Thursday 31 May 2007

Harry Cripps Has A Lot To Answer For

In a recent post ( Wyn Grant was bemoaning the impression of Charlton now competing with Millwall for players. I prefer to think that rather than a real competition it's a case of a player choosing between Chelsea and Manchester City: the former offering higher wages, a fashionable environment, and the chance to learn from other players but also the prospect of just warming the bench; the latter the chance of being a local hero but in a place where no-one else cares and no-one wants to go.

Nevertheless, it had me thinking back to one of the worst moments of my life ....

In times gone by there were spells when Millwall were not only above us in the league but also regularly turned us over, with our team usually as intimidated as us supporters. My father, having given me the best start possible in life by ensuring that I would forever support Charlton, then sent the family into the Lions' Den, almost literally, by taking over two shops in Ilderton Road, Bermondsey. They provided a good vantage point for the running street battles which often followed the Spanners' home games, but the move also saw me placed in a junior school where a Charlton scarf was not so much a novelty as an act of pure lunacy.

In this school football fans fell into three categories when asked who they supported. First, there were those who struggled with the question, or at least struggled to make any intelligible verbal response, and would often instead just instinctively kick out at the questioner. There was never any doubt where they would end up. Second, there was the usual smattering of those that claimed to support Arsenal/Liverpool/Man Utd or whoever had won the league the previous year. Third, there was me. I like to think of myself as a natural born contrarian, but maybe it started then and is more nurture than nature.

Most of the time people in the school, rather than reacting violently, struggled to comprehend what someone living in Bermondsey was doing supporting Charlton. Ah, I used to reply, we might not be very good, there aren't many of us, and you always beat us, but you have Harry Cripps playing for you, he being the epitomy of an unemployed docker in a football shirt (which more of less summed up Millwall). Then one day I woke up to find out we had signed him. Oh, how they laughed.

Harry went on to play a significant role in a promotion season (from the old third division) and to endear himself to all Charlton fans, myself included, for performances that should have been preserved for future generations (I have a video of the Chelsea v Charlton game to decide who went into the play-offs and some of the challenges come close to Harry's style of play). A website analysing Cripps' career concluded that he sometimes missed the ball and sometimes missed the player - but never both. But I still struggle to forget the moment when the only argument I could come up with (at the time) for being Charlton rather than Millwall was demolished.

Come to think of it, after junior school in Bermondsey came secondary school in Dulwich, where I was again in a class of just about one (university was Sheffield - is there a pattern of self-harm emerging?). At that time (I know, it's hard to imagine now) Palace seemed to be more successful than us. I have to confess that I did have one moment of weakness, when I was taken to Selhurst Park to watch Palace win in a season they won promotion to the top flight, while we continued to scrabble around in the lower divisions seemingly going nowhere. Fortunately it passed.

It does seem that few true supporters really choose their team and instead tend to have them foisted on them by their nearest and dearest. I keep having to remind myself of that whenever someone who otherwise appears sane says to me that they are a Palace fan (I really felt that sending them down closed the book as proper payback for the portacabin years but Jordan manages to perpetuate the bad feeling every time he opens his mouth). Ah, bless, it's not really their fault, let's just hope that they learn from the sins of their parents and don't repeat the mistake. I knew that I had done my job when told that when being read a bedtime story my daughter responded to 'and the queen lived in the palace ...' with an auto-response 'Palace .. uurgh'.

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