Last Thursday evening, 60-odd Crystal Palace supporters congregated in the long, dusty basement that runs under Selhurst Park’s Holmesdale Stand. There, in one of the country’s more underground creative endeavours, they put the finishing touches on their latest display: a 9x9m artwork depicting Joel Ward, the Palace defender who had just played his 200th game for the club.
Come Saturday night’s visit of Manchester City, Ward’s giant face was unfurled in all its glory before kick-off, hauled up by guy ropes attached to the upper tier. Perhaps a thousand man hours went into a banner which hung for two or three minutes, but it was worth it. “He’s loyal, and he’s one of those players who really gets the Palace spirit,” one fan says.
This is the Holmesdale Fanatics, an English supporters’ group with a difference. Crystal Palace are often credited with the noisiest fans in the Premier League, and the Fanatics are a big reason why. This season they have reached new decibels: after a stand-off with the club saw them briefly disperse last year, they finally got their wish to upgrade from their corner spot, and with it they have swollen from an enthusiastic pocket of 150 fans to a 400-strong swathe behind the goal.
The group was born in 2005 when a handful of third-generation Palace fans were inspired by the coordination of groups they saw around Europe. Fourteen years later they have grown into something, and perhaps it is difficult nights like this one, against the champions, when they rouse Selhurst most. Their instigator is at the front ‘capoing’ the rest, his T-shirt off within four minutes to reveal an eagle tattoo on his shoulder, the sort of man who, when he tells you to bounce, you bounce, and when he tells you to sing, you sing.
And they sing. For just about every one of the 90 minutes they are on their feet making a racket, rotating through a repertoire which occasionally pummels Millwall or Lewis Dunk but mainly celebrates being the pride of South London. It is different from the typical Premier League fan experience – you’ve lost your voice and a few kilos by the end of it – but the sound has its own intoxicating momentum driven by relentless dual drumbeats, and standing amongst them you’d have to be pretty miserable, or a Brighton fan, not to be swept up in it all.
Are Palace fans special? Not really. Lots of fans sing and jump around and make banners. But what they have is organisation, and a way of channelling their passion into so much more than the sum of its parts. They are not universally loved, not least by those fans who had to move from long-held seats behind the goal this season, while the club itself is supportive but is also challenged by the Fanatics, who have led battles on issues like selling the stadium’s naming rights.
They have protested against the game’s corporate influx and the constraints they say are imposed on modern football, and have waded into wider issues from rising ticket prices and changing kick-off times to the closure of Fabric nightclub. “You got the money, we got the soul” one banner read last year. The group’s voice is growing louder on and off the pitch, but their leaders prefer to keep a low profile; garnering individual attention is the opposite of their ethos.
You could draw some deeper conclusions from all this. There are some reflections of society in there somewhere, that a mix of people from multicultural south London can join together, that the power of a small collective can amount to something so much greater than each individual voice ever could. But its success is really in its simplicity: a bunch of people with a shared love of a game and a place, who want to feel something, to harness an outlet for some pent-up energy and emotion. When else in life can you sing and shout and swear at a referee, and link arms with complete strangers to bounce around while you’re two-nil down? For 90 minutes football creates its own escapism, and these fans embrace that better than most.
They are proud to have grown organically, as opposed to some of the manufactured singing sections other clubs are trying to create, and yet in a way the Fanatics are entirely manufactured – not by the club but by the supporters, by the many hands which made their tapestry of appreciation to Joel Ward this weekend. The noise doesn’t spring from nothing, it’s fuelled by effort and energy. Long after the game is lost, with the ground almost empty, they are still singing; Ward is the last Palace player to leave the pitch, and he applauds the Holmesdale as he goes.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies