Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game continue their non-league odyssey this time out venturing to Champion Hill and a club making the news.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks
The closing bars of the Desert Island Discs theme tune lulls me somewhat into a false state of security. I’m sure I can feel the sun on my face, the rustle of the palm fronds above me and the feel of sand between my toes. My mind is clearly playing tricks on me though, because outside my car it’s like a scene from a well known Rebel Alliance bolt hole, which is only reinforced by the sight of Tom almost waddling towards the car, like a toddler with too many layers on.
I’m not a religious man, so I don’t feel like I’m being disrespectful to some higher power, by doing stuff on a Sunday. However I have my own strict views, neh philosophy on what one should be doing on this holy of days and the very core of this mantra is centred around not leaving the house.
Unless it’s for a croissant or some other such baked morning pastry, its mandatory to watch at least one black and white World War Two movie, watch at least one if not two mediocre televised football matches, European or domestic, and never, I repeat never move from the sofa, unless absolutely necessary.
Just about the only thing that will get me dressed and out, among the park walkers and day time drinkers is football. Sadly non league football on a Sunday is an all too rare occurrence. Yes there are a few teams, mainly loggers who don’t have their own ground who play on the sabbath, but other than that, you might have more luck finding someone who doesn’t shout on Arsenal Fan TV.
So as delighted as I am that I’m driving over a selfie taking covered Tower Bridge, heading to a game, it’s just unfortunate that the circumstances around the club we are visiting, meant it wasn’t played the day before.
Unless you have been living under a rock these last few weeks, living in some self imposed football news blackout, you cannot not be aware of the plight of one particular pink and blue wearing non league club, whose badge looks like the lesser known house at Hogwarts, Dulwich Hamlet FC (DH).
Crikey their circumstances has been brought up in the House of Commons, has the backing of the likes of Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and ex Dulwich player Peter Crouch. Their unscrupulous to say the least landlord has locked the gates on their home of eighty seven years, evicted them, and has thrown the club into turmoil.
However the fans of DH are not the kind to sit idly by, sitting on their hands to see what happens, they are far too proud of their clubs heritage, what they have achieved on the pitch and the work they do in the greater community, to let one arsehole ruin that.
Suddenly homeless at a crucial part of the season, very much in the running for winning the league, some might have said that the off field distractions may well derail their seasons, only for a knight in black and white striped armour, to offer a helping hand, and save the day.
I certainly don’t know of any other examples of two traditional foes, shacking up, to assist in the preservation of one of the main topics of your fans songs. I know Spurs and Arsenal shared White Hart Lane during World War Two, however that was for slightly different reasons, but at least it shows its possible.
So when DH were approached by Tooting & Mitcham United FC, who forgot old rivalries and offered up their stadium as a temporary home, for the remainder of the season, I imagine no one was more surprised, than DH themselves.
Despite how hideous outside it is, Tom is surprisingly upbeat. “It will be worth it” he tells me, he reckons we will be treated to an “8-6” score line, in return for our commitment to braving the elements. His positivity takes a little dent when I tell him it’s unlikely that the dumpling stall from our previous visit to watch DH at Champion Hill, that were so good, I named the blog after them, are unlikely to be there. He does though explain he is even more determined to have a “Cup-a-soup” today, after failing to get one at Basingstoke yesterday, where he was unable to satisfy his craving.
The pitch of the regally named Imperial Field is almost completely covered in snow when we arrive, as are the steps of the large covered terraces at each end of the pitch that really makes this ground quite unlike any of the others we have visited. One hardy soul though has already cleared the lines, today is very much an orange ball day.
Tom the DH media officer, not the moany one I spend too much time with, hopes that they will get around one thousand through the gate today. Yesterday there was a superbly attended march in support of DH’s predicament, and he would hope for just as good a turnout today, despite the awful weather.
DH are a well supported club, sometimes getting bigger head counts then league teams, so an eight mile detour across South East London for their fans, is unlikely to put them off. If anything, people will want to be here in even greater numbers to prove they won’t be bullied by the main protagonist in their current struggle.
