Thornton Heath is a typical London suburb: busy, multi-ethnic, grimy but slowly being gentrified, sprouting coffee shops as it’s discovered by the middle classes who can’t afford prettier parts of the capital.
It’s also home to Selhurst Park, a stadium that would be every bit as nondescript as its surroundings were it not occupied on matchdays by the highest-profile ultras group in England.
EPL fandom’s suffered something of an identity crisis in the high ticket price, post-hooligan, all-seat stadium era. As arenas have become more modern, family-friendly and orderly, they’ve also grown subdued and often far quieter than they seem on television. Civility’s up, but decibels are down.
Enter the Holmesdale Fanatics, a group of Crystal Palace fans named after a stand behind one of Selhurst’s goals, who were formed as a reaction to the sanitizing of the spectator experience. The Fanatics have been around for about a decade, and the club’s return to the EPL last year has drawn fresh attention to their activities, with even Jose Mourinho praising the stadium’s boisterous atmosphere.
It was evident on Saturday as Chelsea beat Palace 2-1. But they’re not just about making noise and boosting their own team. The fanatics unveiled a banner criticizing the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich: “Roman’s dirty money is a disease that has plagued our game”.
Inspired by Italy’s ultras, the Palace fans unfurl tifos, organize card displays, light flares and chant incessantly, and there’s a political dimension to the spectacle: grassroots anti-corporate, anti-authority stances that are not often seen in England, where fans are passive and rarely agitate for anything more than getting the manager or the chairman being fired when results are poor.
The Fanatics’ reaction to a Sky Sports reporter being posted outside the club’s training ground on deadline day provided footage a touch more extreme than the usual images of kids gurning and laughing as a journalist breathlessly describes the arrival of a new Moldovian left back in a car with blacked-out windows.
Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports network, the British equivalent of ESPN, has provided the television money that’s rocket-propelled the EPL’s boom and inspired the arrival of foreign billionaires such as Abramovich. This concentration of income at the elite level has come at the expense of lower-league clubs, as Palace have often been throughout their turbulent history.
When Manchester City came to south London last season, the Fanatics unveiled a banner proclaiming: “You got the money, we got the soul.”
Agendas aside, the noise seems to be helping the Palace players. Eight home wins last year was a crucial factor in Tony Pulis’s unheralded team (now Neil Warnock’s) finishing in mid-table in their top flight season since 2004-05.
Thanks to the Fanatics, at Selhurst, unlike so many English stadiums, the ambiance is not defined by the flow of the game or the identity of the opposition. And so far, it seems, this is being achieved without the violence that sometimes accompanies ultra culture in Europe. Heck, the atmosphere’s almost as good as Portland’s.