Nickname: The Eagles
Concise Summary: Unpretentious, suburban club in Croydon with actual, physical eagle as a mascot. Have rich lower-league heritage, but now find themselves contesting their fourth consecutive season in the Premier League.
Famous fans: Maxi Jazz, Katy B, Eddie Izzard, Chuka Umunna, Nigel Farage.
While Selhurst Park has many things going for it as a ground, it certainly can't be called slick or flash. With its brown-brick facade and its ramshackle charm, Crystal Palace's home of 92 years feels like the antidote to the Premier League's corporate behemoths: Old Trafford, the Etihad, the Emirates and the like. In looking like it could do with a quick pressure spray and a lick of paint, the stadium acts as an apposite centrepiece for the local area. Walking to the ground from the direction of Norwood Junction, one passes leafy streets, terraced houses and the occasional grand old structure from a bygone age, usually standing side by side with a paint-peel pub or a postwar flatblock. The neighbourhood is a contrasting mish-mash of styles and influences, so it seems appropriate that the brick carapace of Selhurst should contrast so readily with the glossy marketability of the Premier League.
In fairness, Selhurst is not traditionally a Premier League ground. For the majority of their 111-year history, Palace have played in the second and third tiers. Prior to promotion in 2013, the club had spent only four seasons in the top flight during the Premier League era, and had never managed to stay up for two consecutive seasons. Success has come to Selhurst in recent times, however. Palace have been a top-tier club for just over three years at this point, and have even been to Wembley for an FA Cup final (albeit a losing one) in the meantime.
Despite the prestige of their present day exploits – not to mention the financial rewards, which for a club like Palace have been absolutely massive – their success leaves them at something of a crossroads. Their Premier League riches have allowed them to acquire players of the calibre of Yohan Cabaye, Christian Benteke and Steve Mandanda, but their lower-league heritage seems increasingly distant, and the club's identity faces significant change. While some fans would be delighted to see the club facilitate success in any way possible, others want to preserve the 'old' Palace and the close sense of self that Selhurst Park fosters. The idea of a move away is mooted here and there, with some Palace fans feeling that relocation is necessary for the club to take the next step on the path to success, even if that step takes them further away from their deep roots in SE25.
Meeting and speaking to Palace fans around the ground itself ahead of their match against Bournemouth in late August, the word most often used to describe the club is 'community'. Supporters can be seen meeting and mingling at their usual spots on the Holmesdale Road well over an hour before kick off, or spilling out of the fenced-off gardens outside the smattering of local pubs. Few would claim that Selhurst is a utopian paradise, what with its on-site Sainsbury's and its built-in nightclub (the aptly named 'Crystals'). That said, it is a place of shared experience, shared family history and fond collective memories. The fans we speak to say that, whatever its flaws and aesthetic imperfections, it feels like home.
Of the seven people we interview outside Selhurst, five of them say they were introduced to the club by their dads. One of them is interrupted mid-interview by the arrival of his dad, while another, Jodie, is actually with her dad, who was introduced to the club by his dad's dad. "I support Palace because my grandad was a bus conductor in Elmers End garage, about three miles from here," says Trevor, now an actual dad himself. "He first brought me here in 1963, which is more than 50 years ago. Ever since then... it's been the most amazing experience, because it's the friendliest place you'll ever come and watch football." While dates will obviously vary person to person, that sounds like a pretty typical way to become a Palace devotee.
Big Trev tells us how he came to support Palace
If Palace is mainly a club of dads, then – dads with their daughters, dads with their sons, dads within dads within dads, a neverending Russian doll full of dads – there are still those fans who have found themselves drawn to Selhurst without the guiding hand of a paterfamilias. The sense of closeness and tight-knit community certainly seems to draw people in and, again, that's something which marks Palace out from the titans at the top of the Premier League. The one fan who doesn't mention his dad in his story of how he started supporting Palace is called Martin, and was instead introduced to the club by some friendly denizens of the street he grew up on in nearby Surrey. Now, he's so into the club that he volunteers to sell its excellent fanzine, Five Year Plan. "My next-door neighbours were mad Palace fans," Martin tells us. "As a kid, growing up, I quite liked Arsenal. They said: 'No: local team, Palace, come along.'"
