Selhurst Park was high on my football ground wish list this season. For three reasons. Firstly, with Palace about to get the final seal of approval of their plans for a new main stand, the days of the original main stand by Archibald Leitch seem numbered. So it is about time to see it.
Secondly, I am doing a project on football memorial gardens. When I visited Selhurst Park a year ago to see their memorial garden inside the ground, I was told it had been scrapped. Later, I later spoke to the club chaplain. He sounded astonished by this, saying that he couldn’t believe it, but it admittedly, a couple years since he had last been called upon to participate in a ceremony. Had it been scrapped? It seemed I had to go and have a look for myself. Another reason for putting it high on the wish list.
Thirdly, commentators on Danish Television keep praising Selhurst Park for arguably the best atmosphere in the Premier League. Well, of course, I have to sample that.
For the past couple of years, I have looked for tickets for Selhurst Park whenever I have been in London, but as demand is much greater than supply, tickets have only been on sale for members. During my visit last year to see the memorial garden, I asked if they did any stadium tours. “Not at the moment”, I was told, but I was advised to sign up for their newsletter to learn when they took the tours up again.
So when I got a newsletter offering special overseas membership, including priority for tickets for the London derby against Spurs AND a free stadium tour, I decided that this was my chance. I signed up as a member, booked two tickets for the Spurs match, so I could bring my cousin Jorgen, living in London – and then I asked how to sign up for the stadium tour. Well, the membership may have contained free ticket for a stadium tour. The problem, however, was that they still hadn’t any tours planned ….
That was a huge disappointment, and things almost got worse. When I purchased the ticket for a Monday night kick-off, I remember seeing a notice that the match may be moved in case of a FA Cup replay. But with the Crystal Palace out of the cup and Spurs having drawn struggling League One team Rochdale, it seemed a rather academic information – and I forgot all about it. Sunday morning, I got an email from Crystal Palace that I could use my tickets for Monday for the match today – a 12 o’clock kick-off! Spurs had a replay scheduled against Rochdale for the Wednesday.
Fortunately, I was not travelling from Denmark, but from Putney. My cousin and I set off for Selhurst Park right away. As a football club, Crystal Palace is one of the younger English clubs – formed in 1905. But in a sense, its history stretches further back than most clubs’. The name originates from the Crystal Palace built for the first great world exhibition in 1851. An exhibition, I have studied as a historian – an exhibition where Samuel Colt’s famous 1851 Navy revolver was displayed among so many other things, that Karl Marx called it “the emblem of capitalist fetishism of commodities”.
The palace itself was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill in 1854. From 1895 to 1914, the ‘new Crystal Palace’ hosted the FA Cup Final – and this prompted the owners to decide that they ought to have their own football club, Crystal Palace. However, when the Great War broke out, the armed forces took over the Crystal Palace grounds, and the club had to move. Initially, they played at Herne Hill cycle and athletics grounds, and then the Nest, the ground of recently folded club Croydon Common. But in 1919 they began the purchase of the land in between the housing in Holmesdale Road, Park Road, Clifton Road and Whitehorse Lane. It was completed in 1922 and the building of the new ground, Selhurst Park, started the following year.
It is quite interesting to consult old maps to see what the area looked like in those days. I have found maps of the Croydon area from 1910 and 1932, that is respectively 14 years before and 8 years after the ground was founded. On the 1910 map, there is a cluster of buildings named “Brick works”, north of the Whitehorse Lane. South the lane, where the stadium was built, there is just one very small building in the middle of a white area on the map. The white area extends right to the Holmesdale Road. On the other side of the road, the current terraced houses has been built.
In his football ground bible, Simon Inglis has illustrated the article on Selhurst Park with a photo of Selhurst Park on the opening day in 1924. A brilliant photo showing the fans queuing up outside the turnstiles, the sloping Holmesdale Road terrace and the brand new Archibald Leitch main stand. Inglis has a dig at nostalgic ‘old ground’ fetishists like me: “Fans who complain of modern grounds looking all the same might well reflect on this, the standard Leitch creation, barely different from those he was designing twenty years earlier.” Well, that is, Palace couldn’t afford the roof gable, the exterior brick detailing, and as far as I can see the criss cross iron work on the balcony. So there are differences. But, still, I can see his point.
