Crystal Palace FC co-chairman Steve Parish on where Eagles dare
For supporters of Crystal Palace, life always seems to be a bit of a roller-coaster. Saved from the brink of oblivion last summer, hopes were high that the Eagles might soar once again, but this season hasn’t quite gone according to plan either; or at least not as yet anyway. We meet up with the club’s new co-chairman, Steve Parish, a lifelong supporter of Palace, to find out what he’s got up his sleeve
Residents across Surrey have often been known to curse over-adventurous foxes, but you’d have thought such worries were beyond the remit of a football club owner. Just lately, however, barren patches have been appearing on the otherwise pristine pitch of Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park – and they are nothing to do with the fierce tackles made every home match.
“Foxes get attracted here by the rubbish that builds up in the stands and one of them seems to have worked out how to jump the fence,” says new co-chairman and lifelong Palace supporter, Steve Parish, whose CPFC 2010 consortium saved the club from liquidation last summer.
Some of the sterner Palace fans would argue that pretty much sums up the club’s form this season so far. But then life with the Eagles, a team so engrained into football in Croydon and east Surrey, is never simple. Mind you, after the recent financial roller-coaster, however, perhaps they should be grateful there is still a club at all.
“I would never have become a football chairman if Palace hadn’t been in the situation they were,” says Parish, 45, who is more accustomed to life as chief executive of marketing company TAG Worldwide. “My wife asked me why I was doing it, and, well, you need things in your life that you care about, don’t you? All four of us care about the club deeply and when it looked like they were running out of options, we thought we best do something about it. It’s in your heart, isn’t it?”
In the boardroom
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We step into a chilly boardroom that somehow doesn’t quite muster the glamour of a club, which despite currently finding its feet again, spent a number of years at the top of the game.
“The ground’s got a bit rundown,” admits Parish. “A lot of it has been bodged together over the years.”
Nevertheless, when he teamed up with fellow supporter Martin Long, and Steve Browett and Jeremy Hosking, to form CPFC 2010, this heap of bricks and mortar just to the north of Croydon was integral to their plans. Previously, club and ground had been owned by unconnected parties, but finally they were unified and the Eagles were once again in control of their own destiny.
“The biggest asset a football club has is the land the stadium’s on,” says Parish. “In an ideal world, we’d build a purpose-built stadium right now, and there’s a couple of interesting options available elsewhere* that we’ve got to exhaust before we think about redeveloping Selhurst Park.”
As proven when Wimbledon decided to relocate to Milton Keynes and the FA deemed the seemingly irreplaceable Twin Towers surplus to the requirements of a new national stadium, fans can be resistant to change.
“You’ve got to be sensitive and we wouldn’t do anything without consulting fans first,” says Parish. “At the end of the day, they’re the people who come through the turnstiles every week. But, in football, your gate money is your second biggest revenue after TV, so we’ve got to look at the options. We got 21,000 for a friendly against Chelsea this summer, so the potential’s there.”
His ambition is clearly apparent, but a season that started full of hope is threatening to crumble, with results leaving the club towards the foot of the Championship. Certainly, competing in a tight league with an administration ravaged squad, which saw a number of key players leave pre-season, hasn’t made for an easy start to the consortium’s reign.
“That’s the problem with football, isn’t it?” he laughs. “You’ve got all these plans and then results don’t go your way and you start to wonder whether you’re fiddling while Rome burns. There’s no magic wand, you’ve just got to keep believing. When you lose, you do feel responsible and obviously you don’t have anyone to moan about down the pub any more.
“I remember walking out of Charlton, in 2005, when they scored in the last ten minutes to relegate us, and there was a kid crying, walking along with his dad – absolutely bawling his eyes out. I patted him on the head and said, ‘you better get used to it, mate’. Life as a Palace fan is emotional and very rarely dull!”
One such corkscrew in the Crystal Palace roller-coaster was the signing of 37-year-old Dutch legend Edgar Davids. In the dusk of his career, he surely still represented a brave new era for the team; someone to glue together the young stars and a name that would make the world sit up and take notice of what was going on in this corner of South London – as well as strike fear into opponents with his trademark goggles. As things turned out, however, he made barely six appearances before being moved on. In hindsight, was it the right move?
“Whenever you bring someone in and it doesn’t work out, it’s always the wrong decision, isn’t it?” says Parish. “What fans have to realise is that you’re never going to get it right all of the time. It’s not just whether they’re a good player, there’s a whole load of other factors that go into making a player perform well. Robert Pires signed for Aston Villa in the Premier League in November; he’s 37, too. So Edgar’s age really has nothing to do with it. He’s fit, he wants to play, he’s training with Ajax, there was no reason for him not to be good enough for this league now.
