The glitziest match-day experience in English football can be found in an unglamorous corner of south London. Siân Ranscombe paid a visit
Crystals at Selhurst Park
By Siân Ranscombe
April 21, 2015
Selhurst Park is an unlikely home to the glitziest match-day experience in British football. It is the Premier League’s fourth-smallest stadium, a venerable 91 years old, but its tenants, Crystal Palace, are the only club in the country to have their own cheerleaders.
Stacey Greenhead, 23, is the Crystals’ head coach. South London born and bred, she joined the squad in 2013 after graduating from university with a degree in dance. “It’s great to have some pre-match and half-time entertainment,” Greenhead says. “I love the fact that we’re the only team with cheerleaders and we get a great response. That’s one thing we can pride ourselves on, that we definitely have the best fans in the Premier League.” (League One’s Leyton Orient once had the wonderfully-named Cheery-Os but the squad has since disbanded.)
Although cheerleading is seen as a traditionally female activity, the first organised cheerleaders in America were men – Ivy League students who whipped up the crowd before college games at universities such as Princeton in the 1870s. Women were not allowed to participate until the 1920s, and began to dominate cheerleading only during the Second World War.
It is technically a global sport in its own right now – the International Cheer Union has 104 member nations, including Great Britain – but while cheerleading is a regular feature of professional sporting events across the United States, it has never really caught on in British arenas. There was a half-hearted attempt to introduce it to football matches in the early 1990s. The Sky Strikers, who performed during broadcasts of Sky Sports’s Monday Night Football, lasted the 1992-1993 season before the idea – and squad – hit premature retirement.
The Crystals’ 21-woman team was formed nearly two decades later, in 2010. Some are professional dancers but others, such as 24-year-old Jay Slaughter, fell into it by chance. Slaughter, a midwife, had been a Crystal Palace season ticket holder for three years when she was invited along to audition for the Crystals last year. “I tweeted a picture of my dad and me in the crowd one day and the Crystal girls’ Twitter account followed me shortly after, sending me a message asking if I would be interested in auditioning,” she recalls.
She had taken lessons in ballet, tap and modern dance as a child but had given up dance once she got to college and began studying midwifery at Plymouth University. “It’s funny actually because normally at half-time we’d go inside and have a drink or a burger, so I hadn’t actually watched the Crystals much,” Slaughter says. “I assumed they’d all be professional dancers. Being part of the team for my first match was a surreal blur because it was so weird to be on the pitch watching the crowd rather than the other way around.”
As well as providing pre- and mid-match entertainment, the Crystals also venture out around the ground collecting for the club’s chosen charities.
“A lot of the dads want the kids to have a picture with us – then maybe get one themselves, too,” Georgia Krelle, a Crystal since 2012 says. “It’s lovely when the girls pay attention to us. We appreciate that even more.”
Krelle, 23, credits joining the Crystals with more than just adding to her fitness regime. “I had no confidence, growing up,” she says. “I was bullied at school and left with no GCSEs as a result. Being in the Crystals and being a part of this group has built up my confidence so much; I’m like a different person.” Now she also dances professionally.
The squad meets up to choreograph its routines on the Sunday before a home fixture (they are not allowed to perform at away games and when Palace reached the Championship play-off final with Watford in 2013, they were denied the chance to perform before the match at Wembley). The match-day ritual is always the same. “I get the girls in two to three hours before the game,” Greenhead says. “We get changed, get glam, and then go out around the ground interacting with the fans. After our group warm up, we get ready to go on to the pitch.”
The Crystals are free to go home once they have completed their half-time cameo. Slaughter, however, has a season ticket to make use of, even if it only gets used for half a game at a time. “If we’ve not got anything else on, I’ll jump back into my seat so I can watch the second half,” she says. Most of her seat neighbours don’t blink an eye, except to wonder why she always arrives so late. “We do wear quite heavy make-up and big hair though,” she says. “So I do get a few people looking at me going, ‘Well, she’s made a bit of an effort for the football.’”