Almost under his breath, but not going as far as covering his mouth, like an over sensitive Premier League player leaving the pitch after a match, he admits he “fucking” hates “Tooting” but “loves” their ground.
A few of the Thermos and sandwich brigade have already taken up position in the main stand, fully stocked and well prepared for what ever Mother Nature throws their way, the same cannot be said for the man wandering around in shorts. Just like at Basingstoke yesterday, where the weather was just as atrocious, someone here also seems impervious to the sub zero temperatures.
Although disappointed at the absence of the dumplings, the smell of the Caribbean BBQ has Tom intrigued. We head in the general direction of the wafting smell of burning charcoal, where I hear the call of the programme seller “programmes £2” he shouts. Not only is he ensuring I can add the vivid pink matchday magazine to my collection, but also that there is the promise of a prize if the one you purchase has one of two “pink stars” you will win yourself a “lucky bottle of prosecco”.
A matchday programme, 50/50 tickets, and the potential of a free bottle of bubbles too. I have all my matchday essentials wrapped up in record time.
“Testing 1 – 2” says the voice over the PA, who is then cut off by the most monstrous feedback, that sounded like a “spaceship” according to Tom, someone getting to grips with a new system perhaps. Once he has stopped the awful noise, he is quick to offer a “thank you” on behalf of DH to their “hosts”, and apologies to the visiting team Worthing FC (WFC) for “inconveniencing” their “Sunday”.
The normal colour scheme in these parts is very monochrome, quite the opposite from the vibrant
pink and blue DH wear. It is well documented that I’m a big fan of pink in the football sphere, particularly when a keeper wears it, but I’m also far from adverse to it on an outfield player either, Palermo and Juventus 2015/16 away kit, gorgeous.
It is therefore pleasing to see, that even though this is a long way from home, well not that long, but you know what I mean, that slowly but surely as the fans start to arrive, so does that one colour synonymous with the club. Hats, scarfs, flags, and banners, even a dog has got in on the action.
Before kick off a brief presentation takes place on the sidelines, a crystal decanter is presented to the DH management duo, the Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans of South East London, but far more successful. “500 competitive matches” in charge, the “longest serving managers” in the clubs history, according to the voice over the PA.
With the half’s decided, and each set of fans knowing where they will be spending the next forty five minutes, there is a sudden and almost instant increase in activity. Not just from the home fans but also the visitors. Both with a distinct colour scheme, the pink and blue of DH is soon plastered all over the ever so slightly treacherous ice covered steps of the terraces, no grit or salt on there, they are braver people than us. Most striking of all is the giant striped scarf hanging from the front. There is only one real deviation from the pre agreed, a Saltire someone has erected.
In the away end, red and white is the order of the day. WFC’s fans have their own selection of flags that are soon up, as well as a sizable drum, and it’s the visitors who have the first chance of the match, even before all the flags can be unfurled. Not long after, they have another attempt on goal, however the shot is wild, the player responsible sending it sailing high over the goal and the stand behind it, “sign him up” shout his own supporters.
From our spot in the front row of the stand, whose own steps were no picnic, I’m too big to fall over, so adopt a shuffling, OAP’s gate to get to my seat. I try to remember the recent advice of Caerphilly County Council to walk like a penguin. Beyond the confines of the ground, a large field, and all the surroundings houses are covered in a thick layer of snow.
“Hello, hello we are the Worthing boys” sing the WFC supporters, who make up for their lack of numbers, by for the moment at least being much louder than the DH fans, who almost fill the whole of their terrace, outnumbering them considerably. DH flash a ball right across the box, which gets a sizable gasp and a “ohhhh” from the supporters around us.
Such is each set of fans devotion to their respective clubs colours, there is a brief exchange between them started off by WFC’s “we’re the red and white army”, which gets an almost instant response from the other end, but with the obvious relevant changes, “we’re the pink and blue army”.
