The Slimmest of Margins in South London
As the Premier League and Football League reach the end of their regular league seasons, the non-league game is already reaching its period of summer rest. There’s no messing about in non-league football. The play-offs come and go, over one leg per tie, in the few days following the end of the league season, and last weekend saw the completion of play-off matches played below the National League North and South. We’ve spoken on this site on the fine balances that can mark the difference between success and failure come the end of the season, but last weekend’s results took this to new levels, with two football clubs from South London benefiting from the slenderest of winning margins – in one case, without even kicking a ball.
Sunday evening’s headlines largely concerned Dulwich Hamlet, who won promotion on Monday afternoon after winning their Isthmian League Premier Division play-off final against Hendon at Tooting & Mitcham United’s KNK Stadium. Dulwich had eventually been beaten by Billericay Town in the race for the league championship, with Billericay’s fixture pile-up not quite being enough to prevent the lavishly-funded Essex club from lifting the title. Appearing in the play-offs might have been considered reason for Dulwich’s support to start to become nervous. The team had, after all, failed at this stage over five of the seven previous seasons, with the only exceptions to this seeing them win the Division One South title by a single point at the end of the 2012/13 season and the following season, when they finished a point shy of a play-off place in their first season following promotion.
Having finished the season as runners-up in the league, though, they did at least have guaranteed “home” matches in the play-offs. The word “home”, however, is correctly placed in inverted commas there. Since Dulwich were evicted from their Champion Hill home in March by their landlords Meadow Residential in March, they have been playing their home matches at the well-appointed but still eight miles from Dulwich KNK Stadium, home of local rivals Tooting & Mitcham United. Despite their superior league position and the large support which they can muster, however, nerves were very much on display on Thursday evening when they required a free-kick from Ashley Carew with twenty minutes remaining in order to squeeze their way into the final.
The May Bank Holiday brought fine weather and a huge crowd of more than 3,300 people to the KNK Stadium for the play-off final. Their opponents for the day, Hendon, have their own story to tell. Once one of the great amateur clubs of the London area – as Dulwich Hamlet had been themselves, if we go back far enough – Hendon had fallen on fallow times and lost their ground to the spectre of property development and, in their fifty-fifth year in this division, had started the season about as far from being promotion favourites as it’s possible to be after having finished in nineteenth place in the table for each of the last two seasons. However, under the skilled managership of Gary McCann they finished the season in third place in the table and won their play-off semi-final by a convincing four goal margin against Folkestone Invicta last week.
The tension pushed up a notch when Ashley Nathaniel-George gave Hendon the lead nine minutes from half-time, but an equalising goal nine minutes into the second half from Gavin Tomlin brought Dulwich level, and the two sides couldn’t be separated until a penalty shoot-out, won by four goals to three by Dulwich, started a party in that particular corner of south-east London that continued until well into the night. Whilst the result was a undoubtedly a huge disappointment for Hendon – for whom this season was their fifty-fifth in the same division since joining it from the Athenian League in 1963 (although a redrawing of the non-league game in 2004 did drop the entire Isthmian League down a rung in non-league football’s food chain) – few would question that Dulwich thoroughly deserved that second promotion place on the basis of their performance over the season as a whole.
It seems likely at the time of writing that Dulwich will be playing next season at Tooting & Mitcham as well. The club’s plight has been robustly defended by Southwark Council since it became public knowledge, and the local authority has pledged to defend the club’s existence within their borders, by way of a Compulsory Purchase Order on the Champion Hill site if necessary. The wheels of local government, however, have a tendency to move extremely slowly, and there seems to remain little chance of the club returning to the ground for at least a couple of years without a degree of acquiescence from Meadow Residential, and that seems to be just about impossible at present. With the eviction – and the simultaneous trademarking of various names related to the club, a strange and unnecessary decision which only seemed to demonstrate their petulance as well as acceptance that they had lost the public sympathy side of the argument – seeming unlikely to be rescinded at the time of writing, impasse was reached long ago.
