Despite the uncertainty swirling around the future of fan-owned Dulwich Hamlet FC, the local community’s love for the club is manifest on a sodden afternoon in south London.
A visit to its Champion Hill home on National Non-League Day – which saw Dulwich attract nearly 3,000 fans; the highest attendance in National League South – confirms the affection in which ‘The Hamlet’ is held in SE22.
It’s a club that is thriving in many ways, but is also currently in talks with Southwark Council about building a new stadium on an adjacent plot in partnership with developers Meadow Partners, which owns the site.
The outcome of their joint planning application is by no means certain, potentially threatening Dulwich’s continuing existence at Champion Hill, where the club has been since since 1912.
New home or no home?
In a statement to support its planning application, the Hamlet said:
“As a fan-owned club, DHFC could not afford the estimated costs of longer-term renovation (over £2m) or the estimated costs of a replacement stadium compliant with the demands of the modern game (over £10m).
“Only a new stadium at Champion Hill will allow DHFC to deliver the current standard of football to the current level of crowds and continue its work with local schools, groups and charities on a long-term basis.”
The statement added: “At the current level, with our crowds, our players and staff, this is the only viable option. Without this plan, a new home would be required and there are no viable alternative locations in the local community, so we would either be playing locally on a much smaller scale or forced to move outside of the community.”
In the meantime, Hamlet fans continue to turn out in large numbers, especially since the club’s return to Champion Hill in December after a dispute with Meadow Partners which saw them playing at Tooting & Mitcham’s ground for several months last year
Dulwich have the second-highest average attendance in the National League South at around 1,700, not far behind former EFL outfit Maidstone Utd.
As a first-time visitor to Champion Hill, it is not hard to see why so many supporters have embraced the club as a kind of antidote to the money and hype that, for some, so disfigures the elite tiers of today’s professional game, particularly the global behemoth of the Premier League.
The pink and blue of the club’s colours are prominent among the fans, and their lively chatter over a craft beers or two – available from three bars -generates an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere.
The club has its rituals, including a ’50/50′ draw in which the winner get half of the money raised, and the holder of a second ticket get to take part in a crossbar challenge at half-time for another prize.
The great part about this simple but effective money-making scheme is the cash raised was going to two charities: Prostate UK (the cause back by National Non-League Day) and one tackling the issue of youth violence.
A piece in local newspaper Brixtonbuzz about the club’s uncertain future included a quote from Hamlet fan Jack Thompson, who said: “DHFC is not just a football club. It is an essential part of the local community, offering inspiration to youngsters and the elderly (like me at 81) alike.”
The torrential rain which fell all afternoon as Dulwich, 13th in the table, took on high-flying Weymouth (4th), failed to dampen spirits, despite most the 2,906 present not being sheltered by any kind of roof.
Families and groups of adults alike were talking, which in this modern era of technology doesn’t happen so much at games at the highest levels. People nowadays are too busy recording goals on their phones, then their reaction to those goals, but their was very little of that at Dulwich (although the persistent downpour may have played its part).
What Hamlet fans and their club do specialise in, however, is lending their support to issues and causes that affect both football and wider society.
Just this year, they have been involved in a walk from Selhurst Park to Champion Hill to raise awareness for mental health and male suicide in support of the charity Campaign Against Living Miserably. They hosted a friendly against Stonewall FC, the Gay World Champions, as part of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Month, and have been sponsored by trade union UNISON and renewable energy company Bulb.
No protests broke out during an exciting 2-2 draw with Weymouth, but the banners, signs and countless stickers around the compact ground tell their own story of current concerns, just as the name of the main stand – in honour of Dulwich legend Tommy Jover – links back to the club’s past.
Out on the pitch, a Hamlet legend in the making, Nyren Clunis, was playing his 463rd match for the club – still 113 off the record set by Reg Merritt.
Clunis came through the club’s youth academy and is one of only seven players to hit a century of goals. Keeping him in the pink and blue is a popular move among the fans.
This season’s shirt sponsor also seems in keeping with the club’s ethos, with Bulb being all about climate change and sustainability. It certainly makes a change from the corporate giants and online betting companies whose logos feature on the strips of many Premier League and Championship teams.
There is a strong sense at Dulwich that both club and its fans think that little changes can add up to making the world a better place, and surely that is a philosophy that bigger clubs would do well to adopt.
You can tell that this club has made a difference in the community, with its rainbow-painted murals on the floor and a wall next to the south side covered terrace where you can read about the many good things the club and its fans have done for the local area.
It’s no wonder that Southwark Council, for a short period, named Champion Hill as an asset to the community as it is a proud part of the make-up of Dulwich.
As one of the few fan-owned clubs in England, any neutral supporter will surely hope that Dulwich’s future can be secured in the coming months. And any fans in south London looking for a game when their team are away or without a fixture should pay Champion Hill a visit. Up the Hamlet!
Photos by Brandon Prangell.