It’s a lively start on the pitch, and the noise from the fans, are all justifying the extreme temperatures. I’m sure it’s mostly down to sitting and not moving about, but I’m already totally frozen and maybe after spending the previous day standing around outside, explains why I really feel like shit.
WT’s fanatics according to one of their flags, continue to grow in volume, their drummer in his white baseball cap and red and white striped scarf, is genuinely a very good one. A big step up from aimless passing, that we so often see, he his showing some bona fide skill. Neither of us are sure though if it’s a coincidence or as Tom queries are the DH fans “copying” all the WFC’s supporters “songs”, but there is more than one occasion when WFC’s finish a chant, and DH’s reply with the same one.
I’m sure in a sign of solidarity, rather than some aggressive non league ultras curva takeover, a DH banner is raised in the away end.
I am pretty sure I’m watching the fans more than the match, but I don’t think I’ve missed much. It’s been a relatively equal first fifteen, after WFC’s lively start. On the terrace their fans also continue to impress, finding a few more decibels here and there as they only seem to get louder. The pick of their songs so far is a simple one, to the tune of ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash, and only has three words, “we hate Bognor”.
“I’m hungry” says Tom, looking at me with puppy dog eyes, like I’m going to do something about it. I feel awful, but I’m not going anywhere, the steps are far too slippery, plus I’m trying to work out what the most recent DH song is in reference too, “we’re the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we look like Tuscany”.
I really struggle to connect the dots between a non league club in London, and a popular and picturesque Italian holiday destination. Something about the pink and blue hews of a summers sunset?
Tom returns from the tea bar behind us with sustenance, much needed sustenance contained within a paper cup, with a white plastic lid. Managing to scale the slush covered steps, that make my heart go in my mouth every time someone uses them, I wouldn’t go up or down them without crampons, like East London’s very own Paul Daniels he produces a quite large and warm Pukka sausage roll from his coat pocket.
“Moreish” is how he describes it, looked a bit soggy to me, not even finished yet he tells me he “could do another one”. I just settle for my tea, but he’s already wishing he had got himself a “Mars bar”.
“Here for the Worthing, you’re just here for the Worthing” sing the fans to our left. The man waving the pink and blue checkered flag in reply makes his position on who he is here for quite clear.
DH play for a significant stretch of the half with ten men due to a blood injury, the poor player is forced to stand on the touchline topless, while he is seen to. In the end what Tom crudely says looks like a “tampon” is shoved up his nose to stem the bleeding and he is eventually let back on.
Five minutes before the break and the deadlock is broken. An always rising shot from the edge of the box puts them ahead, the scorer heads for the corner flag, beckoning his team mates to join him. A single pumped fist from one of the DH managers in recognition of the goal, has the air of ‘that’s more like it’ about it. The quality of the strike though is eclipsed by the quality of the scorers name, Sanchez Ming.
Until now the home end had been a little sober, the whole place had except for the WFC’s fans, all felt a bit Sunday, in combination with the cold, it was verging on the sleepy. The goal was just what we needed, just what the home fans needed, who really make a sizable din for the first time. The joy can be heard in the voice of the announcer when he fills us in on who bagged the goal “for the Hamlet”.
Tom wonders if the reserved manner of the the crowd is because Imperial Fields is still a bit “new”, they haven’t quite found their feet here yet. It’’s home for now, but its not home, you could never feel totally at ease here, you couldn’t walk around in you tatty jogging bottoms and old shirt and feel completely at ease.
DH very nearly double their lead not long after going ahead, only for a good block from the WFC keeper, stopping them. The ground is officially alive, that vibrancy that DH games are so well known for is slowly growing.
Although DH are well on top in the dying moments of the half, again they go close, but again meet a keeper in fine form, the WFC fans still sing. Tom though not watching the game, is doing his bit for the local neighbourhood watch. “Look at the freebies” he says scathingly, twitching his metaphorical curtains, pointing to the two people in wellies, standing on the bank overlooking the ground.
