`We're by far the skintest team the world has ever seen'

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The Independent Online

It was always a myth that most football fans were mindless thugs, even in the days when a common chant was: "You're going home in a fucking ambulance." They can't have meant that, because they hadn't thought it through. Even if they did injure all the opposing fans as promised, what sort of a useless ambulance driver would pick up the wounded and just take them home? I suppose the patients would be pleading to go to casualty while the paramedics said: "Not now mate, I'm going back to catch the second half."

It was always a myth that most football fans were mindless thugs, even in the days when a common chant was: "You're going home in a fucking ambulance." They can't have meant that, because they hadn't thought it through. Even if they did injure all the opposing fans as promised, what sort of a useless ambulance driver would pick up the wounded and just take them home? I suppose the patients would be pleading to go to casualty while the paramedics said: "Not now mate, I'm going back to catch the second half."

It's also a myth that modern football fans are all middle-class and that the new chant is: "You're going home in a private ambulance" - although it is true that the game is run increasingly by a handful of millionaires planning to sell their clubs' matches to pay-per-view TV companies, whose passion for the sport revolves around the profit they can make.

To them, football is just another business. Some of them probably suggest to their boards that they should tackle overmanning by combining the goalkeeper's job with the defending department, achieving a 9 per cent reduction in staffing levels. "And," they might add, "why do we need two strikers? Only one of them can score a goal at once, so the other is skiving at the shareholders' expense." Then half-time will be abolished, resulting in a 16.7 per cent increase in productivity.

One of football fans' more peculiar habits is watching their team's progress on Teletext when they can't get to the game. However pathetic, a little knot tightens in your stomach every time the scores come round to your team. Football chairmen are probably the same, except that they watch the share prices. If they show an increase of 0.2 pence since last time, they shout: "Yes! Go on FT Index my son."

But as in any business, commercial success for the few entails financial gloom for the many, especially if, like me, you follow Crystal Palace. The club is in administration, and if it can't escape that plight in the next two months, will probably be wound up.

The man who typifies the business attitude to such a crisis is David Mellor. The Labour Party were the only people in the universe who felt sorry for him when he lost his seat at the last election, and so they made him head of the Football Task Force.

Mellor advises that the answer to Palace's problems is to merge with Wimbledon. Of course he does. To him, anyone would jump at the chance of supporting a more financially viable investment with solid medium-term prospects for consolidation in the mid-table Premier League range. He can't begin to comprehend how passion could become before economics. But proposing the merger of football clubs to ensure fiscal stability is like suggesting to someone whose son isn't doing well at school that they get rid of him and adopt a new one who is likely to get nine GCSEs. It might involve a bit of upheaval now, but when he's got a good job in the City we'll all reap the benefits.

The question to be asked, as Palace struggles to pay debts of (depending on what you read) between pounds 5m and pounds 20m, is where have these millions gone? Murdoch made enough out of football to keep his entire Sky operation afloat. Manchester United has just been valued at pounds 1bn. Wimbledon was bought by Sam Hammam for pounds 100,000; he has just sold an 80 per cent share for pounds 30m. The ex-chairman of Palace sold the club for pounds 23m and didn't include the ground or training ground. Computer millionaire Mark Goldberg bought the club, expecting to make a killing, with a plan that sounded like the sort of scheme you come up with at closing time.

So much money made from football, and the owners can't agree how to restructure a relatively modest amount to prevent the misery of a huge block of south London. Though at least no one can accuse us of bunging the ref. If we wanted to bribe him, he'd have to accept an IOU.

The episode has displayed another side of humanity. A supporters' trust has been set up by people working tirelessly and voluntarily, so far raising a million pounds from fans. As with everything in new millennium Britain, a contrast arises between those who have the most and those who have the least, who commit what little they have with no prospect of personal gain.

Which is why I spoke at a cheerful demonstration on Sunday that united supporters from several clubs facing similar problems. But supporting a football team is inherently competitive, and as a Palace fan it was tempting to sing: "We're Crystal Palace, Crystal Palace FC - by far the skintest team the world has ever seen." Some were disappointed at the turnout of a few hundred. Except for Wimbledon fans. For them it was the biggest crowd they had seen for years.

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