Having said that, though, I still prefer old grounds to modern grounds for several reasons.
First of all, the location. Old grounds are usually situated in residential areas. Quite often they have been squeezed in among narrow streets and houses – resulting in irregular stands. Or they have been hindered in their expansion, giving them characteristic features – like scars, wrinkles and warts in an old man’s face. They have grown and changed with the community around them. Most new stadiums are built on ground available and affordable, which is rarely found within the community (although, happily, some clubs do manage that like Arsenal). Therefore, many new stadiums are built in non-spaces – devoid of community life, without any history. Selhurst Park, on the other hand, has been there for almost 95 years. You sense that it is woven into the fabric of the community.
Secondly, you can often detect the history of a club in an old ground. At Selhurst Park, the Arthur Wait-stand is a monument to Crystal Palace finally making it to the top division in English football in 1969. The curious mixture of Sainsbury and Whitehorse Lane stand is evidence of the financial troubles in the early 1980’ies, whereas the impressive Holmesdale Road stand is a remembrance of the early 1990’s, when Palace were relegated in the first season of the Premier League with the highest number of points ever, won straight promotion, only to be relegated again as the first club finishing fourth from bottom to be relegated (as the number of clubs in the league was reduced from 22 to 20). Talk of hard luck. The Holmesdale Road stand today looks as a statement of defiance during those turbulent years. And then, of course, there is still Archibald Leitch’s main stand from 1924. But we will get back to that. In a modern ground like The Emirates, they try to add history with an increasing number of statues outside the ground. But it is just not the same.
Thirdly and finally, many new stadiums with their massive concrete constructions not just look like the parking house architecture, they sound like it. The Archibald Leitch stands, especially those that have still got the wooden floors, generally have a much better soundscapes. There is something hard and metallic in a modern concrete stand.
We arrive by train to Selhurst station and walk up the Holmesdale Road. That is what approaching a football ground should feel like. You can see the giant stand in the distance, where the road starts to go uphill. A few grafters are selling Crystal Palace scarfs along the way. Maybe it is because my childhood Danish team, Boldklubben Frem, had the same red and blue colors, but to me they look really stylish.
The Holmesdale Road stand oozes character compared to most modern stands. The brick façade with windows is a reminder of good old-fashioned stands that were built for factory workers and not for money men from the city. The outside stairs, the ticket office booths, the wall, the entrance gates – they all have a retro look. According to Simon Inglis, this is to maintain some semblance of a residential street.
The roof is also very impressive – the curve probably gives better shelter against rain and, I could imagine, offers some good acoustics, allowing the noise of the crowd to reverberate inside the ground. But, possibly, the best thing about it is the floodlights. They stand on scaffolds at each corner of the roof, parallel to the floodlights standing on pylons at the other end. They look like horns on a viking’s helmet.
As mentioned, one of the reasons why I am so keen to visit, is to find out if the memorial garden is still there. Having noticed that quite a few British stadiums now feature a memorial garden, where ashes of deceased fans can be scattered or buried, I have made a study of them. As far as I have been able to establish, Millwall’s garden from the early days of the New Den (1994) is the oldest. But two other South London teams run them close; Crystal Palace and Charlton. Charlton’s is from 1999, whereas I have not found the exact date or year of the Palace garden. In a survey on clubs’ policy on the scattering of ashes on the pitch from 2000, Palace answered that they had a strip of grass for the purpose behind the Holmesdale Road stand. The memorial garden.
