It was in February 1990 that I made my first trip to Champion Hill for a Vauxhall-Opal (Isthmian) League Premier Division match between Dulwich Hamlet and St Albans City. As a youth, I was singular in my interests and the opportunity to visit the home of one of the former giants of amateur football, a stadium that had played host to Olympic football in 1948, before its demolition and conversion into something a little more user-friendly was too good to pass up, even for a sixteen year old boy who should have had more pressing things on his mind, like girls and booze. A couple of decades worth of neglect had certainly taken their toll on the old place, though. By 1990, only the cavernous main stand, smelling slightly of dry rot, pock-marked with elderly men with greased back hair and more than a hint of the greyhound track about them, remained safe to use – the rest of the ground was closed off, though the weeds growing up through the crumbling concrete terracing were clearly visible, even from my vantage point, more than a hundred yards away.
This was non-league football in London during the 1980s. Around the periphery of the capital city, at Walthamstow, Leytonstone, Ilford and beyond, the former homes of amateur football were crumbling. The reasons for the decline and fall of amateur football and its struggle to find an identity in a world that no longer distinguished between amateurs and professionals are many and varied, but may be summed up by the phrase “changing times.” The amateur football clubs of London saw the distinction between themselves and professional clubs formally ended in 1974, but with crowds on the non-league game already starting to have dropped more than a decade earlier, maintaining the interest of local people and in turn the cost of maintaining these big amateur grounds of the past became an increasingly uphill battle.
Ilford, Leytonstone, Walthamstow Avenue and Dagenham all eventually merged into one club, as did Hayes and Yeading. Hendon, Enfield, Wealdstone, Kingstonian and Edgware Town all lost their grounds for a variety of reasons. Leyton and Fisher Athletic went to the wall and their grounds remain derelict, although Fisher did at least end up with a new club and plans for a new ground. Even Barnet, now returned to the Football League, had to move out of their home borough. Some clubs survived in some form or another, others didn’t. Some were lucky enough to find new homes of their own, others remain nomadic or facing uncertain medium-to-long term futures.
To put it another way, sustaining a non-league football club in or very close to London is usually a matter of perpetual subsistence living. The value of real estate land accentuates the problem in the capital, in that it offers temptation to both the unscrupulous and the desperate, and a city with a population of 8.6 million people plays host to fourteen Premier League and Football League clubs is always likely to see a degree of pressure pushing downwards on smaller clubs. Against such a backdrop, the idea of a London non-league football club posting it’s highest attendances in decades might be considered a good news story, but in the case of Dulwich Hamlet recent growth in attendances has led to mainstream media attention with a side order of that most twenty-first century of commentary styles: snark.
The attendance for the Dulwich Hamlet match that I attended a quarter of a century was a somewhat paltry 237 people, a figure that was reflective of the collapse in support that many of London’s “traditional” amateur football clubs suffered throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When Hamlet took the field for their home league match against Billericay Town last Saturday, still in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League – although that division is now a level lower than it was a quarter of a century ago on account of the institution of the Conference South in 2004 – the attendance was 1,547 people. These are attendances that most teams at this level of the game would give their right arms for. At a level of the game at which there is no such thing as television money and external commercial revenue sources are similarly threadbare, getting actual bodies through the turnstiles, to buy a drink or two, a programme and perhaps a strip of raffle tickets is a critical aspect of keeping a football club solvent.
On the one hand, the club may well consider that any publicity is good publicity and few online publications offer as much as the website of the Guardian, one of the most-read online news publications on the planet. Still, though, and for all of its virtues – which, in comparison with many other corners of what passes for “journalism” in this country these days, are manifold – there can be something fundamentally annoying about increasingly seems to be its in-house style at times. Their Katie Forster went to a Dulwich Hamlet match once, but “The whole miserable experience put me off football for the next 15 years.” And it’s in this that the scene is set for an article that manages to crowbar in many of the Guardian’s current click-bait favourites. Nigel Farage? Check. Simultaneously admiring and dismissive glances towards a narrow perception of gentrification? Check. The overall impression that you couldn’t tell whether the writer enjoyed her time at Champion Hill or hated it? Most definitely, check.
The commenters below the line certainly hated it. They hated the concepts of beards and tattoos. They hated the idea that a proportion of Dulwich’s support might have left-wing political persuasions. And they definitely hated craft beer and German sausages being sold at a football match in London. The concept of the “football hipster” is a few years old now, but in an age when the “hipster” may be more easily defined as “anybody I disagree with/might disagree with/don’t like the sound of,” perhaps this particular straw man is one that has reached its sell-by date and should finally be sent off to the bonfire once and for all.
There are people in the world with varying degrees of an interest in football. These range from outright obsessives who fill every spare minute of their time devouring every single live match, book, newspaper article, whatever they can get hold of, on the subject. There are people for whom going to a match on a Saturday afternoon is a ritual maintained through habit, a little like non-religious people who eat fish on Fridays. And there are people for whom football is an occasionally diverting pastime, which may kill a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon if there’s nothing better to do. If we are to indulge the “football equals religion for the secular” school of thinking for a moment, we’re a broad church. There’s space enough for all – particularly at the level of the game at which clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet ply their trade.
There will most likely be some amongst those that Dulwich Hamlet have acquired as new supporters who will drift away from the club as quickly as they arrived. That’s inevitable at any football club – support bases are usually more fluid than most allow for. But the appeal of lower division football for those turned off by the excesses of the top end of the game should be obvious, and many will have found a bond at Champion Hill that may just last for years and years. Dulwich Hamlet has achieved something extraordinary in finding a way to reinvent itself, and the lazier stereotypes of some corners of the media shouldn’t cloud our view of this. Other smaller clubs may well be looking at what has been brewing at Champion Hill over the last couple of years and learning some valuable lessons in the art of building its support based on a strong, community-focused identity. It’s certainly preferable to the condition in which this club has found itself for the vast majority of the last five or six decades or so. Like all clubs at this level of the game, the challenges remain great, but there’s no crumbling terracing no smell of dry rot hanging around Dulwich Hamlet at the moment.
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