The recent success of Dulwich Hamlet has been overseen by two very different organisations. On the one hand, there’s been the supporters themselves. On the other, however, has been… a property development company that is confounding what we would normally expect from such a company’s involvement with a football club. Kevin Rye, the former communications director at Supporters Direct and now an advisor to that company, explains.
Over recent years there has been a minor flurry of articles and features about Dulwich Hamlet FC, not least on this very site, after seeing an increasing band of supporters taking to the distinctive pink and blue. Where once just 200 people were peppered around Champion Hill, now an average this season of over 1,000 make it their home. Here are some more stats: 1,500 turned out to see them beat Billericay Town 1-0 in a Ryman Premier Division fixture in early season, and just under 2,000 came to their recent ‘pay what you want’ (nearly) Non-League Day fixture against VCD Athletic (it was a week before.) They’ve had attendances that surpass the lowest gates of four League clubs (Accrington, Morecambe Dagenham & Redbridge and Crawley Town,) which to me seems something of a milestone even if it is a bit of a statistical oddity; they get bigger attendances than five National League clubs, all bar six NL North and two NL South clubs. They beat every other club at their level and below except one in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. Attendance records have been broken. Their cup truly runneth over.
Yet it’s been met with groans from some. I’m often struck by the kind of cynicism in football which says that more people through the gate is automatically a bad thing. Of course it brings challenges with it, but given that most existing fans seem to have taken to the new reality like ducks to water, it’s nothing like a problem. Indeed one long-term supporter embracing the new reality recently interviewed described the old days as a “chore”. Whilst I don’t want to devalue the experience of thousands of supporters of non-league clubs that haven’t seen a similar surge, you can see the point: Deserted stadia often developed for thousands of people because of ground regulations but largely empty week-in-week-out can be difficult places to love.
Yet some – looking from the outside in – claim that it’s an influx of trend-conscious hipsters who are not ‘real’ fans somehow (the underlying assertion, I think). The word ‘hipsters’ gets thrown about – not least in a recent rather flimsy piece of click-bait from The Guardian – to cheaply sum up a fan base that is more diverse and complex than that. The presence of ‘craft beer’ is regarded as though it wasn’t something you can buy at your local supermarket these days, and silly beards as though they’re not de rigeur everywhere anyway. Hipsters exist, I’m not denying that, and some of them do I presume go to Champion Hill, but it’s straining at the edges of a narrative that isn’t borne out by the facts on the ground.
How so? Whilst at Supporters Direct I became very familiar with the weariness from a lot of fans from across the supporting spectrum towards The Premier League’s relentless sales pitch. There was and is a parallel & increasing desire for reconnection to the meaningful in football that accompanied it, which makes places like Dulwich an attractive alternative. What’s happening at Dulwich is an exit route for plenty of those sorts of people – and many others who don’t come from that demographic I suspect. This search for the tangible is not confined to football either. It’s happening in all walks of life to the point where even Foster’s Lager tried the heritage route for a while (until I presume they realised that what’s in the can actually matters).
There’s a good cross-section at Dulwich: old and new fans, those in the supporters’ trust and those who aren’t, many of whom are genuinely doing things in their community – and beyond – other than enjoying the football and the beer (nothing wrong with just enjoying the latter two alone if that’s your thing): There have been living wage campaigns for cinema workers in nearby Brixton, massive collections for Calais refugees, supporting food banks, anti-racism and anti-homophobia projects, arts projects, Black History Month – club, trust, community, all involved, all wanting to contribute something. We preached that gospel for years at SD, and seeing it motion doesn’t make me frustrated that a load of ‘hipsters’ have somehow ruined a once proud club by turning up. It makes me excited at what can be achieved, and justified in saying that football clubs who understand what they are to their fans, and work in genuine tandem, can do great things, and be great places to be.
Where Dulwich Hamlet are definitely lucky, however, is in having the chance before them to make it permanent through ownership. The irony is that what will make their current trajectory a permanent feature is actually down to the old enemy of football: the property developer. Like many other clubs, Dulwich Hamlet had a new ground built in the early 1990s, when their dilapidated old ground was bulldozed to make way for a Sainsbury’s, and a new one built on the old training pitch next door. Barely a decade later, another scheme came about to move the ground further down the hill again, and then just two years ago, with the lease to the stadium heavily borrowed against, everything came full circle and the club was in serious trouble.
This time it looked particularly bleak. I was advising the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust over their successful ‘Asset of Community Value’ application for Champion Hill when news of renewed problems came. The trust had already been working hard to increase its work and its profile, and in publicity terms the ACV was something of a coup and seriously worried the company that was owed the money. I attended a car-crash meeting alongside the trust with the lenders, leaving with no clear idea of what they really wanted except their money back (with a bit more if at all possible, I’m sure.) Eventually, Hadley Property Group bought out the lease on the ground, and began assessing their options. I’d already had their advisers onto us, asking for a meeting but at that time myself and a colleague were both basically a bit sceptical about the idea, having no reason to believe it was anything more than a tactic to gain planning permission. As a house-builder and developer, it won’t surprise you to know that Hadley exists to build and to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. However, the track record of developers in football hasn’t been exactly stellar, and doesn’t need to be recounted here.
Yet they could easily have waited for the club to go under, and they’ve said as much themselves: the finances were in an awful state, and it wouldn’t have been long. Until Hadley turned up the club were even paying for the water & power used by the car wash located on club grounds! With the trust’s agreement, myself and a colleague eventually met with Hadley, listened and insisted – fairly strongly I recall – that they would have to prove themselves to the fans to have any hope of achieving this aim, and that it was the fans who had to want to work with them to make the ownership element work. After more time had elapsed it was clear that Hadley weren’t proposing simply a tick-box exercise as things really did change.
In the two years or so since they bought control of the site and club, they’ve been as good as their word: Amongst many other things, they’ve paid down debts totalling about £450,000, provided a new two-year deal to a very promising and committed manager in Gavin Rose and the man who also founded & runs the club’s player development partner, Aspire. The books are in a far, far better state, although they have reiterated that long-term the club needs a properly sustainable approach to the business. Being an advisor to Hadley as I am now, I have been on both sides of the table and it is hard not to be at least a bit impressed – though you might say “of course you’d say that”, but let me explain. The planning application currently being finalised doesn’t just bring with it the usual difficulties that a complex urban planning application brings. The site itself is complex and alongside a stadium & housing includes the protection of parkland, but there are also the issues around fan ownership – for which Hadley naturally want the support of the fans: the 300+ membership of the Trust will be voting on whether to support the plans very soon – a membership that itself has grown with the revival of the club.
This is where the point about the fans who’ve been turning up in their droves matters, because it’s this new intake alongside the longer-term fans and the growing trust with being rooted in community values and transparency that can really can make Dulwich Hamlet work. There are supporters who want something different from their football club, and a developer who wants to develop to leave a legacy. These are the two parts of the story that people aren’t seeing when they base their analysis almost exclusively on which social group the ‘new’ fans are from. Some might call it inverted snobbery. Whatever it is, it clouds the reality. Still cynical? Of course this relies on planning permission, but whatever happens the intention is most certainly not to cut and run. And yes, Hadley’s reputation will be rightly improved as a result. But the attraction is to create something at Dulwich that harnesses the enthusiasm and commitment of fans and community that could just become the envy of many others. Why is that a bad thing unless you’re a cynic and nothing more?
Kevin Rye is the former Head of Policy and PR at Supporters Direct and is now a PR & Communications Consultant. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here, and you can check out his own website by clicking here.
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