Sport

Holmesdale Fanatics: the spirit of Lenin storms Palace

The buzzing atmosphere at Selhurst Park is the product of a revolutionary vanguard.

Did anyone notice anything unusual about Manchester United’s 2-2 draw against Fulham last Sunday? No, it wasn’t United’s mediocrity. That’s standard these days. What was striking was the noise. United fans were actually singing. When did you last hear the home fans making a noise at Old Trafford? On a big European night or a derby game maybe, but more often than not Old Trafford is like a library. The Theatre of Silence. So what’s changed?

Undoubtedly, the return of the ‘singing section’ – first trialled against Real Sociedad in October 2013 – made a big difference. Singing sections will inevitably attract scepticism and mockery. Traditionalists will bridle at any whiff of contrived atmosphere. However, it’s clear that radical action is needed to revive the atmosphere in the Premiership’s hushed and soulless stadiums.

The funereal atmosphere at Old Trafford is not a new phenomenon. Back in September 2000, Roy Keane famously complained about a new breed of United fans who ‘have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch’. But his isn’t a problem confined to Old Trafford or to spectators in the corporate boxes. You’ll find the same morgue-like atmosphere at most Premier League stadiums. If anyone’s making some noise it’s invariably the away fans. The home supporters are usually muted, except when there’s a goal and they briefly jump up and clap along to a burst of goal celebration music – typically ‘Chelsea Dagger’ or ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

As I said, the very notion of singing sections is anathema to traditionalists. In Britain, we prefer to create our own atmosphere. We don’t need cheerleaders or cheesy stadium DJs screaming ‘Make some noise!’. Any form of contrived atmosphere feels, well, foreign. I don’t particularly like the idea of official singing sections myself. It not only feels orchestrated, it implies that the rest of the stadium is an authorised ‘keep schtum zone’. It’s also ironic that football clubs are now trying to resuscitate the atmosphere after having spent the past two decades trying to pacify fans. Fans are ejected for standing, being drunk, swearing, lighting smoke bombs and singing offensive songs. Little wonder that the atmosphere at many English football grounds is so flat.

In fairness, the Old Trafford singing section isn’t a piece of crowd manipulation dreamt up by behavioural psychologists at the behest of the Glazers. Fan groups, such as Reclaim United and Stretford End Flags, have long campaigned for a dedicated singing section at Old Trafford. A cynic might say that supporters shouldn’t need permission to sing. The reality is that it’s not that easy to generate atmosphere in a large stadium. Before the Taylor Report ushered in the new era of sterile, all-seater stadiums, the most vocal fans – usually young blokes who’d sunk a few beers – congregated together on the terraces. They weren’t singing sections as such, but it was a minority of fans who got the chanting going.

It is possible to improve the matchday atmosphere without an official singing section. At Crystal Palace, the decibel count has dramatically increased in recent years. Palace fans – home and away – have been drawing plaudits all season from opponents and broadcasters alike. ‘Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic fans’ was José Mourinho’s verdict after Palace raised the roof at Stamford Bridge. Robbie Savage recently wrote that Palace ‘have the best fans in the Premier League’. Why is the atmosphere so electric in unfashionable SE25? Did someone put singing potion in the south London drinking water?

Bear with me here, but I reckon Lenin’s pamphlet What Is To Be Done? provides the answer. Yes, that’s right, football can learn from Lenin. A football crowd, you see, needs leadership. It needs a vanguard. The rejuvenated atmosphere at Palace didn’t happen spontaneously; it was a product of the dedication of a small, well-organised cadre of hardcore fans. They call themselves the Holmesdale Fanatics and they aren’t ashamed to borrow traditions from European ultras, such as flags, banners, scarf-twirling, flares and choreographed ‘tifo’ displays. They also keep up the chanting non-stop, accompanied by a relentless drumbeat.

And it’s not just the same old hackneyed ‘Sloop John B’ chants. The Fanatics have developed a fresh new Palace songbook using tunes seldom heard in English grounds such as ‘I Fought the Law’, ‘Mrs Robinson’ and ‘The Rivers of Babylon’. The fact that Palace had been in the second tier of English football for the past eight years was probably a blessing in disguise in some ways. In contrast to supporters of the big London clubs, young Palace fans weren’t priced out of going to watch their team. Moreover, the stadium was half-empty which meant that the ultras could congregate in the same part of the ground – a corner of the Holmesdale lower tier – without asking anyone’s permission.

The purists may sneer at English ultras like the Holmesdale Fanatics. Drums and flags? It’s not the British way, is it? But so what? Football traditions shouldn’t be preserved in perpetuity. Fans don’t wear clogs, wave wooden rattles and puff on Woodbines anymore. These days we tend to romanticise German football, where ticket prices are reasonable, standing is permitted and the atmosphere is rocking. But take a closer look and you’ll find drums and even portable PA systems for ultras to lead the chanting. As I said, a football crowd needs a vanguard to catalyse the chanting. The Holmesdale Fanatics may not thank me for saying this, but they are terrace Bolsheviks. They’re making change happen. And there’s nothing stopping other fans following their example. You don’t have to sit down, shut up and accept the status quo. To adapt an old radical slogan: Don’t moan, organise.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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