Still, though, there is a point at which we have to step back from the politics of the situation and consider the achievement of the players and the coaching team at Dulwich in keeping the players focused with so much going on in the background. Not only did Gavin Rose’s team keep pushing Billericay Town to almost the very end of the league season against such a backdrop, but they also got through two competitive play-off matches despite the arguable psychological disadvantage of having lost out at this stage of the season in five of their last seven seasons. The National League South will obviously be a step up next season, but this is a club that certainly seems capable of coping comfortably with life in the higher division, even if their route up did turn out to be extremely narrow indeed.
Meanwhile, somewhere close to the line that demarcates Surrey from south-west London, another football club was finding out its fate by an even narrower margin. The end of this season sees another non-league shake up which creates one more space than could be resolved by the end of season play-offs, all of which led to a rather peculiar situation surrounding last weekend’s play-off finals. As a strictly amateur club playing within the non-league pyramid, Corinthian-Casuals have had many seasons when they’ve found the going difficult, but this season ended with them finishing in fifth place in Division One South of the Isthmian League and earning a play-off place. After beating Greenwich Borough by three goals to nil in the semi-final, however, they were beaten by Walton Casuals on penalty kicks in the final after a goalless draw.
This season, however, defeat in a play-off final wasn’t he end of the road for Corinthian-Casuals. That spare promotion place was going to the team in the regional divisions with the highest “points per game” total, and this meant that the Division One East of the Southern League, where the play-off final took on an extra air of importance. The match was being played between Hartley Wintney and Cambridge City, and the “points per game” consolation meant that Hartley Wintney were already promoted, regardless of the result. However, if they lost this match, it meant that Cambridge City would join them in being promoted, but if they won, then Corinthian-Casuals would be joining them instead. A first half goal was enough to give Hartley Wintney a one-nil win, meaning that Corinthian-Casuals will be in the Premeir Division of the Isthmian League next season.
Founded as a merger between the two former amateur giants who now form their name in 1939, Corinthian-Casuals joined the Isthmian League for the first season after the end of the Second World War, but the club’s dedication to the amateur ethos over the years has, of course, not been without its difficulties. The Football Association formally ended the divide between amateur and professional players in 1974, but the club’s decline – they were FA Amateur Cup finalists in 1956, losing only after a replay to the mighty Bishop Auckland team of the era – had begun just over a decade prior to this. The club didn’t finish a league season between 1963 and 1981 above halfway in the Isthmian League table, and finished bottom of their division on twelve occasions over this eighteen year period, including nine times out of ten between 1971 and 1981. The club’s fortunes improved briefly before changes to ground-sharing rules nudged them down into the Spartan League and, despite a merger with local club Tolworth securing a ground of their own in 1988, it took until 1997 before the club returned to the Isthmian League.
The challenges facing an amateur club in a professional (or semi-professional) world should be obvious. There will be plenty of clubs who may choose to look on at Corinthian-Casuals’ lack of wage bill with a degree of envy. After all, it’s not as though non-league clubs don’t fold with a degree of semi-regularity because it’s just too expensive to continue to operate. But from a playing perspective, Corinthian-Casuals will always be hamstrung. The club’s stated aim is to “promote fair play and sportsmanship, to play competitive football at the highest level possible whilst remaining strictly amateur and retaining the ideals of the Corinthian and the Casuals Football Clubs”, and that small matter of “competitive football at the highest level possible” becomes somewhat complicated when practically every nearby other club playing at the same level is offering money to potential players and yours isn’t. To win promotion, even if it’s by what can only really be described as something of a backdoor route, is an exceptional achievement, and it will certainly be fascinating to see whether the club can hold its head above water at a higher level next season.
But as the Football League season heads towards its denouement for the season, it’s worth reflecting upon these two very different clubs. Both are reliant on volunteers for their very existence, whether we’re talking about turnstile operators, programme sellers or those that have kept Dulwich Hamlet’s name in the national spotlight, or, as in the case of Corinthian-Casuals, the players themselves. That both have managed promotion against what might well have been overwhelming odds says something about the very nature of the game itself, and both deserve congratulations for their achievements this season. That this variety of different types of football club exist at any level of the game is one of the the aspects of British soccer culture of which we should be proud. It’s a hand to mouth existence at this level of the game. The reward of promotion is a small amount of payback for the dedication that keeps these clubs going in the first place.