After all the excitement of the final five minutes, when the whistle blows for the break, it feels like a bit of a damp squib. Quickly the fans responsible for their respective flags are taking them down, the person in charge of the extra long DH scarf, has a tougher job then most.
A single man walks the pitch, with a tiny fork, prodding in the divots, while a group of kids have an impromptu kick about around him, who are then scalded by the booming voice on the PA for playing in the goalmouths.
“They set up quick” says Tom, surprised at just how fast WFC’s fans swapped ends and got their flags back up, they have clearly got it down to a fine art. With still some of the break left, they occupy their time making snowballs.
The DH supporter responsible for the mega scarf, having just passed us, struggling with it stuffed in a large Tesco bag for life. He has his work cut out to ensure he can get it up single handedly, before the restart. Seeing maybe he is having difficulties tieing it up, it must be over fifteen feet long, easily, some fellow fans step in and help.
‘Waterfall’ by the Stone Roses is cut short by the return of the players. I also learn my fate regarding the 50/50, having already learnt I won’t be taking home a bottle of prosecco. It won’t be me going home with the “£203” prize fund. “Shame you didn’t win that one” says Tom, stating the fucking obvious. That’s a serious bit of cash, that would have come in well handy.
“Bury it” shouts a DH fan as a player shapes up to shoot, but all he can do is sting the palms of the keeper. DH are flying, Tom reckons that WFC are “falling apart a bit” they don’t look half as good as the side who were troubling DH early on.
The sun, I think I can see the sun, trying to break though the clouds, doing its best to fend off everyones collective case of SAD.
Just under ten minutes gone, and DH go further ahead. The slide rule pass from midfield is inch perfect, dissecting the all red WFC defence. So well hit, that the player running onto it barely has to break his stride. Quickly joined alongside by a teammate, the player with the ball gets well into the area, well within shooting distance, but instead chooses to roll it across the six yard box to his teammate to tap in. The WT keeper can only scrabble, slipping on the soft turf, hapless to do anything.
As with the first goal, in the minutes following the restart after the second, DH go close again, they are totally in control. So relaxed are their fans, that they start tossing their own snowballs around, those not frolicking in the snow are singing a song to the tune of Chaka Khan & Rufus – ‘Ain’t Nobody’.
Some Mo Saleh against Watford esq feet get the crowd excited. “Sexy football, sexy football” chant the DH fans in appreciation of the twinkle toed player. The grandstanding comes at the perfect time, with the snow starting to fall again and the thermometer plummeting.
WFC have their own crack at some “sexy football” Tom coos, when a slick move gets the ball to the wing. A succession of great saves from the sky blue wearing DH keeper, are the type of which to get you just as excited as some wonder goal, and prevent the flurry of activity in the DH box coming to nothing.
Tom has a theory that there is a reason the keepers kit is the same colour as his parent club Coventry. He summarises that his contract negotiations may have included that he was only prepared to join, if they agreed to one crucial point, “I’m wearing sky blue”. Every subsequent save there on, results in Toms own cheer of “Coventry, Coventry” for the remainder of the match.
The visitors get as close to scoring as hitting the bar, the shot even out of the reach of the towering DH stopper. So livid is one of the DH managers he somewhat forgets himself, marching a good ten feet onto the pitch to remonstrate with his players for letting the chance happen. “Get off the pitch” grumbles one less than impressed WFC fan behind us.
With almost half an hour still to play, the points are all but confirmed for DH when they get their third. Wheeling away the scorer crosses his arms Wakanda style. The DH fans once again are given reason to release some of that pent up frustration.
When a DH player is cut down, flying down the wing, there are calls from the now energetic home fans nearby “off, off, off” when its only a yellow it all gets a little bit pantomime “boooooooo”.
