Groundhopping Etc.

Stories and pictures of the beautiful game.

Ultras in England, they (can) actually exist!

Crystal Palace FC vs. Bolton Wanderers 0:0
January 19, 2013 | attendance 17,033 | pictures

Ultras in England

Going to football games in London in the last couple of years always turned out to be some sort of letdown for me, because there wasn’t really any continuous support from the stands. At best, English fans shouted a spontaneous (and at times creative) chant but it was usually over after 10 seconds, and the overall atmosphere very much depended on the game. Alas, I never gave up hope to be positively surprised one day. Today was that day.

Snow from the roof but pitch is playableThere were two factors that made this day possible: on the one hand, excellent organization on the Crystal Palace’s part for dealing with the masses of snow that left greater London in chaos and oblivion the previous day. The club covered and heated the pitch and organized folks to clear the snow. So while I see snow-covered pitches with snow-men guarding the goal posts passing by during my train journey south, the color appearing underneath the Selhurst Park pitch cover is actually green.

The second factor dates back to 2005: six committed Palace fans were upset with the demise of football culture in England. Atmosphere was killed by the stadiums being turned into all-seaters and by the younger generations being priced out. Those six lads did not want to put up with the status quo, they wanted to give their club its soul back. So they founded the “Holmesdale Fanatics” who count about 150 members today, ages mostly 17-35. The group supports their team ultra-style. With banners, flags and sometimes even choreographies that span across the entire stand. Their chants are picked up by many fans at the “Holmesdale Stand” but also tend to spread across the entire ground.

Meet the “Holmesdale Fanatics”

I meet the guys prior to the match in their pub close to the stadium. Everybody is very friendly and inclusive; the atmosphere is chatty and relaxed. I get the sense that this is a real community. The “Fanatics” tell me how in the beginning they were a shock to the system. Instead of sedated fans there were suddenly a whole group of people standing, singing throughout the entire game, “and suddenly there was someone with a drum in the stadium!” The club did not like it very much, kept kicking core members of the group out of the stadium and issuing new restrictions.

They also had the attention of the police who knows every single one of the “Fanatics” by full name. Speak of the devil: As we talk about that, a cop enters the pub and walks around slowly, taking a good look at everyone inside. England is generally a rather restrictive place, regulations at the ground are meant “for your own safety” but really are just killing the atmosphere, and are the result of a lack of creativity and willpower to create a fan-friendly experience (This is probably where I should refer to the DFL paper on increased stadium security in Germany, and how it wasn’t such a bad idea to protest against its original contents).

The relationship between the club and the “Fanatics” is ambivalent: there is usually no connection between players and fans in England, so the “Fanatics” try to bridge that gap. They host a “Player of the Year” event where the chosen player comes down to their pub, receives the award and hangs out with the group. The club fears to lose influence and tries to cut those ties with subtle measures, so for one, players don’t warm up in front of the “Holmesdale Stand” anymore.

Aggressions against the group from the club’s stewards were not uncommon in the beginning. One of the head stewards even signed up for the “Fanatics’” message board and (assuming he was being anonymous) tried to egg them on to start fights with the stewards. He failed. The group could prove his misdeeds and the club fired him. This story shows how they stood their ground and succeeded. Today, they are even allowed to sell their merchandise at the back side of the “Holmesdale Stand”.

The fact that it took me that long to find an ultra-style group in England was no coincidence. The “Fanatics” are more or less the only one, at least in terms of size and noise. Fans of other teams attempted to initiate groups but made the mistake of trying to import the Ultra culture of continental European countries like Italy. The majority of fans rejected these attempts, a classic “not invented here” effect. In Southern London the focus is on values that relate to the English “casual culture” of the 1980s which is also closely tied to the country’s pub culture. They also make sure that their songs have a style that fits English stadiums and can be picked up easily. That doesn’t mean they lack variety, the group adds new songs to their portfolio every once in a while.

To the ground!

Holmesdale StandSo much for the theory, now how does it actually feel? Thirty minutes before kick-off, the group leaves the pub and walks towards Selhurst Park. Singing. They own the streets, the red double-decker bus has to stop but merrily honks along. We are marching through a tunnel, and a few crackers echo along nicely. At the end of the tunnel, a police escort waits and kindly asks the guy walking next to me to dispose of the beer mug that he took from the pub. At least he’s allowed to gulp down its contents first. Another fan carrying a beer can seems to have trouble standing up. He is quickly surrounded by police, fans passing by suggest: “Throw a snowball, and you’ll be at the back of a wagon…” We’re at the ground now and our ways part. I get into the “Arthur Wait Stand” with a good view of the “Fanatics”.

Before kick-off they don’t bother singing on against the very loud pop music, and the cheerleading “Crystal Girls” (who you can take home with you in calendar form if you are so inclined). But as the whistle blows it’s actually happening. I get to experience continuous and organized fan support and chants. The “Fanatics” sing various songs and the rest of Selhurst Park sings along on various occasions. There is another small independent group of folks at the back of the “Arthur Wait Stand” who also sing, and every once in a while they join in, or have a bit of an antiphon back-and-forth chant with the “Fanatics”. And let’s not forget the 977 away fans among the 17,033 (the ground seats 26,309) who, by their own judgment, were also in good voice.

Stewards keep a close eye on the "Fanatics"Briefly put: the stadium is alive. But there is also a flurry of activity outside of the „Fanatics’“ section: a dozen stewards keep walking directly towards them whenever there is a set piece nearby, or whenever there are controversies on the pitch.

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There is also a match going on

Oh right, the pitch – Premiere League relegates Bolton Wanderers are in town: the team, despite having the third most valuable squad, is only 16th in a crowded league of 24. Palace only managed two wins in their last twelve games, but are still fourth with the second place in sight. That could mean direct promotion to Premiership where they last were in 2004/05. Aside from that one season they are a Championship regular since 1998.

Murray scores but is called offsideGlenn Murray is somewhat crucial to Palace’s attack: he scored 22 and assisted 7 goals in 23 games. He also puts the ball in the back of the net today, shortly before halftime; alas the referee calls him offside. Palace is the dominant team but gets stuck at the edge of the box too often.

In the end there are no goals, but the experience was thrilling regardless, thanks to the “Fanatics” (who claim that they weren’t even putting up their top performance today). Today showed once more how a football match experience can be so much more interesting and diverse if it goes beyond the (often mediocre) action on the pitch. An active fan group that acts as community not only during matches can add tremendous value. The “Fanatics” are proof that it can be done in England, as long as you are committed and willing to suffer a bit. Hope remains that other groups will follow in the “Fanatics’” footsteps.

Check out my facebook page for the full gallery: www.facebook.com/GroundhoppingEtc

Palace on the attack

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5 comments on “Ultras in England, they (can) actually exist!

  1. niall
    January 28, 2013

    Hi,

    Great read. Are you on twitter?

  2. Pingback: Ultras in England, they (can) actually exist! | Nice One

  3. Pingback: Kleiner Fußball-Reiseführer: London – die lange Suche nach den Ultras « Wir sind die Liga

  4. Pingback: Football guide to London | Groundhopping Etc.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2013 by in Bolton Wanderers, Crystal Palace FC, England, English, English League Championship, London, Selhurst Park.

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