When I visited Palace last year to see this garden – and was told it had been scrapped – I asked about the founding date. The lady I spoke with, told me that it was there when she started working at the club in 1994. I must admit I doubt it. When the Holmesdale Road End stand was built in 1994-5, 30,000 cubic meters of earth was excavated to a depth of 12 meters at the rear of the stand, and a concrete containing wall was built to prevent the Holmesdale Road caving in. I can’t imagine a memorial garden surviving that …. But it is likely that it was founded shortly after the stand was completed in 1995. (if anybody reading this knows about it, please contact me!)
I had also asked the lady why the garden was scrapped. She explained that a tree in the garden had grown so big, that it damaged the exterior wall. And as the garden was difficult to maintain in the first place, it had been scrapped all together two years ago. When I returned to Denmark from this visit, I went on a Palace Fans forum – and found a debate among Palace fans about the state of the garden. Situated opposite a burger stand, it was littered with rubbish, probably because some fans didn’t recognize that it was a memorial garden. One Palace fan offered to raise a fence around it, and, in fact, he posted a photo of the fence after it had been put up – and the tree had already been felled at the time! Making me doubt the tree-explanation for scrapping the garden.
I hold up my camera to a gap in the gate at the corner of the Holmesdale Road and take a photo. The white fence is still there. I plan with my cousin that at the final whistle, we will rush to this gate and try to enter. And if security tries to prevent us entering, he will try to distract them, so I can slip in.
We proceed down the Park Road along the Arthur Wait Stand. At the end of the road, another hill rises, with white houses and green areas. You really get a sense of Palace being a community club.
Whereas the Arthur Wait Stand looks invitingly minimalistic, the Whitehorse Lane (or rather Sainsbury’s) stand with the Sainsbury, the Crystal Palace shop and the Crystal Night Club really looks like a patchwork. And, I must admit, so does Archibald Leitch’s main stand. A number of buildings with offices and club reception have been attached, almost camouflaging that it is a stand – certainly, there are no distinctive Archibald Leitch features on the outside.
But it is a nice patchwork. The entrance gates with the Palace Eagle give you a sense of arriving. And a fan zone opposite the main reception attracts a lot of supporters and gives a buzzle of life just outside the ground. And I like the corners, where you can get a glimpse of the Arthur Waits stand opposite.
We enter the stand through some good old Leitch-style turnstiles. I don’t have the nerve to stop to study them for any inscriptions, indicating the date of manufacture. I hope Palace will preserve them, when they build the new stand – perhaps for the club museum that features in the plans for it.
But the stair leading to the concourse feels a bit flat. It is not like walking the stairs at the Gwladys End at Leitch’s Goodison Park. In fact, the concourse as well seems to have been refurbished recently. It has lost the charm of the brick and steel of old stands, without adding much more space. It feels quite flat – it really could be anywhere, we are standing, queuing for our coffee.
But, I forget about the concourse as I look up the narrow stairs to the stand. I can see the characteristic Archibald Leitch steel work on top of the pillar holding the roof. And as I get to the top of the stair, the wonderful sight of a Leitch roof construction greets me. Beautiful.
The paddock at the front of the main stand was converted to seating back in 1979, and the balcony separating it has been removed. You can, however, still discern the paddock from the concrete floor in contrast to the wooden floor in the old seating area.
Together, wooden floor and the gable roof creates such a special soundscape. You feel like in a living room.
The ground looks beautiful in the morning sunshine. Although it is freezing cold, the sky is blue and the February sun bright. The Holmesdale Road End is equally impressive from the inside, although I am glad I am not the camera man, having to climb up to the television gantry at the top.
I particularly like the look of the corner towards the Arthur Waits stand. You can see the housing in the street – and up there, maybe, the memorial garden almost overlooks the pitch. In fact, the position is quite similar to the memorial garden at the Valley. You would have thought that Charlton during their tenure at Selhurst Park from 1985 to 1991 became acquainted with the idea of a memorial garden – and copied it once they had resettled at the Valley. Only, I seriously doubt that the Crystal Palace garden was founded till 1995.
