By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Continuing TLE’s recent focus on non-league football, Sports Editor David de Winter and Deputy Editor Joe Mellor went to Dulwich Hamlet FC to see a club very much on the up.
A freezing late January Saturday afternoon – I could have chosen a better time to make my first foray into live Ryman Isthmian Premier League football. Or could I? The club in question were Dulwich Hamlet FC, flying high in the league and rumoured to have some of the best supporters around. As a firm enthusiast of non-league football, I thought I’d head along and see what all the fuss was about.
Dulwich’s ground, Champion Hill, is built adjacent to a large Sainsbury’s superstore, and it isn’t immediately obvious that there is a football stadium there at all. I was convinced that I was just following a load of pink and blue scarfed fellows (the club’s colours, very Jack Wills) doing their weekly shop. However there appeared a couple of turnstiles in the distance, so I paid my £10 (bargain) and entered the stadium.
Champion Hill has one main stand which houses around 500 seated fans, the changing rooms the club offices and the club bar, which sold everything from local ales to single malt whiskies at remarkably inexpensive prices (by London standards at least). The rest of the ground is very much as one would expect: open and standing room only. What was enjoyable was that one could walk around the entire circumference of the pitch without interruption – indeed I was so close to the action that I could almost reach out and touch the players. As (the) regular reader(s) will know, I do enjoy a bit of good old-fashioned standing at my football matches, so Joe, our pals and I plonked ourselves behind the goal with ‘The Rabble’ (Dulwich’s version of the Ultras, or Dultras if you will) to watch the first half.
So what of the football? The Isthmian Premier League is two divisions below the Football Conference, and being a Woking FC fan and having seen the standard of their play recently, I wasn’t so hopeful of seeing a spectacle of free-flowing football. Well I ate my words. Dulwich were more than happy to get the ball on the deck and play out from the back, despite the atrocious pitch which also had an alarming slope very akin to Lord’s cricket ground. Their opponents, Grays Athletic, were slightly more old-school in their approach but despite not seeing much of the ball in the first half, were rarely troubled. The Hamlet had a lot of possession and territory with neat interplay but as is so often the case in lower-league football, the final pass was conspicuous by its absence. A half-hearted penalty appeal and an opportunist rebound after a bit of penalty area pinball were all they had to show for their efforts.
At half-time we, along with ‘The Rabble’, moved to the opposite end of the ground via a couple of very tasty burger stalls. I must at this point focus on the club’s supporters. There were easily over 1,000 at the match, probably as many as 1,400 (Dulwich attracted 2,800 for the local derby against Hampton & Richmond Borough earlier in the season) which is staggering statistic for a Ryman Isthmian league fixture (most Conference clubs would be delighted with such a turnout). Although most of the fans were had beards, wore thick-rimmed spectacles and had trendy haircuts, (I also spotted some pensioners and several pushchairs – start them early and all that) don’t let that fool you into thinking they were not passionate. They sang all game, waved their huge flags (like the one’s seen in continental grounds), draped their banners over the advertising hoardings and were generally everything a zealous football fan should be. It was a brilliant atmosphere.
Anyway I digress. The second half was a somewhat scrappier affair. With Dulwich riding high in the league, they knew they had to win to keep pace with leaders Maidstone United and they went a bit more direct in their play. The opening goal came after around 70 minutes – it was a cross from the right which ended up being turned in by a Hamlet player but I couldn’t see very much because I’m short and everyone was standing in front of me. There was a right old hullabaloo from the Grays players – maybe the ball had gone out or someone was offside but after consultation with his assistant, the referee (who also had a very fetching beard) gave the goal.
Athletic pressed for an equaliser – they had a few openings which they skewed wide but they left themselves open at the back which Dulwich took advantage of in the closing moments to seal the match. Again I couldn’t see very much but I am (un)reliably informed that the Hamlet number 12, who looked very lively when he came on, dribbled the ball deep into Athletic territory and drilled a shot past the goalkeeper, an enormous man who, to his credit was more than happy to share a bit of banter with the home support.
So would I go to see Dulwich Hamlet FC play again? Absolutely. Cheap ground entry? Yes. Good atmosphere? Yes. Welcoming supporters? Yes. Decent refreshments? Yes. Standing and sitting options to watch the game? Yes. It was an afternoon of proper non-league football and we loved it.