Almost four years ago we ran a series of articles featuring fans of Isthmian League clubs who had given up on their former professional loves to follow our game. Following Sunday's Super League announcement and the ensuing fallout, we thought we'd run it again, all this week. Here's Richard's story.
In the context of this series, Richard Green is rather unique. We’ve heard so far from a number of supporters who have given up the Premier League for the Non-League game, but anything they can do Richard can do better; he gave up Non League for the professional game, then shared Non-League and the Premier League, and now exclusively follows a club who are strictly amateur! From Hamlet to Palace, to Palace and Thamesmead, and now to Corinthian-Casuals, you might be thinking that this is the tale of a man who can’t make up his mind, but as you will find out his story is one filled with decisiveness rather than uncertainty. So let’s start at the very beginning- Champion Hill.
“At the age of 8- in 1968- my father took me to Dulwich Hamlet and I loved it. I was soon a ball boy, and then a programme seller, and then ended up as the PA Announcer. The club then replaced me as PA Announcer without telling me- with a man who ended up marrying my niece, as it happens- and I was understandably angry about that (the job, not the wedding!), and a little disillusioned at the way the club was being run. This was a long, long time ago by the way!” Crystal Palace were already on the scene by this point, as Richard had been heading to Selhurst Park with a schoolfriend when Hamlet weren’t playing.
“I kind of fell in love with Palace. I suppose I was around 12, perhaps 13, and a friend who already went regularly asked me to come along.” At this point he does his best impression of a footballing Kirsty Allsopp. “You know when you’re looking for a house? Well when you find the right one you know immediately; you feel comfortable. That was how I felt when I first walked into Crystal Palace. I was brought up in Peckham, and used to occasionally go to Millwall but never felt as if I belonged. The first time I went to Selhurst Park I knew that this was where I wanted to be. By 1986 I had a season ticket, and I kept it until the start of this season, so for more than thirty years- although I didn’t use it last year. I suppose it was habit that made me buy it, but a friend bought the tickets from me on a match by match basis so I broke even and he made a saving.”
To be invested in a football club for more than thirty years is an awful long time. It’s difficult to fathom what would have made him give it up. Richard traces the decline in his love for Palace to the day the team played their first match in the Premier League after promotion, against West Ham United on 23rd August 2014. “After a home match myself and a group of us who had followed the club home and away for years would always go for a drink in the players lounge. We’d get to have a chat with the players as they came in, the relationships were good, and we knew that we were important to the club. And then, after that first match in the Premier League, they wouldn’t let us in. Suddenly, despite decades of loyal support, the world had changed. We were told to go back and use the bar in our own stand. We had a real camaraderie with the players, even before the match in the car park they’d turn up and have a chat, and then the club had them all arrive together on a team coach, cordoned off the parking area, and the players would go straight from bus to stadium without seeing a supporter apart from through a window. They’d suddenly become untouchable.
I suppose as well that when I was part of ten or fifteen thousand I felt that I was, in some kind of insular way, important. By now I was just a number. I remember a match against Newcastle, too, and there were a couple of tourists sitting in front of me and talking about how excited they were to be seeing a match in the Premier League. They knew nothing about the club whatsoever, and it dawned on me that we weren’t a football club any more, we were a tourist attraction. That wasn’t what I’d signed up for."
By this point, Richard is on a roll. His frustration at what the Premier League had done to his Palace watching experience was clearly evident.
“Don’t get me started about Sky. We had tickets for Steven Gerrard’s last match for Liverpool, and we knew that it would be moved for TV, but we had to book train tickets. We ended up choosing to arrive in Liverpool early on Saturday morning and leave late Sunday evening, with a hotel in between, because that was the only way we could be sure that we’d be available for the game whenever they ended up moving it to! They don’t care about the supporters, only about money.
But there was also one match towards the end of my period watching that stands out. Palace were playing Manchester United. It was a terrible game, entirely devoid of effort or passion, and at the end of the match the crowd stood up and applauded, and I couldn’t understand what they were applauding. It was almost as if we were the crowd at a theatre. I didn’t recognise the place; it was as if everything that had made Palace stand out from the rest of the Premier League had been eroded.”
There must have been good times, though?
“Oh yes, there were fabulous times with fabulous friends. I watched my Palace side lose 9-0 at Anfield. A few months later we were beating Liverpool 4-3 in a Cup Semi Final, and then watching them walk out at Wembley- my Crystal Palace, in an FA Cup Final, on the world stage. I stood there and cried.”