DH continue to dominate, another big save from the WFC keeper, this time with his feet prevents the fourth. They go close not long after from a corner, the player dashing in almost scoring with his knee, puts it inches over, he punches the pitch repeatedly in frustration.
WFC bring on a sub, in an attempt to shore things up, DH look close to scoring on every attack, the guy is a mountain, more of a “rugby player” than a football player, according to Tom. The home fans now in almost constant song, are referencing that certain part of Italy again, “Tuscany, Tuscany, Tuscany”, but I still can’t work out what its about. Are they just showing off about where they are going on this years holiday?
DH introduce their own fresh legs, the arrival of said legs, causing a group of about three women to outright to break out into fits of screaming and hollering of a One Direction fan’s proportions. Waiting to come on the player half turns his head, half grinning, half looking a bit embarrassed at his slightly over the top reception. The three women fan club, are nearly the loudest thing here for the next twenty minutes or so. The slightest hint of him getting the ball, getting near the ball, or getting close to goal they scream.
“Always been a prick lino” shouts one WFC fan when they think they have scored, but the man running the line had other ideas. The supporters to the beat of the now less active drum, start an impromptu song about him being the “worst lino in the league”.
With the game close to its end, DH make a late substitute. The return of a long term injured player, who gets one of the biggest cheers of the day.
DH once more go close to a fourth and there are new shouts of “sexy football” after a nifty flick into the box, almost results in a goal. The snow now falling at its heaviest, it does not hamper one player for doing his own bit of “showboating” as Tom calls it, a quite unnecessary, but quite “scorpion kick”. Not quite Rene Higuita, he only uses one leg high up behind his head, instead of the two, and doesn’t have a tragic black perm.
Tom’s man crush for the DH keeper only continues to strengthen when he pulls off a quite miraculous save from a late WFC freekick, “Coventry, Coventry” he chants to himself.
“Yessssss” says one DH fan on the final whistle, the checkered flag is now going at double speed and those brave enough to do so have removed their scarves and are whirling them above their heads, “we love you Dulwich we do”. The team, like all teams should do, but all to few do so, applaud the supporters.
In the main stand, few people have moved, they are waiting for the departing players and have some news to share. “We are top of the league, say we are top of the league”. At the front a small group of autograph hunters has formed, leaning over railings, programme in one hand a pen in the other, they wait patiently for their favourite player to pass, before thrusting their biro his way in hope of a scribble.
“That’s a snood” says Tom, impressed at one DH’s coach’s get up who is wearing an almost full upper torso covering knitted cold keeper outer, just his eyes are about visible through the many rolls of wool.
Plucking every string of my football romantics heart, is the young girl also in a fine bit of knitwear, a bright pink hat with a blue bobble. Standing alone, with a single hand stretched out, she also waits, not for an autograph, but for a high five. When one player obliges, she turns to who I think must be her parents, beaming.
The tea was good, the DH kit is always good, the weather was bad, WFC’s nickname ‘The Mackerel Men’ is a new favourite, the sausage roll looked questionable, but Tom enjoyed it, and I still don’t have an answer to Toms question “is that allowed?” when we saw a woman wearing two scarves.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention just one last time the WFC fans who were quite excellent throughout, as one DH fan put it “imagine travelling up from Worthing on a day like this”,
but they did, and they didn’t stop. Those twenty or so supporters are not fair weather fans.
I’m not sure there is anything I can add to the well documented problems DH are going through, I will leave that to the Al Jazeera and Sky News cameras who were here today, I only hope that they tell the story the way it should be told and not as some puff piece at the end of a broadcast, some silly story about a non league club and its ‘hipster’ fans.
For eighty seven years DH have played at Champion hill, except for one season where they in fact slept on Tootings sofa while their home was being refurbished , so they love each other really, like a mate you have known for so long, that drives you up the wall, but you wouldn’t think twice about offering them somewhere to sleep if they needed
For the time being though, there will be an eight mile diversion on matchdays in place, but as their fans put it “we all follow the Dulwich, over land and sea, and Tooting”.
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