Home Is Where The Hamlet Is

by | Oct 23, 2018

In the end, they found themselves before the government. The long-standing wrangle between Dulwich Hamlet and Meadow Residential LLP, the American company who came to own their Champion Hill ground, came to an end on Monday at the offices of the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us too much that it ended where it did. After all, when Meadow quietly copyrighted the name, nickname and initials of the club, informing them that they could not use them (in the bland legalese that is the language of the damned, of course), it prompted comment from Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. By this time, the Dulwich Hamlet story had become A Thing.

Trademarkgate came shortly after Meadow evicted Dulwich from Champion Hill. It felt like almost comic villainry, but the eviction prior to it had certainly been no laughing matter. It crept up almost organically, starting as though a rumour before flowering into a before plummeting down upon the club. The possibility of Dulwich folding altogether was very real, a timely and welcome ground-share with Tooting & Mitcham United notwithstanding. The club’s financial position was jeopardised, but they managed to just about hold it together. And with all of this going on in the background, they still won promotion, winning the Isthmian League Premier Division play-off final by four goals to three on penalties against Hendon after a one-all draw at their temporary home.

Close things everywhere then, in a sense, but the club’s survival also never somehow quite felt in danger. Usually when non-league clubs go under, it’s away from the glare of publicity. At Dulwich, though, the supporters trust and, more than anyone else, the club’s fan base kept the story in the public eye. Never have those pink and blue colours been so valuable to the club before, either. Such memorable colours could be used in scores of different ways. And it worked. Seldom in recent years has a non-league club received such attention in the national press over something related to their being a non-league football club. Such attention usually comes in short bursts, either around the time of a promotion or a big FA Cup match. This coverage, however, was different in its depth and breadth of coverage. and it’s worth pointing out that its details are much better told elsewhere (just go back into the archive of Jack Pitt-Brooke at the Independent for the full story, in excrutiating detail).

Seasoned lower division and non-league watchers will be aware that this sort of stadium jeopardy has become a wearyingly regular sight in London over the last four decades or so. There are few smaller London clubs left who haven’t experienced some form of ground trauma or other. Leytonstone, Ilford and Walthamstow Avenue formed a new club and then merged with Dagenham. Three grounds gone. Hayes & Yeading merged, whilst The White Lion in Edgware and The Feltham Arena sat derelict for years before demolition. Another three (arguably four) gone. Wealdstone, Enfield, Barnet, Hendon, Fisher FC and Wimbledon all moved from grand old grounds to smaller, more utilitarian homes, with some long periods of homelessnes. Kingstonian lost theirs too and are currently homeless. No two clubs’ stories are the same, of course. Enfield, Fisher and Wimbledon are all breakaway or phoenix clubs. Clapton CFC are a new club and playing away from the The Old Spotted Dog. Dagenham & Redbridge are… complicated. That so many clubs do surivive in such a rapacious environment might even be considered an achievement in itself, though many have, of course, also gone. Had Dulwich completely lost Champion Hill, they’d certainly have been joining illustrious company.

Dulwich Hamlet had played at Champion Hill since 1912. It had been one of the great arenas of amateur football, a cavernous ground with three sides of terracing and one long, seated grandstand and a capacity of 20,000. It had hosted Olympic football in 1948. I visited it early in 1990, for a Vauxhall-Opel League Premier Division match against St Albans City (here’s a picture of it taken from the terrace towards the main stand, two years earlier.) It was a drab, grey afternoon, and upon arrival we were surprised to find out that we were only allowed entry to sit in the main stand. The terraces were closed, plausibly unsafe and quite possibly even something to do with the Safety of Sports Ground Act, so there we sat, two hundred and fity-odd of us, with the faint smell of rot in the air as Dulwich ground out a narrow win. It was no great surprise that the ground had to be demolished. Years of falling attendances had led to it falling into a state of disrepair from which it couldn’t really be recovered at anything like a cost that the club could afford. The cost of maintaining terraces that size would have been astronomical, and certainly not something that a club with crowds of a couple of hundred or so could afford.

So, a chunk of land was sold to Sainsburys and a supermarket was built with the club at a smaller, more suitable home next door. It’s not perfect, by any means. The steps of terracing around much of the ground are extremely shallow, which makes watching matches more difficult than it should be when there’s a big crowd, but it does also have a lovely main stand with a bar defiantly in sight of the pitch. There’s something more to it than this, though. It was home, to them. In non-league football especially, we accept that a part of our experience is dedicated to imperfection. It’s there in the players. It’s there in the facilties and the food. It doesn’t mean that no-one strives to improve them, but it means that we accept our grounds as they are, so long as they’re safe. And Champion Hill, warts and all, was their ground.

That we all understand this is the reason why the moment of eviction was the moment at which the point of no return was reached for Meadow, and it’s doubtful that they were prepared for the deluge of criticism that they received over their behaviour. Trademarkgate was teed up perfectly to continue it, though. The story of the eviction of the club was widely expected by the time it came, but was still a shock when occurred. Trademarkgate, however, was so unexpected and vindictive-looking, so far short of any legal threshold (Meadow own the ground, but they don’t own the club, so the trademarking could easily have been appealed), and it reeked of petulance, whether that was the actual reason behind it or not. If passing attention hadn’t been grabbed by the eviction, then the Trademarkgate gave the story a twist that marked it out.

This wasn’t quite all that turned against them, either. The ongoing involvement of Southwark Council played its part, and their partiality on behalf of their local institution shows a positive way in which local authorities can help football clubs, because even if they are limited companies, at this level they’re worth something as an asset to the community. And with planning permission going against them, the council having stated that they may consider a compulsary purchase order to secure future of the ground, which is sitting empty, it was in the best interests of the owners to reach an agreement. It is to be hoped that this turns out to be a big step in securing the club’s future.

With the sports minister Tracey Crouch now involved, stating that she would mediate between the parties, there was little option but for an agreement to be thrashed out. All sides emerge from it with some dignity, although we might argue that Meadow are ultimately only doing what they should have been doing in the first place. Meanwhile, those who can emerge from this story with their heads held the highest are the supporters of the club themselves. Dulwich Hamlet have been in some terrible situations before, but this was probably the closest that the club has come to meeting its maker altogether. Yet the story stayed in the public eye through supporters who saw with alarm what was going to happen to their club, and that the best thing that they could do was to protest it and publicise the protest. Small wonder that it became the Thing that it did, and small wonder that, after a brief aberration, Dulwich Hamlet are going home.

Photo credit: Katie Chan