Some Words About The Situation In Dulwich

by | Mar 21, 2018

It’s international break weekend this weekend, friends, so for the rest of this week we’ll be prying our eyes away from the elite world of VARs, Jose Mourinho’s slow-motion metamorphosis into Alex Jones, and Manchester City’s stately procession to the Premier League title to take a look a little further down the ladder. Today, it’s off to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, where the fight between Dulwich Hamlet and the property developers who own their ground has been grabbing more headlines than anyone would have expected, of late. 

Lowestoft is a challenging journey from South London on a Tuesday night for a football match, but the supporters of Dulwich Hamlet who made the long trip up to the Suffolk coast last night will undoubtedly have returned home afterwards with the satisfying feeling of a job well done after their team’s three-one win against Lowestoft Town in the Isthmian League Premier Division. The result put Hamlet five points clear at the top of the table, although the likelihood of a title win still seems slight when we consider that second placed Billericay Town have six games in hand on the league leaders. A place in next year’s National League South remains Billericay’s to lose, and if the league title isn’t to end up in Essex come the end of the season, the biggest single contributor may well turn out to be fixture congestion. There is still, however, something to play for at the top of the table and that, considering recent events, is something of an achievement in itself.

That the Hamlet players remain capable of keeping their eyes on winning matches is laudable, considering the amount of distraction that has been going on around that particular club of late. I’m not going to sit here and regurgitate the story of the non-league football club and the stadium-owning property developers who claimed to be the good guys but who turned nasty when they didn’t get their way over a proposed redevelopment for the site that would have pocketed them a considerable amount of money yet again. That story has already been told in the media enough times. There is, however, certainly a story in itself to be told about the very fact that a non-league football club, playing two divisions below so much as the National League, can get its story told in the media to the extent to which Dulwich Hamlet has over the last few weeks and months.

At the time of writing, a news search on Google for “Dulwich Hamlet” returns articles from the Independent, the Guardian, the BBC and ITV News. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has commented on the matter. A debate has been held in parliament on the matter. Southwark Council, whose rejection of the planning application that turbo-charged this crisis, last week issued a robust defence of the football club, including the crucial news that they intend to enter negotiations to purchase the site for the good of the local community , with a view towards a Compulsory Purchase Order for the Champion Hill stadium in the event that no agreement can be reached. In terms of those who may be able to influence the outcome of this current crisis, the club and its protesting supporters have the ear of those who may, in some way or other, be able to effect change in a stand-off that recently had begun to look as though it had reached the most negative form of stalemate possible for the club.

The turning point seems to have been the decision of Meadow Residential to take a series of steps that were quite clearly a ridiculous over-reaction to the deadlock. Evicting the club from its home was a dick move. Revealing that it had trademarked various iterations of the club’s name – which it’s difficult to believe would have withstood any legal scrutiny whatsoever – was a dick move. Handing the club a bill for back rent which it surely knew it would have little no chance of being able to pay was a dick move. Just as Dulwich Hamlet have played their hand in the media incredibly deftly, Meadow Residential have played theirs spectacularly badly, giving the impression of being petulant and childish, as well as deliberately and needlessly cruel. In a battle that is ultimately one of David vs Goliath, they have turned up for the fight with a writ, instructing David that his sling-shot is a weapon of mass destruction which they must confiscate. If there was any goodwill towards Meadow Residential whatsoever they have recklessly frittered it away, and this might prove to be expensive, in the event that bodies with one eye on the court of public opinion become still further involved in sorting out a dispute that long since reached the point of impasse.

There has been considerable shock from people unaware of the ongoing nature of this story that this could have happened, almost as though it’s a bolt from the blue, but the truth of the matter is that stories of this nature have been going on around London non-league football for a considerable amount of time. The reason for this is obvious. Many non-league football clubs came into existence at a time during which it was manageable to purchase a piece of land in London and build a sports ground on it. Non-league football clubs, however, have always been small businesses and, when compared with the positions that many of them were in, say, sixty years ago, have spent much of the last thirty or forty years living in relatively reduced circumstances.

At the same time as the non-league game declined from its high point in the 1950s, the value of the land upon which those frequently modest homes were built upon has skyrocketed in value, and this has brought the attention of individuals and groups that no-one would much want to see anywhere near the game at any level. People buying into football clubs with one eye on a literal land grab, property developers, even on occasion people with at the very least criminal connections have all seen something that has made their mouths water: small organisations, often run by people with little business expertise, struggling to pay the bills but often with lofty ambitions, and sitting on pieces of land that have soared in value and seem likely to continue to do so.