That seems fitting, given that there is a genuinely neighbourly feel to Palace. Unlike the Premier League's biggest grounds, where fans tend to gather in isolated bubbles, there's an impression of familiarity amongst supporters in SE25, and a vague sense that everyone knows everyone. While that's probably not quite true in reality, the fact that Selhurst has a capacity of just over 25,000 – the fifth smallest in the top flight, ahead of only Watford, Burnley, Swansea and Bournemouth – helps to foster an air of general congeniality. While Palace certainly isn't alone in its status as an unassuming, local, community club, it's definitely the most intimate club in London which still manages to compete in the Premier League.
Another fan, Sam, tells us about his vintage shirt
While that sense of collective friendliness might be a big part of club's appeal, it doesn't dampen the fire in the fans' bellies come kick off. Selhurst is regularly spoken of as one of the best grounds in the league in terms of atmosphere, helped in no small part by the Holmesdale Fanatics, a group of ultras who have been known to sport tifos, display cards, and banners protesting Premier League greed. While they occupy only a relatively small section of the ground, they bring a new dimension to Selhurst. Palace might be a community club, but the atmosphere on matchday belies the suburban sleepiness of its surroundings.
As for the rest of the matchday experience, it largely seems to involve getting pre-match lunch at the nearby chicken shop, or the usual British custom of considerable drinking. Several Palace fans direct us towards the Pawsons Arms, which is essentially the archetype of a carpeted pub but with lots of Palace memorabilia, and a concreted back garden that looks like something our nans might have got done, and then instantly regretted, some time between the late eighties and early nineties. We've since been told that The Albion, which is painted in the blue and red of Palace's home kit, is also nice. Barring that, there's always the option of tinnies from the local mini market. We think that counts as supporting a local business, which we can all agree is a fundamentally good thing.
Though the neighbourhood around Selhurst has features that fans are immeasurably fond of, the debate about moving home is a serious one. Opinions are divided amongst the supporters we speak to, with some wanting the club to continue its recent progress, and others wanting to preserve or develop Selhurst as it is. The idea of moving to Crystal Palace Park has been mooted, with some speculating that the Crystal Palace Sports Centre, a stadium used primarily for athletics, could be redeveloped into a state-of-the-art football ground. The Sports Centre was in fact built on the site of Crystal Palace's original home ground, which they left for Selhurst in 1924. That means that it ties in nicely with Palace's history as a football club, even if it is around two miles away from their current locale.
James tells us his thoughts on a potential move away from Selhurst
Whether or not a move to Crystal Palace Park would be feasible, both financially and in terms of the local authority, a move of ground is clearly something which supporters discuss. One fan we speak to, James, tells us: "I like the plans where they've been talking about taking the club back to Crystal Palace Park... Here, there's only a certain amount you can do. For the club to grow, move forward and go where the chairman and the board want to take us, I think that's something we need to look at." Meanwhile, Jodie and her dad seem to have differing opinions over the idea of a move. "My affinity to the club is not a local thing," Jodie says. "I live in East London, so it isn't about where it is." Trevor interjects to say that, while he has thought about the potential of the Park, he would miss the familiarity of Selhurst. "Where would be the local pub?" he asks. "This is how it's always been."
Fanzine seller Martin melts our little hearts
Other supporters are less keen, however. Martin, the gentleman fanzine seller, says: "There's something about an old, ramshackle ground, isn't there? There's something in the nostalgia around it. Realistically, if you want to talk about the infrastructure of the club, a move to a new stadium with the hospitality and that... might make sense. But, I think from a fan perspective, this is home, isn't it?" He answers his own question, and comes to a touching conclusion in the process. "No-one likes to move away from home."
