‘105 years of history, we will not die without a fight’.
This is the message that greets me as I walk into the beer garden of The Albion pub in South Norwood. This is the message that the Holmesdale Fanatics (HF), a hardcore group of Crystal Palace supporters, wants to deliver as their beloved club stares into the abyss.
The 20 or so members who are smoking and drinking when I arrive are not exactly sure what is going to happen. What time we will set off for Selhurst Park and the expectations as to how many people will turn out vary. There is talk of 500 supporters turning up. Some are more cautious and put the turnout in the region of 250. How long the protest will go on for isn’t known either.
But they are all adamant that something must happen. In the words of one protester ‘a show of strength and unity is needed’. With the club’s fate appearing ever more perilous, the group began organising this protest on Facebook on Friday evening.
The smell of spray paint and marker pen wafts into the overcast air as they make the final preparations to the banner. One of the group uses a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four to aid his shading in of an eagle - a part of the club’s badge. Another picks it up and jokes that he should find an inspiring passage to read out.
The laughter is punctured as James (not his real name) picks up a text on his phone. It says that the club will go into liquidation on Tuesday unless CPFC2010, the group trying to take control of the club, can do a deal.
As they take this news in, the reality of the situation hits them. The club that that they have been following for years could very well cease to exist in under 24 hours.
When the time comes to leave, we all head outside and mass behind the banner and begin to march.
Cries of ‘Eagles’ and renditions of the terrace anthem ‘Glad All Over’ fill the air as we walk past confused passers by. Some drivers blow their horns in support, others don’t know quite what to make of the couple of hundred red and blue clad people walking across the busy road, beers and scarves in hand.
We wind our way up Holmesdale Road, stopping traffic as we go. After the initial crescendo of noise, things die down. While a few of the HF are up in front, in the thick of the action, one or two are hanging back. As the anticipation builds to the protest’s focal point - the convergence on Selhurst Park - the noise level drops.
When we get there, hundreds more fans are waiting. When the HF see this, a loud cheer goes up and the two groups merge into one.
The chanting resumes, and the HF gets to work on creating a show. Amidst the noise and throng of people it is hard to stay with the group.
Two flares ignite and fans begin bouncing up and down. Bemused Bank Holiday shoppers from the nearby Sainsbury’s come outside to see what is going on.
Members of HF resurface on the roof of the turnstiles into the Family Stand and they unfurl the banner that was spread across the pub garden floor, along with another that reads ‘Ultras’.
From up high they play the role of conductor, leading the fans below through a catalogue of Palace songs, perhaps the final symphony in this storied club’s history.
All of this is being captured on film - a Sky Sports News cameraman is making his way through the throng, capturing shots of the spectacle.
Soon the police are on the scene as well. A single car drives slowly down the road leading up to the stand. The fans part slightly when they see it, however they don’t budge by much. The officers soon think better of trying to break up the crowd and retreat further up the road.
Four more cars and a van turn up. One officer told me the protest would only become a problem once ‘they try to get onto the pitch’.
That’s exactly what they do next.
Mark, one of the HF members on the roof, launches into a rousing tirade against the mess the club is in - and those he thinks are responsible. He implores people to get into the ground and onto the pitch.
Some fans surge forward and run through the unlocked turnstiles. A few begin to shake the big blue gates nearby, but they stay locked shut. Dozens get in before the police block the turnstiles off.
Those that do get inside get onto the stand and continue chanting. Cheers go up, although some fans aren’t happy with what the HF are doing. Someone starts a rendition of ‘Get off the pitch’. The police continue to watch.
This continues for over half an hour before, slowly, they surface outside the ground. I spot them in the Sainsbury’s car park and there is excited chatter about how well the protest went. Just past 6pm we retrace our steps and head back to The Albion.
In the fading light of the beer garden we were in earlier we sit on a bench drinking. Mark, who has the logo of the HF emblazoned on his cap, begins speaking first. “I think a thousand people or more were down there. To have that many people down there is amazing. Everyone had the passion.”
Andrew, who is sitting directly across from Mark and taking periodic drags on his cigarette, listens intently and says: “We were waiting for the right moment and the right time to do this. Now it’s gone down to the wire and we decided this was the best time. We decided on Friday night that this was the time to do it.”
David, who is standing just behind Mark pacing around, explains why he let off a flair on the roof of the turnstiles. “I got up at eight o’clock in the morning, I was here first. When it comes to this club I go out of my way.