Small wonder, then, that the list of London non-league clubs who have found the vultures circling is so long. For example, Leytonstone FC and Ilford FC merged together, but then found themselves merging their club into a third, Walthamstow Avenue, which then had its name changed and was merged into another, Dagenham FC, to form Dagenham & Redbridge. Wealdstone FC sold their ground in 1991 and entered into a calamitous ground-share agreement with Watford that left the club destitute and practically bankrupt. It took them until 2008 to acquire a ground of their own, and that only came after the death of Ruislip Manor, whose Grosvenor Vale ground they took over. Enfield’s chairman sold their ground in 1999 without a coherent plan to build a replacement. Two years later their Supporters Trust became the first to break away and form a new club, but it took the new club, Enfield Town, until 2011 to return to a ground of their own. Hendon sold their ground to property developers in 2006, only to find plans for a new ground falling through. They left Claremont Road in 2008, and didn’t move to a home of their own until they moved into a new ground in 2016. They share this with Edgware Town, who who lost their ground to property developers and folded in 2008, only to reform six years later.

The list doesn’t end there, either. Fisher Athletic left the Surrey Docks Stadium in 2004 and folded five years later, somewhat ironically after having spent that time ground-sharing with Dulwich Hamlet. A phoenix club, Fisher FC, was founded by the former club’s Supporters Trust and moved into a new ground in Rotherhithe in 2016. Feltham FC moved out of their ground, The Feltham Arena, after a spate of vandalism and ended up merging into Bedfont & Feltham FC in 2012. Leyton FC were founded in 1868, making them one of London’s oldest clubs, but folded in 2011 after years of mismanagement. These are all clubs whose demises were slightly more oblique in nature, but the theme remains the same. To be a non-league football club in London means a high likelihood existing with one eye looking over your shoulder.

This insidious tendency has even found its way to Football League clubs in the capital. The story of Wimbledon’s franchising to Milton Keynes is well-worn, but it might be argued that one of the most crucial forewords to that story came with the sale of their Plough Lane in 1991. In turn, this set in place a sequence events that resulted in non-league Kingstonian losing their ground last year, the rights and wrongs of which have been extensively discussed on these pages before. Charlton Athletic spent more than seven years away from The Valley after being unable to finance much-needed safety improvements to their ground, only to find that the local council blocked plans to renovate it some time later. Only time will tell whether West Ham United join this list in the future. Ultimately, though, all of these stories – for clubs on all parts of the spectrum which makes up football’s food chain – are simultaneously unique yet similar.

It seems reasonable to suggest that those surprised by what has been happening at Dulwich Hamlet this season perhaps shouldn’t be. This doesn’t, however, mean that Dulwich Hamlet don’t have questions of their own to answer. Perhaps most pressing of these is that of why a club playing in the third tier of the non-league game should be running up the sort of losses shown in their last published set of company accounts (PDF). The club will have to find a way of running itself without having to be dependent on the money of others. None of this is a reflection on the supporters, of course. They have been magnificent in organising themselves and ensuring that their story remains somewhere near the top of the football news agenda, whilst their fundraising to keep the club ticking over has been tireless. The Save Dulwich Hamlet campaign website has brought the resources of the fight to save the club under one roof. The efforts of supporters over the last few weeks and months have certainly shown the lazy “hipster club” trope up for the worthless snobbery that it clearly always has been. When the immediate battles are over, however, Dulwich Hamlet will need to be run on a sustainable basis, if it is to ensure that it can guarantee its own long-term security.

All battles require a degree of public relations about them these days. Meadow Residential seemed at least to understand this early on in their involvement at Champion Hill, but as their behaviour towards the club – and, by extension, the community within which it exists – has deteriorated, scales have fallen from eyes and it might well be argued that they have revealed their true selves. As things stand, there remain too many potential twists and turns for us to be able to offer any sort of prediction as to how this will all play out. In one version, the plucky little guys win the day and the property developers are sent packing. In this version’s inverse, the property developers bulldoze the ground, make a vast amount of money, and the football club never returns to Dulwich. At the moment, though, that the matter so much as hangs in the balance is something, and with the PR battle conclusively swinging their way, it feels more likely than it did in the past that there will be a successful resolution for the club and its supporters. Whether a successful end to the Dulwich Hamlet story has broader implications, however, remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that saving a small football club from the corrosive influence of property developers doesn’t just turn out to be a passing fad, and that greater regulation to protect clubs from finding themselves in this situation in the first place turns out to be another lasting legacy of this story, on top of saving Dulwich Hamlet Football Club.