I’ve visited London many times before but not Crystal Palace. When thinking of the area before arriving there this year, the only thing that came to mind was Selhurst Park, the home of Crystal Palace FC – which I learnt isn’t even in the Crystal Palace district. It’s in the neighbourhood of Selhurst, believe it or not, and that’s not the only thing I learnt when wandering further afield. More on that to come.
For now, I’ll focus on my original reason for trekking across south London during a Wimbledon off-day and that was visiting Selhurst Park. Before arriving, I’d watched enough Match Of The Day over the years to know that the ground would be in a residential area. But I didn’t quite realise how urban it actually is until I saw the Sainsbury’s store sat between the club shop and stadium. Also next to the supermarket was a set of stairs that led to the executive boxes, which were adjacent to an office that looked like my old college tutor room. Not quite the life of luxury but a nice throwback to the days before corporate takeovers.
Recently, the Eagles have made the news for using garlic to get rid of parasites on their pitch. People were conducting work during my walk around the stadium but any odour or lingering smells were non-apparent.
Instead, it was a real sense of community that left the biggest impact. A wall featuring famous players such as Ian Wright, Chris Coleman and Andrew Johnson featured side-by-side with the fans’ names and messages. One particular brick read: ‘Eeeeeeeagles’. Which you would hope wasn’t paid for by the letter.
A few gaps in the blockades allowed for a little glance at the stadium inside, which looked very modern compared to the brickwork all along the ground’s exterior. A capacity of 24,456 makes it one of the Premier League’s smallest grounds and yet the club are able to attract stellar names every year. Dutch legend Frank De Boer is the manager next year with international players like Christian Benteke, Wilfred Zaha and Yohan Cabaye in his squad. Although I can’t imagine many of these names in the Sainsbury’s next door.
Crystal Palace aren’t the only team to have played home games at Selhurst either. Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon FC had two respective spells using the ground from 1985 to 1991 and 1991 to 2003. And for another tidbit, I’m fairly certain 80’s hooligan film The Firm, starring a young Gary Oldman, used Selhurst Park in a great tracking shot that’s well worth scoping out.
Crystal Palace National Sports Centre
Much to my surprise, when delving further north of Selhurst Park, I discovered another stadium in Crystal Palace Park. The athletics venue belongs to the National Sports Centre, which is available for public use and has further facilities for sports such as swimming, tennis, squash and beach volleyball. Originally it had been part of five National Sports Centre’s across England but is now official only in name following a takeover.
Built in 1964 and with a capacity of 15,500 (24,000 with temporary seating included), the stadium is rich in sporting history. Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson have both set meeting records there when they competed at the annual London Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbaeva broke the world record three times there before setting the current record of 5.06m at Zurich in 2009.
Away from athletics, more history has been made on the site. Between 1895 and 1914, the FA Cup final was played on the same space where the stadium lies now. Aston Villa won four FA Cups at the ground while Newcastle appeared in five finals but never won any. The biggest ever winning scoreline for an FA Cup final was also set there and is still intact today: Bury 6 – 0 Derby County. While the highest ever attendance at a club ground was recorded in 1913 when Villa beat Sunderland 1-0 in front of 120,028. Crystal Palace FC were the tenants at the time but were forced out by the military two years later, despite only being in existence for 10 years.
In more recent times, the Eagles have looked into moving back. With the London Stadium now hosting athletics meetings following the 2012 Olympics, there is a danger that the NSC could become redundant as a sporting venue. Palace had applied for a 40,000-seater stadium to be built along with an improvement of the indoor facilities adjacent to the ground. Not much progress has been made on those plans recently though. Which I’m personally kind of pleased to hear, as I quite like Selhurst Park. It would be a shame to see it go and lose its old charms. Maybe there’s a way of renovating and revamping both stadiums in the future.
Best Of The Rest
Crystal Palace Park is a hidden gem of London. It offers a range of different attractions from Grade I-listed dinosaur sculptures to sport facilities used by world-class athletes. I learnt so much about the history of Crystal Palace beyond the football ground I visited. The remains of the exhibition centre which was destroyed by fire in 1936 are still present and give an indication into the scale of the palace which perished. A museum is located in the park and it’s also worth checking out whether the secret underground subway that was recently discovered beneath the road in the north of the park is available to tour.