Last November, I attended my first ever match at Crystal Palace‘s Selhurst Park. Although I am no fan of the Eagles, I was coaxed into making the journey to South London by a friend who supports the team, and the fact that the Premier League tie in question pitted Palace against Everton – great rivals of my own side – was reason enough for me to go along and cheer the team in red and blue.
The game was Palace’s eleventh of the campaign, and at the time they were struggling badly in their first season back in the top flight for seven years. Managerless following the sacking of Ian Holloway in October and floundering at the foot of the table with just four points, the Eagles were very much adhering to their early-season label as relegation favourites.
As I squeezed through the turnstiles of the Main Stand, what I expected was a general sense of downheartedness from the fans as the realities of life in the Premier League took their toll, and a probable victory for a buoyant Everton side who would move into the Champions League places with three points.
Though I never doubted that Palace supporters would turn out in full force to follow their team, I was nevertheless convinced that the club’s on-field travails would result in a rather pessimistic atmosphere in the ground, with a silent, oppressive anxiety at the prospect of conceding another goal and suffering another loss quashing any attempts to create an atmosphere by the sporadic pockets of happy-go-lucky fans content with their side simply being in the top flight. Palace were bottom, after all, and surely only the most starry-eyed optimist would be able to find a reason to go into the match in high spirits.
What followed during the next ninety minutes confounded all my preconceptions and exposed me as nothing more than a cynical fool. From the first shrill cry of the referee’s whistle until the last, Selhurst Park transformed into a mass human orchestra, its rafters shaking with the thud of bouncing feet and the roar of chant upon chant emanating from all four sides of the ground.
Though I had no affinity with the Eagles, being part of this living, chanting, cacophonous rectangular organism was a mesmerising experience, and the credible, highly entertaining 0-0 draw Palace gained was due in no small part to the admirably fervent home support. Departing the stadium into the crisp, autumnal London night, I felt that the Premier League would lose a fine, proud club were the Eagles to succumb to relegation at the end of the season. With modern football becoming increasingly sanitised and the once-famous atmospheres in the stadia of even the most well-supported clubs being replaced by an air of anodyne sterility, the raw, genuine and passionate fanbase of Selhurst Park represented a welcome remedy.
Happily, the appointment of Tony Pulis a fortnight after the match prompted an astonishing rise up the table for South London club. Eleven games in, and the Eagles looked like certainties for the drop; by May, Pulis’s Palace had ended the season in eleventh. The loyal denizens of Selhurst were rewarded for their unwavering support as they witnessed their side securing famous results against Chelsea and Liverpool under the Welshman’s guidance, and Pulis ended the season by receiving the Premier League Manager of the Year award.
A lot has changed since those heady days, however. Pulis shocked Palace by leaving the Eagles just days before the start of the new season due to an alleged disagreement with chairman Steve Parish, and Neil Warnock was drafted in as his replacement, taking over at the club for the second time in his managerial career. Once again, we find ourselves at the eleven-game mark of the season, and Palace are struggling in 17th place, safe of the relegation zone by the most slender margin of goal difference.
Uncertainty and relegation fears have therefore returned to Selhurst Park, but this has unsurprisingly done nothing to dim the thunderous enthusiasm of Palace’s fans. Although they will continue to sing, clap, jump and shout – regardless of how desperate their team’s situation could become – they must survive for the sake of top-flight football. Violent commercialisation, belittlement of supporters and a pricing out of football’s traditional fanbase – the working class – has ripped the soul out of the Premier League. The average matchday at Anfield and Old Trafford – once considered to be the homes of two of the most raucously-supported clubs in English football – has become a depressingly tranquil and subdued affair, and the truth is that such a lack of genuine atmosphere has become the norm, not the exception, throughout the top flight.
Thank god then for Crystal Palace, a club that understands that vocal support not only provides a fillip to the home side, but also enhances the experience of attending a football match for the fans themselves. The loud, boisterous songs that reverberate through the modest stands of Selhurst Park at every home game is music to the ears of all football fans disillusioned with the state of the modern game. Let’s hope that Neil Warnock can perform the same miracle act as Pulis, and that proud Palace remain a refreshingly noisy fixture in the Premier League for years to come.
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