While a move away from Selhurst might help the club to grow its revenues, and potentially compete in the higher echelons of the Premier League, there are no guarantees when it comes to said strategy. Several fans mention the situation at West Ham in cautionary fashion, and this is in August, well before the most serious problems with the London Stadium become clear. Palace are doing okay at the moment and, banal as it is, it's tempting to cite the old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Perhaps more importantly, there are many fans who want to preserve the club's traditional culture, rather than trade it for revenue and some indeterminate future success in the league.
Speaking to VICE's resident Palace fan, Tom Sabokbar, there's a feeling of nostalgia for a time when Palace were even less flash than they are now. He went to his first game when he was 11, in 2001, during a season in which Palace struggled to survive in the second tier. "I just loved the rawness of the club, and how shit it was, basically," he says. "Selhurst was such a shithole back then. This was before they had plastic seats, I think."
With his dad being a Manchester United supporter, Tom briefly flirted with a big club as a kid. Going to Selhurst was something else, something more appealing, however. "When I first went to see Crystal Palace, I remember thinking: 'This is what football is, this is real football,'" he says. "I really felt like: 'This is what football should be about, this is what I've been missing out on.' The sense of community, knowing other fans, saying hello to people as you walk into the ground; even when you don't go to every game, every season, there are always a few heads you recognise here and there. You don't get that with bigger clubs as much."
Considering that he has defining memories of Palace's days as a lower-league side, the fact that Tom has mixed feelings towards the Premier League is understandable. "There's definitely a sense of ownership when you're the supporter of a team who used to be shit, and are now in the Premier League," Tom says. "When I think back to the season just before we got promoted, I was at the height of going to games, and I was just so into the whole thing. It was lower-league football, it was exciting and we were doing so well. That said, though I'm glad we're still overachieving, it felt more authentic to go to Huddersfield on a Tuesday night than to go to some Premier League games."
Tom definitely has a sense of nostalgia for the days of small crowds, and the close camaraderie that comes with that. "With promotion, the transition is a bit like going from a grotty local pub to a 'Spoons," he says. Rather than a few beloved old grumps in the corner, it becomes a ram-packed hangout, albeit still one that can provide excellent entertainment. Generally, though, Tom still feels that sense of community amongst the majority of the crowd, and knows that the core support are still there. "We have a great time with some of the new fans that have come in over the last few years, but we know that if we go down one season, they're probably not coming with us," he laughs.
One of the tifos at Selhurst, captured on film
When it comes to the mooted move for the club, Tom is pretty set on Selhurst. "The bricks and horrible concrete blocks are part of the charm, and part of the reason that I fell in love with Palace. If they take all that away and it just becomes a big commercial entity – all about money, all about being successful – it won't be the same. The club often say that our catchment area is amazing, and that we could do so much in South London, but I'm not sure if I would want that. I'm not sure that's the reason I started following Palace, to be honest."
While Palace fans clearly have wide-ranging views on what the future should look like, it's certainly true that the pursuit of on-pitch success isn't everything. With the club in a seemingly solid position in terms of finances, and able to aim for (and reach) major finals, it's debatable how much more ambitious the club hierarchy can realistically be. Holding their own in the top flight, playing stylish football at times, Palace's energies might be best directed towards improving their existing infrastructure, and maintaining the culture of which their fans are understandably proud. Selhurst might be a bit tatty in places but, for many supporters, that's exactly what makes it the place to watch football.
To fall in love with Crystal Palace, then, one has to be able to appreciate the scruffier things in life. Selhurst is far from the height of gleaming modernity, and that's exactly the point of its appeal. Palace is a club which retains its lower-league history and heritage, while still going toe-to-toe with the best sides in the country. More importantly, it's a close community, which is not something to be taken for granted in the increasingly transactional environs of the Premier League.