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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

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