Our seats are at the back of the stand. From there, we cannot see much of the Holmesdale Road End. It is one of the main arguments against old stands that I frequently encounter. The restricted view. I don’t mind a bit, though. Not just because the velved roof contributes to the soundscape. It adds to this – you-are-in-the-theatre-feeling. And to be honest, the pillars may force you to move your body in order to catch every bit of action. But you will have to be sitting stubbornly still to miss any of the action. I remember some 10 years ago in the museum business, one of the really hot trends was to construct showcases in a way that forced visitors out of their passive strolling-by mode. They should have to bend forward or kneel or do something else to be able to see. To become active.
I may not be able to see the entire Holmesdale Road End, but I can see the small group of Crystal Palace ultras with their flags near the corner flag. And hear the noise of their drum. I must admit I am not particularly fond of this ultra-trend, which I am encountering at more and more grounds. A drum may be good for getting a chant going. But more often than not, it is used to create a continuous, monotonous sound, completely out of sync with the flow of the game.
The great thing about the atmosphere at Selhurst Park is that you can really hear and feel the roar of the crowd when a chance suddenly opens up. But once or twice, the crowd seems lulled to sleep by the drumming and is slow to get the roar going. I have discussed the drumming at other grounds. Some people argue that with the atmosphere in general becoming more and more subdued, it is great that somebody tries to do something about it. It is just that I don’t think it lifts the general atmosphere. It looks to me as though the ultra-element is fairly cut off from the rest of the crowd. And I remember the Crystal Palace fans away at the Hawthorns a couple of years back, where they were quite vocal without the drum.
But, of course, travelling to an away match usually sets the fans up in a different way. The Tottenham fans, right opposite our seats, are in fairly good voice, even though they haven’t had to travel very far to get here. And then, Tottenham makes quite a good start to the match. The Crystal Palace defenders live very dangerously in the opening 15 minutes, but then Palace get their act together, and look almost just as threatening on the break.
Without being a high-scoring match, it is quite entertaining But in the final 10 minutes, Palace is forced back, and you just get the feeling that a Tottenham winner is inevitable. And so it proves. Harry Kane, of course. We really do feel sorry for Palace. All their hard work of getting back in the game undone 2 minutes from the end. But the Tottenham fans, of course, are ecstatic.
At the final whistle, we rush out of the ground and make our way towards the exit at the Holmesdale Road End to find out if the memorial garden is still there. We are walking against the stream of disappointed fans leaving the ground. Surprisingly, we are not stopped by security as we enter rather than exit the ground. We head for the white fence. It is, as the survey back in 2000 put it, more a strip of grass than a garden. But it is fairly well kept. There are fresh flowers around a stone eagle. An inscription on a stone tells us: “Here lie the ashes of Palace Supporters. The attend every game. Please show them the respect they deserve”. Clearly, the garden has not been scrapped, as I was told. On the fans forum, there was a photo of a metal plaque with the same inscription. It has been renewed.
It makes me wonder why I was told that the garden had been scrapped. Maybe it is a security issue. For every year security at football grounds, especially in the premier league, is increased. It is probably considered a risk having people coming to visit the garden and pay their respects. It is easier to tell that there is no garden. Or it could be that the plans for the new main stand may interfere with the garden. According to the fans forum, the club plan to move the fanzone from just outside the reception by the main stand to this corner of the ground. And the memorial garden will be in the way for that move.
I do wonder, what the Palace fans think about it. Any comments and stories about the garden – if any of your friends or family have had their ashes scattered there – shall be most welcome for my project on football memorial gardens.
In the end, we leave Selhurst Park quite content. The garden is still there. And we did get to see the Archibald Leitch stand. Of course, I am a little sad that it will be demolished before too long. But not as sad as I was last year to visit the Archibald Leitch stand at Tynecastle. It was still intact – whereas the outside and the interior here has been renovated beyond recognition. And from the photos, the new main stand project does look exciting. They want to strike a resemblance to the Crystal Palace of 1851. And add a museum. To go back to the words of Simon Inglis, you certainly cannot complain that it looks the same as all new grounds. It will be interesting to come back.