There has been something stirring at Selhurst Park for a while now, something that is lacking from many other state-of-the-art football stadia. It is difficult to define, strangely elusive and is something all football fans think their own club possess, to varying degrees of confidence.
That ‘something’ is something betwixt an atmosphere and a club identity.
Drawing on the iconography of Italian Ultras in terms of visuals and strong club identity of everyone’s favourite hipster German club, St. Pauli, match days at Crystal Palace are a spectacle to behold. But this is not just flag waving and ticker tape parades, nor is the atmosphere supplemented by freebie give away noisemakers by a local paper or the club shop. Any old club can bash together an impressive mosaic display by painstakingly and neatly printing out some coloured card and getting some office trainees to place them on brittle plastic seats. But to their credit, Palace have found a lovely niche between gaudy spectacle and impressive expression of club identity.
The days of daubing an old bed sheet with thick black markers offering simple but direct advice aimed at the board or manager to ‘do one’ (my lord, I refer you to evidence A: that crudely produced ‘Lambert Out’ effort held aloft by Aston Villa fans at Hull City recently) are long gone at Selhurst Park. Their targets are wider and less insular: protests against the Premier League’s proposed 38th game and Roman Abramovich’s dirty money which they claim has ‘plagued our game’ indicate a footballing social conscience with a going concern for the well-being of the game as a whole and the modern fan experience. More recently, it seems that Palace’s supporters are locked and loaded on the greed of the Premier League with their latest tifo: £5BILLION IN THE TROUGH YET SUPPORTERS STILL EXPLOITED. SHARE THE WEALTH, PIGS
This is why comparisons with St. Pauli are valid. Head of fan organisation and security at St. Pauli, Sven Brux is rightly proud of his club’s anti-homophobia and anti-racism campaigns, claiming that, “We were the first club wearing T-shirts, saying that racist things were forbidden and at the time no-one in Germany cared about these things. Our fans were the first to say we don’t want these things in football.” Sticking it to The Man it seems is common ground between these two clubs.
Of course, it helps too that Palace boasts an old fashioned ground in which to create such an atmosphere. Holding aloft such banners appealing for change is harder to motivate yourself for if you are too busy spending half-time munching a feta and leek pie washed down with a gingerbread infused latte. Selhurst Park was once renowned for its inaccessibility but now its quaint quirks, such as a corner tunnel, lend it a unique feel and look. Oh, what the heck? Let’s just admit that it’s got character. Lest we forget too that this was the scene for many of 90s football showcase moments: Eric Cantona’s kick at Matthew Simmons, Dalian Atkinson’s mazy dribble, Tony Yeboah’s blunderbuss of a shot and Michael Owen’s debut goal for Liverpool.
But it’s not just banner waving that gives Selhurst Park it’s unique atmosphere: leaders of the cheer, The Crystals maintain the spirit of Sky’s Strikers in welcoming teams out in to the arena. An eagle swoops and circles around the stadium – another iconic spectacle invoking scenes of fanatical displays to be found around Europe, notably by Roda JC’s fans pre-game. The stadium announcer contributes too in his emphasis on Christian names yet aversion to surnames in informing of the Eagles scorer:
Stadium announcer: Danny
Stadium announcer: Danny
Of course, there have more frequent and sexier scorers for Palace but this is a particularly memorable one, given that it somehow evokes a northern scene of cobbles and Hovis bread. The club even makes Dave Clarke Five sound like some kind of contemporary cool sing-along new wave band, the likes of which chancers like Imagine Dragons would be falling over themselves to even imagine such a catchy chorus sing-along line.
With bearded enforcers such as Joe Ledley and Mile Jedinak strutting around in a hipster style around midfield, Crystal Palace are something approaching achingly cool – no doubt they’ll be opening up their own cereal café imminently.
This kind of expression of fan unity is starting to grow too: Nottingham Forest supporters have established a routine of copious flag waving and singing in the Lower Bridgford area, even creating artistic banners with pictures and images harking back to the glory years (don’t begrudge them this, times are tough and the most natural reaction to this is to wrap oneself up in the warm duvet of nostalgia) and celebrating current heroes, all creating a sense of identity for the suffering fans and helping to rebuild the club’s somewhat broken image, formulated during the Billy Davies years.
This kind of fan expression can only be a good thing in an era of ever increasing ticketing structures and eye watering television deals. Safe-standing appears to be back on the agenda too and it is refreshing to see football fans looking beyond their own club: it is easy to forget that for many, images of the football mob still carry repulsive connotations, sadly only reinforced by events last week in the Richelieu-Drouot metro station. But watching football is supposed to be a fun activity and Selhurst Park certainly looks like a fun place to be.
It’s almost enough to make you wish you were an Eagle.