“Unfortunately, just after he arrived, his dad died, which had a big effect on him, and he didn’t train for a few weeks. In the end, with where we are in the league, you can’t take risks. We didn’t get him as a gimmick, we didn’t get him as a way to sell shirts – the same way that Pires is at Villa and Scholes is still running Manchester United, we genuinely felt he’d bring something extra to our team.”
Historically, Palace has made a reputation for a consistently excellent youth academy, churning out starlet after starlet from the Croydon area, which has allowed them to punch above their weight. With Chelsea having recently moved in at Cobham and football academies generally getting more aggressive with their poaching, I wonder if there is a danger the crown might slip?
“We’ve got four or five first team regulars from our academy and you’re not going to find that in many teams.” says Parish. “We’ve still got a very healthy production line – and Gary Issott, who runs the academy, does a fantastic job; it’s one of the reasons we got involved. Look at it this way, would you rather be a 23-year-old at Manchester United with a few league cup games under your belt or someone like Wilfried Zaha who at 17 is a first teamer week in week out?”
The fact that most kids don’t make it to the upper echelons of football is clearly on the minds of Parish and co, who are currently in talks with local schools about reorganising curriculums to increase their contact hours without upsetting education.
“Typically, we’ll get them at 4pm and they’re tired after a long day at school,” he says. “In Holland, they tend to get them at 8am and the curriculum is organised around the kids. We’re working with a number of schools to see if we can get a nucleus of kids who go to a single school and operate a similar system.”
One hotly-tipped youngster who Palace were reluctantly forced to sell during the summer’s administration period was Victor Moses, who studied at Whitgift School in South Croydon, and is now playing up at Wigan.
“Everyone at the club thinks Victor will make it and we obviously want our old players to; it’s important for the reputation of our academy,” says Parish. “Sadly, our hand was forced and he had to go. Generally, though, I think players move on too young; they need to be emotionally ready to cope with moving away from friends, family, to a new part of the country etc.
“From a selfish point of view, we’d like to keep those players to help us improve, too. You go back to the days of Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Andy Gray, Geoff Thomas etc; we want to build a similar core that can win things.”
Like many lower league clubs, Palace is also battling to attract the young football fans in the local area, who would once have worn the red and blue shirts proudly but are increasingly tempted to the bulging trophy cabinets and ‘stars’ of the big guns in the game such as Chelsea.
In a world of ‘fantasy football’, however, where clubs are paying ever-more ridiculous sums for players, and many ordinary people feel priced out of the game at the top level, it seems prime time for the lower league clubs to win some of the youngsters back.
"It’s certainly easier for people to relate to our players,” says Parish. “I mean, the Manchester City midfielder, Yaya Toure, for example, earns twice as much in a week as our club’s total weekly wage bill.
“We’ve got a lot going for us because of the amount of chimney pots round here but then there’s more competition. I was up at Norwich recently and there isn’t a football ground for 100 miles. “The club’s here as a focal point; a symbol for the area. Look out at the ground on a match day, though, and it’s still predominantly a white middle/ working class audience, which doesn’t match the local area at all. The ethnic mix we have on the pitch is a much more realistic representation than that currently found on the terraces, and that is something we need to change.”
Larger audiences and the increased income that filling a bigger stadium inevitably brings – ie. corporate entertainment, improved non-match day potential and quite simply more bums on seats – are key to Palace’s ambitions, as one-off investment doesn’t last long in football after wages and running costs are taken into account.
He’s speaking to the right people, too, such as former chairman Ron Noades, who before moving into golf clubs saw Palace through its brightest period from 1981 to 1998. The Purley resident’s shadow looms large over anyone who moves into the boardroom at Selhurst because over the 17 years he ran the club he managed to do so at a profit.
“Ron’s a friend of mine,” says Parish. “He’s invited to every game and is someone I take very seriously and take advice from. I just want to get it right and he knows this club inside out.
“I think people become a football chairman for one of three reasons: as a plaything; to get famous; or, the reason I like to think we did it, because the club means something to them. In the end, you don’t really own a football club because they are institutions. They are there before you and will never really go out of business; they might go down five leagues because they go into liquidation but there will always be a club.”
That’s the point really. For all the grand talk about the beautiful game, corrupt global bodies and worldwide marketing opportunities, as long as there are eleven players, a pitch and a fan, plus maybe a fox or two for good measure, you’ve got a football club. And that’s something anyone can enjoy.
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Due to my schedule, and the fact that I work in London and live just over the border in Kent, I don’t have the pleasure of getting out and about in Surrey for dinner as often as I’d like. However, there is an Argentinian steakhouse in Purley called Buenos Aires that is great.
Places to shop: Our players do a lot of work with both the Whitgift Centre and Centrale in Croydon, so I’d have to mention those.
View: It would have to be sitting watching the team getting a victory at Selhurst Park – and it’s always even sweeter if the winning goal is scored by one of our home-grown players who have come through the academy!
Places to chill: There’s not much time to relax I’ve found, being a chairman, so I’d have to cop out and say at home with my family.