itself was decent enough though. Everton won 3-1 with goals from Tony Cottee (two) and Ian Snowdon. Gladiators host John Fashanu bagged a consolation for the hosts. There was also a mass brawl caused by a quite filthy Snowdon challenge, the culprit himself crawling through players’ legs to escape the subsequent melee. Wimbledon would finish one point and one position higher (12th) than the Toffees come May, although within a matter of years, the romance of their ascent through the divisions would turn sour with the club ripped up and moved to Milton Keynes.


The match fell in the bleak midwinter of the inaugural Premier League. Division One’s shiny replacement was awash with cash – not by today’s standards, of course, but the five-year £305 million deal with BskyB was at that time the largest agreement in the history of British sport. The impact though of the game’s new-found wealth had yet to filter through the entirety of the top division and so football in England was still bad enough to provide Vinny Jones with a living.


In South London, Wimbledon were in the second year of an unpopular groundshare with Crystal Palace, having left Plough Lane in 1991 following the publication of the Taylor Report, which required stadiums to be all-seater – a challenge the Dons board claimed was too expensive to satisfy.


“If going to places like Highbury was a culture shock for us, then coming to us was more of a culture shock for the other teams,” recalls Lawrie Sanchez, the scorer of Wimbledon’s winning goal in the 1988 FA Cup final.


“The changing rooms and surroundings weren’t the best, and the ground was very intimate and intimidating. But eventually we had to leave. An all-seater stadium with a minimum capacity was a requirement for the Premier League.”


And so it was that Wimbledon relocated six miles away to Selhurst Park, a ground that already wore the withered look of neglect and disappointment. And never more so than when its new tenants were at home.


Wimbledon were responsible for virtually every sub-10,000 crowd in the early years of the Premier League, averaging just 8,405 fans during 1992/93, with away supporters regularly out-numbering those of the home side. Not that they cared. Former player and current AFC Wimbledon manager Neil Ardley says their lack of support helped fuel the club’s fuck you mentality.


“We used to laugh because the only times we sold out Selhurst Park was when we played the big clubs,” he says. “There would be 8,000 Wimbledon fans and 18,000 supporting Man United.


“We were used to it. We had a tough-minded group of players. We had that mentality where we didn’t care what people said, we didn’t care what they did, we just demanded a lot of each other.”


Wimbledon were not a complete anomaly though. Small crowds weren’t unusual in the early days of the Premier League. The legacy of the violence of the 70s and 80s had prevented the notion of family-friendly football taking root, while Oasis, Baddiel and Skinner, Dani Behr and Danny Baker had yet to make the game cool.


The grounds were smaller, too. There was Boundary Park, Ayresome Park and The Dell. These were the days before Old Trafford’s expansion, before the Emirates, the Stadium of Light and the Etihad. In 1992/93, Liverpool recorded the highest average gate – 37,009 – which, 25 years on, would rank as only the ninth largest. The total attendances for matches that season was 9.7million. In 2015/16, that figure stood at 13.8m – and this season it will be higher still, with West Ham moving to the London Stadium and Anfield’s capacity increasing by 8,000.


And on the pitch, the top players had yet to arrive. Transfer fees were modest, particularly in comparison to Serie A, which at that time was still comfortably Europe’s most glamorous division. Shortly before the season began, newly promoted Blackburn Rovers signed Southampton’s 21-year-old striker Alan Shearer for a new British record of £3.3m, a quarter of what it cost Villa to buy Ross McCormack last summer. Elsewhere, fees of £2m – these days barely enough to prise a seven-year-old from Barcelona - were sufficient to persuade Arsenal to sell David Rocastle to Leeds United, Liverpool to part company with Villa-bound Dean Saunders, and Forest to let Teddy Sheringham leave for Spurs. In Italy meanwhile, Juventus were splurging £14m on Gianluca Vialli and £8m on David Platt, Inter were signing Igor Shalimov and Darko Pancev for a combined £20m, and AC Milan were forking out £24.5m for the signatures of Jean-Pierre Papin, Gianluigi Lentini and Dejan Savicevic.


But back to that January night at Selhurst Park. The fixture, not televised, was part of a full mid-week programme, which included some notable results, including Coventry’s 5-2 win at Ewood Park and Ipswich 2-0 victory at Spurs. Yep, the Premier League was so shite back then that Coventry could score five times away from home.


After defeat to Everton, Wimbledon would go on to take 25 points from their next 11 games, securing their place in the top flight for the eighth successive year. Everton would lose their next four and continue their club-in-decline, mid-table stumble (for the next two decades, as it turned out).


It’s perhaps apt that Wimbledon were involved in this (unwanted) record match; a club that would soon after be torn apart by the greed that was to become a hallmark of the Premier League era. Less than ten years later, its stock had sunk so low, and its fans so disenchanted, that a second tier match with Rotherham drew a crowd of 849.


So what significance should we attribute to the story of January 26, 1993? As the Premier League turns 25, English football can reflect on a quarter of a century of uninterrupted growth. The game in this country is consumed like never before. Stadiums are enormous and usually full. The Premier League is a global brand so ubiquitous that there are children in Cambodia who have actually heard of places like Hull and Middlesbrough. What a time to be alive.


Meanwhile, clubs are able to enjoy the kind of brand loyalty even Apple can only dream of. But there is a growing sense we may be close to reaching peak popularity. How much more can we take? How many more games can we watch? Why does Jonathan Pearce piss me off so much? The Premier League pill has squeezed the serotonin from our brains so relentlessly that we might soon have nothing left to give.


And what of the decaying dream factories like Selhurst? The last outposts of old football are a dying breed. West Ham fans lament the fact every other week. Crystal Palace, now they’ve avoided relegation, will surely replace the appalling sight lines of the Arthur Wait before much longer – and we’ll all be the poorer for it. Perhaps Wimbledon v Everton in 1993 is a parable for our times, a reminder that, back then, the players may have been average, the stadiums crap and the pitches horrific, but the game - all of it - was ours.