With the Premier League beholden to corporate money and mass media glitz, Dulwich Hamlet represents the best of English football
Midfielder Charlie Allen walks onto the pitch in his flip flops. “You can’t play very well in those mate,” one supporter qips as he walks around the stadium grounds. Allen grins.
As game time gets closer, more fans – parents, sons, daughters, dogs, teens – start to spill into the stadium. Alongside them the very men they’ve come to watch play make their way from the car parking. Fans head to the stands or the club bar overlooking the pitch while the players dip into the tunnel at midfield.
Here, there’s a much different feel in the air than your typical English football match. Unlike the top tiers where police escort fans to and from their seats and beer stays out of the stands, fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC rest against the fence, their beers sitting atop when not being guzzled down. You half expect a player to come grab one of the cups from the ledge to quench their thirst instead of being rehydrated by an assistant squeezing a water bottle.
At Dulwich, they’ve created a football atmosphere that has started to attract a swarm of local support. To many fans, Dulwich provides a breath of fresh air from Premier League games that have become riddled with corporate money and ugly instances of racism.
It might not be fair to even compare Dulwich to a Premier League experience. The Premier League is, well, it’s the Premier League, and Dulwich… they’re barely keeping up in the 7th tier of English football. But what Dulwich has done is created a buzz around a team that has no TV exposure, no fancy stadium, and no star power. In 2010, the team averaged 180 fans per home match. This season the number is up to 1,802 fans packing the stands and sprewing along the fencing.
Dulwich has embraced what they are – a community club – and they’ve become completely integrated with the South Dulwich residents. The only thing separating the ground of the club (which sits right next to the local Sainsbury’s) from the houses that surround it is a concrete wall that wraps around the outside of the pitch. Even the mayor is an avid supporter, often coming to matches sporting the signature pink and navy stripped scarf.
“Welcome to Champion Hill, home of the most welcoming football club in London,” the announcer shouted over the loudspeakers at their penultimate home match on April 13. In the club bar, Paul Miles sat drinking a beer, his 6-year-old son, adorned in a Dulwich jersey, munching snacks beside him. Miles said he started coming to matches when his son got interested in football about three years ago.
“There’s a much more family feel about the club,” Miles said. “You see lots of kids here, people coming in with dogs, you can drink beer in the ground, it’s just much more of a social event really which happens to actually have a pretty good quality of football as well.”
Miles, like many Dulwich supporters, also has a team he follows in the Premier League. Fulham is his team.
“You feel more involved [here]. I’ve supported Fulham for many years – we’re not doing too well at the moment – and yeah I just feel a lot more invested in the club. You get to know the people, before the game and during the game.”
Miles and his son cozy into the bright pink plastic seats in the stands. A majority of the fans fill up along the fences, with their most active supports, “The Rabble,” packing behind the goal.
A regular face among The Rabble, Alex Turner was convinced by a friend to start coming to games. It’s since turned into part of his Saturday ritual. Recently, he moved closer to the grounds, “so I just walk over the hill and come here on a Saturday afternoon and it’s great,” Turner said.
“It’s a bit of a breath of fresh air for people who are maybe a bit done with the Premier League and all the money and maybe paying £60 a ticket to go in and see a football game. You can come down here pay a tenner, have a pint of beer, interact with the team and the players.”
Around the pitch, signs hang signaling the clubs focus on inclusion. “Football Welcomes Refugees” pins and shirts speckle the stands and anti-homophobia posters are pasted on the walls. None of it seems like a tacked-on part of the club. It all makes sense for a club that embraces it’s community, a club where fans and players alike stroll into the grounds on a Saturday afternoon.
“I think it’s something that is a perfect role model for clubs who want to be really key parts of the community,” Miles said.
Donavan Vose, who was born in Dulwich, walks around the grounds before the match. His son, Dominic, is a midfielder for Dulwich Hamlet. After falling out of the League Football ranks, Vose said his son chose Dulwich as a sort of homecoming, an opportunity to “reinvent” himself at this level. Vose said he loves the unique and intimate atmosphere of Dulwich.
“There are a few people who look at Dulwich and maybe sneer a little bit about the family friendly atmosphere we have,” Turner says, adding, “But it’s just great. It’s a good place to be.”
Turner adds that he doesn’t think racism and homophobia have any role in football.
“There’s a lot of clubs, particularly Millwall nearby, who in the past even have said racism and homophobia that’s part of football. Dulwich is really clear in saying it’s not welcome here.”
Racism has been an issue that has been part of football for decades. In recent years UEFA and FIFA have made haphazard efforts to address this behaviour. Oftentimes incidents are met with small fines rather than more serious punishments.
“It’s reflective of wider society. In the past, 1970s and 80s, that was a really big problem we have in this country and in football and the fact that it still exists and you still see bits of it football, shows that it still exists in society a little bit, but it’s not just a football problem, I think it’s a wider problem than that.”
At their second to last home game, Dulwich comes away with a dominant 3-1 win over Hungerford Town F.C. With the win, Dulwich erases their fears of relegation.
Fans chant “We are staying up!”
“The reason why they come out to watch us is for that,” Vose says. “For that euphoria of winning.”
As the players walk off the pitch, the fans walk out the gates… over the hill and back to their homes.
“We’re off,” one man says to his friends, his daughter lofted on his shoulders. “Gotta get home for tea.”
Luke Malanga is a writer and photographer from Chatham, NJ. He is currently studying Sports Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. Follow him on Twitter at @malanga_luke.