For most of the time that I’ve been an Albion fan, the club has been the inferior party to its rivals Crystal Palace in terms of competitiveness. Even the last season the club managed to finish above them in the league table – 2012/13, Palace got the better of them in the end of season playoffs. But tonight’s game feels like a real opportunity for Albion to alter the balance of power between the clubs.
Growing up in the 1990’s the 5-0 defeat to Palace was my first experience of the derby, and the narrow 1-0 win at Selhurst Park in 2005 aside, it set a course for the balance of power between the clubs for the coming decade.
Gone were the days of the two teams battling it out throughout the Football League in the 70s and 80s, when it seemed the clubs were destined to be competing with each other throughout their existences.
The clubs had previously met in the Second Division in 1989, a season which saw Palace promoted to the topflight. In the thirteen years that had followed until they met each other in that fateful match, Palace had been to an FA cup final, three other cup semi-finals and yoyo-ed between the second tier and the topflight.
Meanwhile, Albion had plummeted down the Football League and almost out of it entirely. All while fighting off a succession of winding up orders, directors intent on pulling the club to pieces for their own gain and the threat to the entire existence of the club.
Albion of course recovered from that difficult period of its history and since the opening of the AMEX in 2011 there has been a much smaller gap between the sides. But despite finishing below Albion in the league the following two seasons, Palace had the better of the rivalry, winning the club’s first meeting at the AMEX (FFS Murray!) and then winning the clubs meeting in the 2013 Championship playoff semi-final. Going on to gain promotion to the Premier League, after which Palace have still held an advantage over Albion through being the longer serving Premier League club.
This is particularly demonstrated by Palace’s wage bill, which has been in the top ten of the Premier League in terms of spending for the entire period both teams have been in the topflight together, whilst Albion’s has always had one of the lowest in the division. And yet, Palace haven’t finished in the top ten in that time and the clubs have often been closer in the league table than their wage bills suggests that they should be, with Albion finishing just 4 points off their rivals in 2017/18 and 2 points off in 2019/20.
Nonetheless, there is lot to admire about Crystal Palace. Unlike some of the clubs able to spend comparable figures on wages to them like West Ham and Leicester, they do not have the same level of infrastructure and yet have managed to forge a place among those clubs as an established topflight team despite those deficiencies. Moreover, they have achieved that with a teams that has often included a number of local academy players like Wilfried Zaha, Nathaniel Clyne and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Palace are hardly at a low ebb either. A win for Palace on Monday would see them equal their best Premier League points total after 25 games. But Albion can go above them in the table on goal difference with a win.
And yet there is a huge contrast in moods between the clubs. After a run of great results including a win over the Champions Liverpool at Anfield and a win over Jose Mourinho’s Spurs side at home, Albion are now six games unbeaten, equalling their best ever run in the topflight. And Chief Exec’ Paul Barber spoke in a Q&A with supporters this week about how the club wants to continue to push on for further success with its long term aim of becoming an established top-half topflight club.
Meanwhile, at Palace there is a considerable and growing negative mood around the place. A bad run of form has seen their good start to the season somewhat go to waste, and a 3-0 home defeat to Burnley last weekend has brought those tensions to a head. Manager Roy Hodgson admitted the performance wasn’t good enough and many Palace fans have had enough. With the supporters group Holmesdale Fanatics putting up a banner outside the club’s training ground, which criticised the team and the manager, suggesting Hodgson should go.
Many have seen this coming with the recent form described described on the Crystal Palace podcast “Five Year Plan” as “the perfect storm of shit”. Whilst Ed Aarons pointed out back in his Guardian pre-season preview for Crystal Palace that: “there is a growing anxiety among some fans over what the future may bring.”
The contrasting angst at Palace compared to the joy at Albion seems to be drawn largely from the teams differing styles of play rather than just results. After all Crystal Palace are two places and three points higher in the league table than Brighton.
Whilst Roy Hodgson’s team have failed to inspire with their football of late, Graham Potter’s Albion have been playing an exciting and attacking brand of football which has earned widespread praise, even if it has not accumulated the points those performances have at times deserved. As well as many pundits, this praise has also come from those right at the top of the game, including Pep Guardiola, who described Graham Potter as the best English manager around, sorry Roy.
The build-up to Monday’s match has been somewhat dominated by Zaha’s recent and anticipated continued absence from the Palace team, especially with their poor record without him being well-known. Yet, with a wage bill the size of Palace’s you’d have thought they’d have the depth to persevere without him, but that poor record suggests otherwise.
Albion themselves have had to deal with a number of absentees over recent games and yet still found a formula to go on their best run of the season and now with many of those players returning from injury, have options to tweak and alter that formula if required.
A win on Monday night would not only put Albion ahead of their rivals in the league table, but also gives them an opportunity to finish above them in the league table for only the 3rd time since 1985. Could Albion’s fortunes compared to its rivals be on the turn?
Fellow Albion fans may feel as if the tides are turning in the club’s favour, after all since the introduction of the Premier League in 1992 the clubs have never been more closely matched. But, we should be wary of Palace’s strengths and track record. Despite their troubles and all the angst, they remain a good topflight team. A team who have proven many times before that when it looks like the chips are down, they are still capable of pulling out an impressive run of results.
And with Palace having a match against relegation threatened Fulham to follow the derby, they may need to do just that.
The mood at Brighton is far more optimistic, but the draw at home with Villa last time out was yet another example of results not matching the often impressive performances and means relegation worries persist. If that trend continues they too will also continue to look nervously over their shoulder at the fortunes of Fulham and others.
The stage is set for an intriguing and exciting derby match on Monday night. And just like in 2013 it’s one that could have lasting consequences on the fortunes of both teams for many season to come.