They’ll be working very in South-East London today to try and get tomorrow’s big match on in the Ryman League Division One South, between Dulwich Hamlet and Maidstone United. Here’s Damon Threadgold from The Real FA Cup with a look at Hamlet’s season so far.
For the last couple of years, South London’s most nostalgic, if not most successful, non league side have been enjoying a purple patch. Ultimately, that has only resulted in a familiarisation with the Cardiff City oeuvre of play off defeats and a lost cup final. But, under the guidance of Gavin Rose and assistant Junior Kadi, Dulwich Hamlet are now attaining a justified reputation for melding an aesthetes outlook with a degree of end product.In 2011 the pink and blue got to the play offs with a late surge and lost in the final to Leatherhead. Last season, having been top of the Ryman Division One (South) for a good chunk of it, they slipped away in the last few weeks, missed out on automatic promotion and then lost narrowly to Bognor Regis Town in the play off final. It’s worth noting that the two clubs that snatched promotion last year are currently first and fourth in the league above.
This season, with ex-league club Maidstone back in their home town, at a large bespoke ground and with the locals throwing themselves back through the turnstiles, it was assumed Hamlet would again, at best, be the bridesmaids. After some early season jitters, that assumption gained legitimacy with Maidstone’s brutal form throughout September and October. The two sides were among three or four others jostling for the top spot when they met in Kent in the middle of October. Hamlet were summarily dispatched back to South London with no points and a goal difference of five fewer. A preponderance of Cup games for the Stones meant Hamlet, and the others, kept in touch only by virtue of having played several more league games. A draw and a loss at home to two other Kent sides, Faversham and Hythe Town, at the end of October seemed to end any hope Hamlet had for the season. With that second Dulwich result and dropped points from others Maidstone went top and the hackneyed and proverbial phoenix seemed invincibly climbing back to the seventh tier of English football.
However, since those October setbacks, Hamlet have staged a cliche-inducing fightback that would cause that mythical chap from the Gospel of John to blanch. Since November Dulwich have won nine and drawn two of their 11 league games and won another four cup games. Maidstone, by contrast, have inexplicably dropped a lot of points, to the extent that their notional lead has evaporated, their games in hand are a dim recollection and the two go into this weekend’s big clash level on points at the top. Hamlet’s success has been an unswerving idea that football should, primarily be played on the ground and include lots of passing that makes the opposition wear themselves out a bit. This is allied with three attacking midfielders possessing very quick feet, pace and a good level of skill – but more importantly at this level, consistency. Let’s not over-egg the quiche, though – Hamlet can be direct when pinned back, can frustrate with the inaccuracy of their final ball or finish and shoot themselves in the foot with a defensive lapse. But they do have ingredients higher-league rivals covet and a growing consistency that may yet see them overcome a side that should run away with this league.
Those three attacking midfielders. Ellis Green (formerly of Maidstone) and Nyren Clunis are the wide men, ostensibly Ellis left and Nyren right but they do switch. The more central attacking midfielder is Erhun Oztumer, a tiny gift of a player with feet so quick it’s often difficult to see them move. He also has a lethal penalty (there was shock and disbelief when he missed one last week) and an eye for a pass that, earlier in the season was simply not read by his teammates. To the untrained eye this lack of telepathy made Erhun look an erratic genius but you only had to catch the action at the right moment and from a sufficiently expansive vantage point to see that nine times out of ten he made the right decision but his team mate simply didn’t react quickly enough, predict what he might do or believe that he could do it. For good reason was he a Charlton youth and in the Turkish top flight with Manisaspor. And he’s still only 21. And just five foot three.
While the increased understanding between team and Oztumer has played a big part in the last three months, another is the emergence of eighteen year old striker Danny Carr. Arriving via Reading’s academy and Eastbourne Borough, Danny has slotted into the formation better than any admittedly decent striker before him. His promotion from the youth team has produced 14 goals in 15 games. His debut was as a late substitute in Hamlet’s last defeat. He came off the bench in the following game and scored and has been a starter ever since. He’s busy enough to fulfill what is in effect a lone striker’s role when Dulwich are on the back foot, makes good forward and diagonal runs that suit Hamlet’s wide men and is a sufficient physical presence to be a target man or foil when the wingers go wide. This all round game is topped off with a belter of a left foot, even if his right leaves a little to be desired. It is, of course, unfair to single out these four players because the whole team has performed superbly and consistently in the last two and a half months. Lewis Gonsalvez at centre back and Ryan James at fullback are much improved while Junior Kadi and Luke Hickey sit effectively in midfield keeping everything ticking over.
As with every non-league side, keeping good players on a tiny budget is difficult. Rose’s team have been assisted recently by the Supporters Trust’s ’12th Man’ campaign that has collected funds for the club on the proviso that the money is ONLY spent on players. It has secured the signing of Danny Carr and eased a few imminent worries. Gavin and Junior not only manage the first team but oversee the Aspire Academy that provides the club with young talent from within the community, trained to play football the ‘right way’. Several of these players have gone off to Premier League or Championship clubs in the last two years alone. Commercially, Hamlet are a bit stuffed, like many others. They simply don’t generate the revenue to compete much higher up the pyramid. However, with the team playing well Hamlet’s average attendance is pushing 400, which is up on recent years and is the second best in the league behind Maidstone. It is, though, a long way back in second. Maidstone’s resurgence has seen them average about 1700 this season, the best being 2,200 in the New Year’s Day derby with Sittingbourne, which eclipsed even the attendance for the pre-season official ground-opener against Brighton.
As well as the additional match day revenue Hamlet have spruced up their club bar. It’s long been revered in non league for its enviable vista that overlooks and runs half the length of the pitch. But it has rarely been welcoming or very well stocked. The revamp has made it much warmer with some zeitgeist flock wall paper, a dartboard has been added for entertainment and Shepherd Neame have been brought in to provide Spitfire and a bespoke ‘Hamlets Lager’ (Yes, ‘Hamlets’, not Hamlet, which has produced some local head-shaking. Yes, ‘Lager’, not ale, which has also produced some local head-shaking – it’s actually pretty crisp and fresh, thankfully), which now makes it an increasingly welcoming venue. For their part, Maidstone have recently signed Folkestone Invicta’s Stuart King, the most prolific marksman in the Ryman South over the last eighteen months and have retained the services of last season’s top scorer, Shaun Welford. Stick them together with this season’s top scorer Paul Booth and you realise where Dulwich will need to be good. But the Stones have dropped nine points in the last month with a series of draws and a damaging defeat thanks largely to a leaky defence. So, we’re all looking at a tense goalless draw then?
Being January, it would be too much to say Saturday is a make or break game for either side but it could well be the season’s defining moment. A second Hamlet defeat to Maidstone might be a big psychological blow, especially given Maidstone’s resources. But, if pitches remain playable and a few other teams, like the surging Leatherhead and the erratic Crawley Down Gatwick, can cause Maidstone a few problems, Hamlet are right in it.
Weather permitting, Dulwich Hamlet v Maidstone United will be played at Champion Hill at 3pm on Saturday 19th January. £9. See @dulwichhamletfc to make sure the pitch isn’t frozen. You can follow Damon on Twitter by clicking here. You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.