During his latter years watching Palace Richard had been living in Thamesmead, and begun to couple his trips to Selhurst Park with watching his local club. It even got to the stage where he was working with the Under 21’s at Mead, and sorting out the kit for the first team, but he was still a Palace supporter first. But then came a Damascene moment. Thamesmead Town were drawn away to Corinthian-Casuals in the FA Trophy.
“I’d never been to Casuals before, and I spent half an hour before the match standing behind the goal talking to many involved with the club- Assistant Secretary David Waters even helped me tie up the Thamesmead flags- and I liked the people very much. I felt at home. It was strange; I was a Palace fan who also watched Thamesmead, and I was there to watch the away team yet feeling affection for the opposition. One day last February I just decided to go back, jumped in the car, and headed to Tolworth. I haven’t missed a match- home or away- since-apart from Guernsey recently.
There’s a fantastic feeling about the club. After a game the players always go behind the goal and thank the supporters, and there’s a genuine affection and relationship between all parties. It isn’t like the faux clapping you get from the team at the end of a Premier League game, it’s a bunch of blokes actually thanking us for coming to watch, who actually care about what we think. As I tell my friends from my Palace days, it’s really special- these guys play for nothing and yet they work really hard, they appreciate us, and the whole experience is magical. You can have a beer behind the goal, bring your dog if you like, stand where you want, and for twenty quid you can get in, have a few pints and a pie and be royally entertained. If you want to go to a Premier League game twenty quid won’t even buy you the first half!”
There is also an element of convenience to Richard’s thinking, which is rather peculiar given he travels fifty one miles for a home match. “I can turn up at ten to three, still find a place to park, and still be confident that I’m going to get through the turnstiles before kick-off. If the M25 does what the M25 tends to do, I don’t need to panic.”
But after all those years following Crystal Palace, and six months following Corinthian-Casuals, surely it would be difficult to think of Richard as a Casuals fan first? He was quite clear about his allegiances.
"I couldn’t afford to go to Guernsey recently- I’ve got my daughter’s twenty first birthday party to pay for at the end of the month and the flight etc was a step too far, financially- but it was arranged that the match would be shown live on Facebook. Palace were playing at the same time- their match was on Sky. I watched Casuals. I’m getting more and more involved at the club, I’m helping out with the PA, I’m helping the management committee, it has become an integral part of my life. It’s given me back the love of the game that my experiences at Palace had forced out of me. I started my life as a lover of the Non-League game and I’ve gone full circle.”
Richard was expecting the next question, but that didn’t make it any easier to answer. Could he see himself ever going back to Palace?
“It might seem strange to say this, but the experiences at Palace were better when the club were suffering extreme hardship. There were periods of administration, for example, and everyone pulled together- for all the threat of extinction there was a feeling of belonging. That’s been lost now. But if the club was ever in trouble, I’d want to feel like I was helping, of course I would. That said, I can’t see that ever happening- but I do have an amazing group of friends at Palace, people I’ll always be close to.”
Perhaps you might be able to persuade those friends to watch Casuals?
“I’ve tried, and they laugh at me, but that’s not because they don’t appreciate Non-League football, it’s because Palace is their local club. They all live in the area around Selhurst Park, they grew up there, they are entirely interlinked with Palace. I was commuting from Thamesmead for a home game, so for me whether I travel to Palace or Casuals there’s a journey involved. They all walk to football. We still see each other, and we have a bit of banter about football on Facebook, but although they aren’t happy with the Premier League experience they don’t share all of my disillusionment.”
It is quite clear that Richard still loves Crystal Palace, and it must have been rather difficult for him to give up that season ticket and break the habit of most of a lifetime; perhaps that’s why he purchased the ticket last season before selling it on, because it was easier than an immediate clean break. That said, it is also clear that he is determined to forge a new path; a path that sees him dressed not in red and blue but in chocolate and pink. Perhaps the moment that defined the conversation was when he defined himself as a “typical Non-League fan. I just like to watch football, and I like to be able to watch it whenever I want, wherever I want, without having to make plans months in advance.”
Watching the Premier League isn’t easy, and it can see your life being continually altered to suit its paymasters. It certainly has an entirely different feeling from that found in the Non-League world. Perhaps Richard just had a hankering for a simpler life.
He’s found that at King George’s Field.
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