Dulwich Hamlet: Play-off Champions back on the hill?
“If we f**k this up, we’ll never play at Champion Hill again.”
That was the opinion of one Dulwich fan standing next to me, delivered just after Dulwich missed their 3rd penalty, leaving them only one up in the shootout. Dulwich Hamlet weren’t so much playing Hendon yesterday as they were playing Meadow Residential, the New York based property firm holding the club and their ground hostage. Dulwich, exiled from their ground, are currently playing their home matches (including yesterday’s final) at Tooting & Mitcham FC, fierce local rivals of Dulwich. This is a move that sums up everything about the way football as a whole has rallied behind their story.
For a second after that penalty miss, the shootout seemed to be back in the balance. The fairytale ending on hold, and the luck of a club who have seen everything go against them off the field looked like it might return to form. Eventually though the film finished as scripted, with fans streaming across a pitch bathed in evening sunlight, their shadows reaching their heroes before they did.
In the end, even yesterday’s win can’t guarantee they’ll ever return to their place on the hill. That decision rests with Meadow Residential and their planning negotiations with Southwark council. It seems unlikely Southwark will agree to a deal now, but Meadow might still want to hold out and hope to get something through, or at least secure a bigger sale on the land.
Although promotion isn’t a cure, Dulwich’s day in the sun (literally and metaphorically) has done their cause no harm. Yesterday’s crowd set an attendance record of over 4,000 for the ground. More than that, their cause has received significant attention in the traditional media, and across social.
Certain fans go on about how money has ruined football, and I disagree with that. I am perfectly happy to see footballers who worked incredibly hard to get where they are and play under immense pressure week-in week-out get reimbursed accordingly. The only caveat to that is in terms of how money is distributed amongst clubs. It can seem tough to take that Manchester City can spend billions while Dulwich Hamlet have been forced out of their own stadium through no fault of their own.
Even then, the problem isn’t too much money in football though. Dulwich wouldn’t be in trouble financially if the value of the land on which their ground sits weren’t so high. The problem is too much money in property, especially in London, caused by a failure to build homes and address geographic inequalities in this country. A football club or ground shouldn’t need to generate millions simply to be allowed to exist. That though, is a topic for a different day.
I went down yesterday for several reasons: it felt like a fight worth fighting; geography dictates I don’t get to many Leeds games; and the sun was out.
Being part of a football crowd is a special experience combining belonging and the best bits of Church and/or the pub. Like I said, I don’t get to many Leeds games. But yesterday, I saw a fanbase and a half. I’m talking of course, about Dulwich’s diehards, the Hamlet ultras who made an away ground their own.
It wasn’t just about supporting their own team though. The inventiveness and playfulness of their chanting and the unabashedly carnivalesque atmosphere they produced throughout felt like an attempt to reclaim the thing that maybe money has begun to kill – the joy of football. If you’ve never heard a Dulwich Hamlet chant, this one was probably my favourite. Of Gavin Rose, the man at the helm:
His second name is Rose,
his other name is Gavin,
And we really like him,
we like him,
we like him.
In fact we f**king love him,
we love him,
we love him.
At the end of the match, as the fans lifted the members of the blue and pink army on their shoulders, you could see how much it meant to the players to give something back to their loyal support too. I wrote recently about how you don’t get to choose your football team. Some people are just lucky I guess.
Ok, so far we’ve had politics and fans. Now for actual football. Football in the sun, no less. Football in the sun means knockout football. Whether it’s Geoff Hurst at Wembley or Gerrard in Istanbul, if the sun was out that day, it’s likely the football mattered. The sun isn’t everything because, unlike Stoke City, football can do it on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke. It helps though.
It’s nice to be reminded that football isn’t all gossip columns based on a dartboard in the office of a national newspaper. Football is seeing a winger glide past the full-back, or perhaps equally enjoyably, be completely stopped in their tracks by a defender who’s seen through the step-overs. A crunching challenge in the centre of the park; a towering header at the back; a goalkeeper flinging themselves through the air; and a million other clichés make football great.
Watching Hendon’s huge, imposing centre-backs against the plucky, nippy lone Dulwich forward was so fun to watch that it almost made me forget to make it into a metaphor. That was a battle that didn’t need a narrative to be enjoyable. Watching midfielders scrap for the ball before it breaks out wide and a winger streams forward with the ball can make politics seem a long way away. Dulwich’s scrappy equaliser shunted over the line, another solo effort which rattled the bar, and the blood-and-thunder aerial football which began to dominate as things tightened up in extra time all made the pitch worth watching, regardless of the happenings off it.
Yesterday I watched football. And the sun was out.