“A little bit of smoke, it’s like letting steam out of your ears. I bought a new pair of trainers today and I ruined them. Do I give a fuck? Of course not, for this club, anything.”
Who is to blame for this mess? The group are very clear about who they believe are the culprits: Sky’s vision of ‘modern football’ and former chairman Simon Jordan.
Andrew makes the point that there are more Manchester United and Chelsea fans in Croydon than there are Crystal Palace supporters because of what he sees as Sky’s 'version' of football that they promote. This has led to a drop in gate receipts, he says.
James has this to say on Jordan: “Jordan came in and treated it as his plaything and he didn’t want anyone else around him, he didn’t listen to anyone, he just ran it as he thought fit.
“He was making terrible decisions, taking loans out when he should have been investing his own money and spending that money on the club. It’s ended up costing us fans more than it will ever cost him.”
They all think more clubs will go the way of Crystal Palace. Mark says football as it is now is not ‘sustainable’.
“We’re going to be the first of many clubs to start toppling over,” warns Andrew.
“This is going to be the start of a crazy conga line of clubs going bang, bang, bang because companies like Sky are packing millions of pounds into the Premier League, this traveling circus.
“They believe that’s the promised land, they see it as some Harlem Globetrotters situation. They don’t care about the finances of smaller clubs going under, they just care about the big rich clubs.”
“It won’t be long before there’s two divisions that are professional in English football and the rest are part time. There’s no way it can sustain itself.”
Mark employs an analogy to make his point.
He says: “You’ve got two sides of the river. There’s only four people on one side of the river and everyone else is the other side and if you want to get to the other side of the river you have to have a big enough boat. But if you pile that boat full of money that boat is going to sink. This is Sky’s river that they’ve created.”
The conclusion that cannot you cannot escape from is that there is a degree of powerlessness to such a protest. Mark and Andrew continually emphasise that it is the fans that matter in all of this, not the ‘money men’.
Mark tells me: “A football club is the centre of the community. It’s not like a business - it’s not like if WHSmiths or Woolworths goes out of business and you have to sack the members of staff.
“People have invested not just money but their emotional attachment. This is something with a passionate history. Football represents the culture of a certain area, this is a club in South London that represents a wide catchment area."
He adds: “This is people’s lives. Banks think this is just another business but it’s not, this represents so much more than that.”
Short of printing money, there is little the Crystal Palace fans can do to alter the dire financial straits the club is in. For the HF the prospect of just watching this was not an option.
“You grow up with the club. You go from the age of three or four every single Saturday for almost the whole year. With the group [HF] it becomes more of a Saturday thing. You put everything into it. For that to be taken away by something you can’t control is sickening,” says Andrew.
Mark continues along the same theme. “Think about the amount of people that have supported this club and brought it to where it is now. To have people that are using it as a fucking toy and deciding our fucking future - it should be Palace fans that push this forward. How’s that fair?”
The television in the pub broadcasting Sky Sports News provides the soundtrack to our conversation.
Every time Palace get a mention, the fans out the front go rushing in to hear of any new developments. When they hear the downbeat assessment of the administrator Brendan Guilfoyle, some in the group want to go back to Selhurst Park and break in again, but this is quickly nipped in the bud.
The police have wised up to what’s going on and a repeat of the scenes earlier would be stopped very quickly. Some do go back, and later on one of the group comes back to tell the others that around 25 fans are in the ground, and one of them is even streaking.
As the fans begin to head off, their instinct is to say to their mates: ‘see you next season’. There may not be such a thing for this football club. For the HF, such a prospect is unthinkable, and they say liquidation will not be the end of their action. Throughout the day there are mentions of the possibility of setting up an ‘AFC Palace’ team.
Adam dismisses such talk with contempt. “That will never be talked about, fuck that. Some fans talk about that but I think they romanticise it. That’s bullshit, not now.”
Their focus remains firmly set on the here and now.
“They think liquifying the club will be the end of it,” Andrew says laughing.
“It will only be the start, it really will. I don’t mind what I do after that.”
As the clock ticks ever closer to Crystal Palace’s possible extinction, Paul finishes. “If those fucking companies are responsible for our death then those same Palace fans will be on their fucking front doorsteps. We broke into the stadium - the last thing they want us to do is go to their headquarters and do the same thing. We will not die without a fight. Full stop.”