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English ultras? The story of Crystal Palace’s Holmesdale Fanatics

English ultras. Even the phrase just seems bizarre. But down in Crystal Palace, South London, the Holmesdale Fanatics are attempting to change just that. They seek to normalise ultras culture within the English game, helping create better atmospheres, and a different kind of relationship to one’s club. A relationship where the fan is no longer a consumer merely attending fixtures to sit and clap nicely. But to offer an active level of support, one based on community, organisation, and connection. It’s no secret that the level of soul within the English game has greatly declined in recent years, yet nestled away in the midst of the gloomy Croydon streets, at one of England’s great old grounds, Palace stand alone.

It is a far-cry from the traditional notion of English support. Most fans of English clubs prefer a barrage of spontaneous singing, complete with a typically English tongue-in-cheek songbook, as opposed to the sustained ultras chants which can offer appear monotonous and without improvisation. So much so, that many criticise the incessant noise often heard in continental Europe as merely becoming background noise in the end. Something that players and fans simply just get used to.

Yet the real perquisite of ultras culture goes far deeper than just atmosphere. It’s a mentality. A way of life. Ultras are traditionally vibrant, discerning, and imaginative. But most importantly, they exist to act as a brake, as a strong resistance to the soulless ruination of football. They attempt to wrestle power back from owners of clubs, by being active within the club and their local community. Ultras culture, whilst often wrongly viewed as something violent, something aggressive, may ironically be able to achieve exactly the opposite. Perhaps they can bring the morals back into English football, the morals that have so drastically been relinquished. Though the latter may perhaps be a wider societal issue. On the footballing side, ultras can help fans gain greater control over ticket prices, along with internal club decision-making. Yet off the pitch, they can act as drivers of community organisation, fighting for what’s right and giving a voice to those who are often unheard and in need.

For instance, the Holmesdale Fanatics fought passionately against the closure of world-famous London nightclub Fabric back in 2016, recognising the pain and destruction that with such a move would be wrought on those who rely on it, for their livelihoods, or even just for their weekend release. They were also one of the most vocal critics of this season’s Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, one of English football’s great clubs. The banner held up displayed an image of a mock owner’s test. Terrorism, check. Beheadings, check. Along with civil rights abuses, murder, censorship, and persecution. That’s what the Holmesdale Fanatics thought of it, ridiculing the lack of principles amongst the Premier League authorities. There was in fact little significant resistance to such a sale even amongst Newcastle fans, so utterly fed up with the depressing Mike Ashley years, exacerbated by British culture’s deeply ingrained capitalistic nature, whereby success, shiny trophies, big name players and money must be chased, regardless of whether it’s tinged with blood. Yet the Holmesdale Fanatics resisted.

Though despite criticism of ultra-led atmospheres, it can be electric. “Sha la la la la la la, Crystal Palace” is a tune ringing around the confines of Selhurst Park on any given matchday, a song that would traditionally be heard in the Bundesliga, a league famed for its atmospheres and strong fan culture. That’s before we mention Palace’s cacophonous “we love you” chant that booms around the ground after a home goal is scored.

Selhurst Park is a proper English football ground, yet it’s European-style support gives the place a resplendent blend. The iconic curved roof, combined with the stadium bundled in amongst the traditional terraced housing of South London, gives the place a romantic feel. With the ground also feeling quite dilapidated, the ultras culture of the Holmesdale Fanatics isn’t the only thing going against the grain of what has become the norm within English football. Such traditional grounds with heart, soul and history, are unfortunately being lost. Particularly in the city in which Palace inhibit. Following the stadium moves of clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham United, Highbury, White Hart Lane (to an extent), and Upton Park, once considered cardinal cathedrals of the English game, have all vanished, never to be seen again. Even Brentford’s Griffin Park is no more, all of which is perhaps a symbol of the city’s inherent capitalist, corporate and money-obsessed nature.

On the pitch, Palace have enjoyed a fine season with Patrick Viera at the helm. A 12th place finish may seem slightly underwhelming, though the club finished the season with a total of 48 points, but just 3 points off the top half, and 8 points of a European spot. Yet off the pitch, they continue to lead the way. Will ultras style support be the future of passionate support in England? Perhaps not, though they offer something different, something deeper, and something moral. And for those reasons, it must be lauded.

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