“THEY THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO GET BEATEN UP. MUM W ASN’T TOO HAPPY”
Some 45 years before the Crystals, it wasn’t all pom-poms and glamour for the Palace Dollies
Football in the 1960s was not the most progressive of beasts. But in one corner of south-east London there were at least some signs that women were becoming a visible part of the match-going experience. Noting an upturn in the number of their female supporters, the suits at Crystal Palace proudly introduced a new ‘Ladies Section’ at Selhurst Park and, with much fanfare, announced the formation of an all-girl troupe: the Palace Dollies.
The girls weren’t cheerleaders in the modern-day Crystals sense, but would dress in shirts and mini-skirts, meet fans and sell programmes and lottery tickets around the ground.
It was 1968 and the club was closing in on promotion to the old First Division. Rita Carter, one of the first Dollies to join up, explains: “You had to be 14 to join; most of us were still at school. You didn’t have to be six-foot, blonde and leggy – just willing.” Carol Elmwood was another early recruit. “We worked really hard,” she says. “It was always freezing cold. Nearly every weekend through the summer we were somewhere doing something, charity-wise. It was like a full-time job.”
While the game was on, the girls would sit pitchside on old gym benches. Did it ever get a bit hairy with some of the opposition fans? “My mum did turn up to one match against Everton, just to see me,” recalls former Dolly Beverley Murphy. “It was a bit hostile and we all had to leave the pitch and sit in the changing rooms! They thought we were going to get beaten up or something. Mum wasn’t too happy about it.”
One of the Dollies’ main roles was to run fan clubs for individual players, some of whom would even turn up for get-togethers at the girls’ houses. “I remember going to [defender] Mel Blyth’s one, at the home of one of the Dollies in South Norwood,” laughs Rita. “They really were different times back then.”
“I remember walking home after a game and seeing [centre-forward] Gerry Queen wandering around Thornton Heath eating an apple,” Beverley offers. “He told me that’s how he used to unwind after playing. We stayed friends for quite a while.” The Dollies aren’t saying if it ever got... ahem, ‘over-friendly’, although Irene admits: “A couple of girls were older and a bit more sophisticated. They They’d socialise with the players. Gerry Queen always seemed to be around…”
There seems to have been a real bond between the girls and the team, particularly the younger players, many of whom were teenagers themselves and often far away from home. “They all had lodgings near us and we’d see them on the way home from school,” says Carol. “We all knew everybody. It was like a big youth club, really.”
The Dollies came to an abrupt end in 1974, soon after the arrival of new manager Malcolm Allison. “Rumour has it, he decided that we weren’t glamorous enough to be representing his football club,” says Rita.
“We were just ordinary girls who loved the football team.”
And they still do. Rita is a season ticket holder and follows Palace home and away (“They don’t kick off unless I’m there”). Beverley went on to work for the FA, and used to tie the ribbons on the FA Cup, while Irene coached youngsters at a school in Bournemouth, including current Cherries youngster Joe Quigley.
“It’s great – you feel part of the club’s history,” recalls Carol of Dolly days gone by. “We still go to matches and then head off to the pub afterwards, just like we always used to.”
You’re probably less likely to find any of the Crystals propping up a South Norwood boozer after the final whistle, however the current crop of pom-pom wielders are keenly aware of their predecessors. “Friends always looked a bit baffled,” says one of their number, Nina Mccue, “but we would always tell them that Crystal Palace have had cheerleaders for 40 years now. It’s brilliant!”
The Crystals chalk one up for progress