With a unique name, a history that includes winning the FA Amateur Cup on four occasions, and distinctive pink and blue colours, Dulwich Hamlet Football Club is one of the most idiosyncratic presences in English football. But after a little more than one hundred and twenty years of existence, one of London’s best-known non-league clubs is, despite success on the pitch that has taken it to the summit of the Ryman League Premier Division as this season approaches its closing stages, facing a battle to save itself against a backdrop of unpaid bills and intrigue over a property deal that may – or may not – take the club to a new home at the Greendale Playing Fields, just yards from the its current Champion Hill home.
The convoluted story of how this came to be is one that ultimately stretches back almost a quarter of a century. Non-league football in England suffered a downturn in its fortunes from the middle of the 1960s on, and the formerly amateur clubs of London and the south-east were hit harder than most. With grounds built to house crowds several times the number of people that they were now attracting which were both expensive to maintain and, perhaps even more significantly, housed on prime real estate land, the list of clubs that were forced into oblivion or to sell up and hope for the best was a depressively lengthy one. Clubs disappeared forever or forced into mergers or ground-sharing agreements at a startling rate, with few seeming insulated from the harsh realities of the era.
Compared with many, though, Dulwich Hamlet seemed to have got it right. Their Champion Hill ground was cavernous and falling apart at the seams, and in 1991 it was demolished to build a supermarket, with the club building a new, slimmed-down ground on the site of its former training ground, next to the original site. As part of the development, a Section 106 Agreement, which restricted use of the site to recreational, leisure or educational purposes had been signed in October 1990 between Southwark Council, Sainsburys and Kings College Medical School (then the freeholders of the site), but the lease for the new ground only lasted for twenty years, and the Dulwich area was already recognised as one of the most sought-after in London for redevelopment purposes.
In 2008, Kings’ College Medical School sold the freehold to the site to a company called DHPD Ltd for £1.2m. DHPD Ltd. was a newly formed company, and its sole director was one Eren Muduroglu, whose brother Sami had been the owner of Fisher Athletic. Meanwhile, the football club was sold to a new owner, Nick McCormack, who was reported in the local press at the time as being a ‘life long Hamlet fan’ but who was actually widely understood to be close to the Muduroglu brothers. The following year, the owners were understood to have attempted a sale of the ground that never materialised, and in 2010 a further two attempts to redevelop the site occurred, a scheme to build sixty flats on the car park adjacent to the ground which was later withdrawn without explanation, and a second, the first to involve the Greendale Paying Fields, which was rejected by Southwark Council in February 2012.
Perhaps this basket was the one into which all of DHPD’s eggs had been placed, because in May 2012 that company entered into administration, reportedly over non-payment of the loan that was taken out to secure the purchase of Champion Hill leasehold in the first place. The administrator’s report, which was made public in December 2012, stated that, “it would appear that the timeframe required to obtain planning permission could be too lengthy and thus it may well be marketed for sale as is,” and so it was that the administrators eventually sold the leasehold to another property development group called Hadley Property Group, while Nick McCormack remains the man in charge of the football club itself.
It was against this background that small blow was struck for supporters of the club when the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust confirmed in September 2013 that the Champion Hill stadium had become the first ground in London to become listed as an “Asset of Community Value”, which allows, in the event of the owners attempting to sell the freehold or a lease lasting for longer than twenty-five years, community groups six weeks to decide whether they would like to express an interest in bidding for the property. If they do, the owner is not able to sell for six months, although they don’t have to sell to the community group. Such a designation isn’t a panacea for the ills of this dismal situation, but it does at least offer a tiny bit of temporary protection to the football club as well as being a sign that, whatever happens to Champion Hill, there is unlikely to be much quiet acquiescence on the part of the club’s support unless they agree with whatever happens next.
With the involvement of another property development company, so the idea of redeveloping Greendale Playing Fields has resurfaced, but what realistic chance is there of a new ground being granted planning permission to be built there. This site sits on Metropolitan Open Land, a designation used in London which is is intended to protect areas of landscape, recreation, nature conservation and scientific interest. It is less than four years since a request to redevelop this land was rejected by the council in no small part for this very reason, and recent communications via social media platforms with local councillors have indicated that there is little official support for the council’s position to be any different should another planning permission application be received.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that, easy though it might be to paint the latest property developers as the bad guys of the latest instalment, this might not necessarily be the case. The Hadley Group is understood to have been basically keeping the club financially afloat this season, though their motives for doing so would be – if we’re honest about this, understandably – unlikely to be out of the goodness of their hearts. This week, though, the gas was turned off at Champion Hill, a state of affairs that is now understood to have been resolved, but for a short while the possibility that this weekend’s home league match against Bury Town would have to be cancelled. The inclement weather may yet put paid to this match, but this shot across the bows can only have served as the most severe of warnings that the club’s position is dire to the extent that extinction should be close.
In the meantime, all eyes will fall upon The Hadley Group. Are they aware that any new plans to build on the Greendales site will be likely met with fierce resistance? Almost certainly. Would the support of the fans be useful in countering this? Possibly. But what might happen should Champion Hill be demolished whilst an application regarding the planning permission of Greendales is delayed? Well, that might just turn to be the great unanswerable hyopthetical question that no-one could successfully answer until it’s too late, but what we know for certain is that the ACV designation gives the club’s supporters a tiny bargaining chip, and that time will come to tell just how important this turns out to be. In the meantime, it might just be that the biggest asset that supporters of the club could have might be unity. At other clubs in recent times, there have been fractures amongst groups of supporters that have only served to help others. It’s a trap that they would do well to avoid.
At the time of writing, Dulwich Hamlet sit at the top of the Ryman League Premier Division. It’s a tight division, for sure, with just nine points seperating the top six clubs in the division, but what is clear that manager Gavin Rose is performing oustandingly to keep the club in such a position against such an unstable background. Promotion and silverware, however, are false Gods in comparison with the very existence of the club itself, and it is this that is on the line unless an agreement can be reached that ultimately secures its future. And what we can say for certain is that there is clearly and self-evidently worth saving here. Dulwich Hamlet’s unique place in the landscape of English football has been battered enough by the machinations of individuals who have given little impression of caring very much at all about the club in recent years. There can, however, be a future for Dulwich Hamlet, and it can be a bright one. For now, though, yet another fine old club faces an uncertain future, for now. And not for the first time, either.
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