The ball bobbled on the churned-up turf in the 90th minute before winger Nyren Clunis, heading away from goal, controlled it and cut inside, powering past two scrambling defenders. One-on-one with the Billericay keeper, he sold his opponent a dummy, darted to the left and slotted home to secure the 3-1 win.
Dulwich Hamlet fans in the away end burst into fevered song in the cold Essex air, grateful for something to something to cheer about after a frantic 24 hours which saw their club pushed a large step to extinction. Earlier that day, the club’s owners had called in their debt, slapping down a demand for £121,000 for supposed backdated rent. They’d also served the club with an eviction notice to vacate their home stadium of nearly 90 years, and – to add insult to injury – initiated a cease and desist order after revealing that they’d secretly trademarked the club name, moniker of ‘The Hamlet’ and acronym DHFC (David Horowitz Freedom Center of Sherman Oaks, California take note).
But why should Newcastle fans, living 300 miles away take note of a protracted legal battle in faraway South London?
They might not have the bulging trophy cabinets or top tier glamour of Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur, but Dulwich Hamlet are one of non-league football’s great clubs. Formed a year after Newcastle United in 1893, the club are four time winners of the FA Amateur Cup; Their record top-scorer Edgar Kail was the last non-league player to play for England (in addition, Dulwich alumni who’ve also been capped after moving up the football pyramid include Peter Crouch and Ian Wright); and they’ve even hosted Olympic football – you wonder what the Mexico and South Korea national sides made of their surroundings when they ran out at the decidedly ramshackle Champion Hill stadium in 1948.
But it’s the club’s present-day fan culture that has put Dulwich Hamlet on the non-league map.
For the past five or so years, the Hamlet has been one of non-league’s great success stories. They regularly attract gates of 2,500 – no small feat in the seventh tier – and their pink and blue-clad following (dubbed ‘The Rabble’) are fervently vocal, indulging in tifo displays that bely their size. Influenced by Italian Ultra culture, they’re passionately left wing and take social responsibility seriously – generously supporting the local food-bank, trade unions and a great many other worthy causes in the area, as well as continental peers including sister club Altona 93 of Hamburg. Cynics cry ‘Hipsters’, but this is a trite cliche. For every bearded craft beer fan at Champion Hill, you’ll see numerous old school fans (and their dogs), as well as families raising their children on the beautiful game. This is a true community and Dulwich perfectly answer a desire for a purer, back-to-basics football, untainted by sanitisation and big money. All that however, is under threat because of rampant corporatism.
Property development group Meadow Residential bought the club a few years back for £5.7mil, with the dreamy-eyed promise of building a new stadium in one corner of the site. They were denied planning permission by the local council however, and it was then that things started getting ugly – Meadow effectively holding the club hostage by refusing to invest in the squad and threatening to close the gates.
Former Manchester United captain (and local boy) Rio Ferdinand tried to break the impasse by spearheading a £10mil bid for the club, but Meadow turned down the prospect of nearly doubling their money to the despair of the fans, and of the local council, who’d been trying to navigate a way through the crisis. On 5 March, matters came to a head and the nuclear button of eviction notice, backdated rent demand and trademark dispute was pushed, putting the future of the club in serious jeopardy.
Despite pressure from local MPs, press and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan – as well as support from local Football League peers including Millwall – the impasse remains, with Dulwich refusing to pay up as they simply don’t have the funds. With the club effectively turfed out into the street, they’ve been taken in by local rivals Tooting and Mitcham United, who’ve allowed Dulwich to play their scheduled home matches at their place for the remainder of the season. It’s heartening that Southwark Council have ordered Meadow to the negotiation table, but it remains to be seen if this leads to a deal or merely stiffens the property developer’s resolve.
While concerning for any switched-on football fan, there are particular parallels to cause Newcastle United fans to sympathise. While Mike Ashley has stopped short of getting out the padlocks, he too has a financial stranglehold over our club, and could call in his debt at any time. And like Meadow Residential, his involvement is transactional rather than emotional – as Dulwich’s owners are involved solely to facilitate profit-making by developing the site, so Ashley is involved in Newcastle to promote his Sports Direct interests. It’s worth also remembering Ashley’s ongoing aspirations extend to land-based asset stripping too: building on the land adjacent to St James’ Park, which will curtail any future development – ‘Property development is theft’, as someone didn’t quite say.
Ultimately, being a football fan is about community unity first and foremost. Remove the shared experience and values and it’s simply 22 above-averagely coordinated people kicking a bit of plastic around a grass oblong. Rampant corporatism – whether represented by property developer or sportswear tycoon – is ruining the game by sacrificing its communal value. This abhorrent practice must be stopped: on Tyneside or on the other side of the country, the ruinous effect for the fan on the street is the same.
Follow Chris on twitter here