With one win from four Premier League matches, you might think that Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace side needs all the support it can get at the moment.
But the club has risked alienating a significant section of some of its loudest fans in a dispute over seating allocations.
The Holmesdale Fanatics are felt by many to make the noise and atmosphere which has characterised Selhurst Park in the past couple of seasons, their enthusiasm, energy and colourful banners setting the ground apart from the more restrained, too-corporate nature of so many Premier League clubs.
It is reckoned that around 100 Palace fans make up the Fanatics. They are usually positioned behind the goal in the Holmesdale Stand, near the corner flag.
But discussions over the summer with the club’s co-owner, Steve Parish, about moving them, en bloc, to a position behind the goal have left the Fanatics angry and feeling let down.
They claim that a promise was made to make the move. The reality which has emerged since the start of the new season last month is that existing season ticket-holders in the Holmesdale have failed to be persuaded to move from their usual seats to make way for the Fanatics.
So during Saturday’s defeat to Southampton, the Holmesdale Fanatics’ drums and voices were silent, their banners unraised, all in protest over their treatment. The subdued atmosphere during the game was noticeable long before the result became obvious, and was even remarked upon in some national newspaper reports.
Former Palace keeper Alex McCarthy, now a Southampton player, said after keeping a clean sheet on Saturday that he had no doubt about the impact the silenced Fanatics had on the game.
“Is it less intimidating? Yeah, it is a lot quieter without them there,” McCarthy said.
But if there had been some hope that some kind of solution might be found to the demand for the behind-the-goal positions, that seemed to be dashed on Sunday night when the club issued a statement which some among the Fanatics groups have interpreted as being a two-fingered salute to them.
“Should the group choose not to return, we know the 23-plus thousand of us that remain will do our level best to make the atmosphere at Selhurst Park as vibrant and positive as it has always been,” the club statement read.
The statement in full says:
Last season, a supporters’ group, The Holmesdale Fanatics, requested that we re-position them in Block E of the Lower Holmesdale Stand for the 2018/19 season. Their idea was to try to create a central “singing section”, instead of in the corner, in the hope it would further improve the atmosphere inside Selhurst Park. They also said they felt the group would find it hard to continue if we could not facilitate this move.
The club, and particularly the chairman, saw merit in this idea and when season tickets went on sale we held back the entire Lower Holmesdale with the intention of looking at it further and hopefully implementing. Given that nearly 100% of Lower Holmesdale season ticket holders renew (and 92% for the stadium as a whole this year), the only practical location to move those supporters in Block E to facilitate such a move would have been either at the front of block B – in effect swapping seats with the Holmesdale Fanatics – or offering them seats that are considerably less desirable towards the back of the Arthur Wait stand.
News of the proposal leaked out and we received a large number of written and verbal objections from supporters in the area that would have been affected. Many of those supporters writing to us pointed out that they had been in their seats since the stand opened and were strongly opposed to what they saw as them being forced out of their seats.
We explained to the Fanatics that we felt it would be hugely unfair and disruptive – as well as potentially cause a great deal of ill feeling towards their group – if we pressed ahead. Instead, we promised that we would revisit this once the Main Stand was rebuilt and we had better alternatives to offer those who would be displaced.
For their part, the Holmesdale Fanatics felt that the plan should be to move supporters in the middle along to make space for them and re-shuffle the entire stand around in order to create the central area for the group and other supporters who wanted to participate. This felt considerably more complex as it would involve moving an even greater number of supporters.
We kept the usual allocation of 100 seats in Block B available on exclusive option to the group as we have in previous seasons, but these were not taken up during the season ticket renewal period. We chased the group up on this during the summer and asked them their intentions. We were told that they would not be using the tickets: they felt they had been promised the move and would not be returning, which was obviously very disappointing. We kept the seats open in the hope they would reconsider until the last possible moment, before putting them on sale two weeks prior to the start of the season. To date, around 35 of those seats have been sold as season tickets and the rest are being sold on a casual match by match basis, some we believe to members of the original group.
There is nothing to stop the Fanatics returning to support the team as a group; we are sure that everyone would greatly welcome their presence back at Selhurst Park, but unless 100 supporters at the centre of block E would like to give up their seats voluntarily on the basis that the club will do its very best to find them alternatives, there is no real prospect of facilitating their wish of a move to the centre of Block E at this time.
We have also looked at a safe standing area, and should this be allowed in the near future we will see if this can help facilitate a solution.
We are not aware of any club embracing and working with a supporter group in the way Crystal Palace has done with the Holmesdale Fanatics, the safety group and the authorities. It is a great shame that they feel that they do not want to attend and support the team as a group this season, but in the absence of any other suggestion – apart from that of moving long-term season ticket holders out of Block E – it is difficult to see how we can do any more to make that happen.
We remain open to any ideas and sensible solutions that do not disadvantage our other valued supporters.
Should the group choose not to return, we know the 23-plus thousand of us that remain will do our level best to make the atmosphere at Selhurst Park as vibrant and positive as it has always been.
The Fanatics were less than amused.
Claiming that the club offered a “misleading” version of the situation, in their own statement in response, they said that they had been working with the club for “an inclusive singing section… open to all supporters”, and that it “had twice been agreed to by the club”.
They said, “It was never intended to simply swap HF members for existing Block E season ticket-holders – and would have been open for all fans.”
They described the club’s statement as “essentially painting their own fans in a bad light”.
The crunch comes at the end: “The HF are hoping for a resolution to safeguard the massive strengths of Palace’s unique supporting culture before they are lost forever.”
Which seems like a serious threat.
As one widely read Palace fanzine, The Eagles Beak, tweeted, “Here’s an idea – the club meet the HF to talk face to face to discuss a resolution rather than rumours that turn into statements that simply increase the frustration across the fan base. Let’s all be clear, the atmosphere has suffered and we want it back. Get it sorted.”
It is clear that Palace struggle without Wilfried Zaha (the last time they managed three points without him was a 3-2 win over Sunderland in September 2016). But they may soon be forced to discover whether they can win games without the vociferous backing of the Holmesdale Fanatics.
And if Parish and Palace do allow the Fanatics to walk away, it will not only be a loss for Selhurst Park, but a loss for all of the Premier League, too.
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