Far and few between have been the meetings between Dulwich Hamlet and Braintree, in all their guises from their formation as Manor Works in 1898 as the works team of the Crittall Window Company to their current incarnation as the Iron. During the decade the Essex side spent in the Isthmian League from their admission in 1996 to their promotion as Premier Division Champions a decade later, our paths never crossed in league competition. Indeed, it was in the infamous unfinished 2000-2001 season that Braintree would earn their promotion to the Isthmian League’s top table, finishing third in Division One and replacing Dulwich Hamlet. That was surely one of the most ignominious seasons in recent Hamlet history, one that saw Dulwich finish rock-bottom of the Premier winning just four league games all season and ending 14 points shy of 21st placed Carshalton Athletic!
A year later the draw for the third round of the FA Trophy would bring the clubs together at Champion Hill for their maiden visit in the Iron’s Braintree Town guise. Dulwich Hamlet had already upset the odds to reach this stage, disposing of Southern League Evesham at the Hill rallying from a goal behind to win 3-1 thanks to goals from Luke Edghill, Charley Side and Eben Allen just a few seconds after arriving as a substitute. The next round brought Premier Division Billericay Town to Champion Hill with fans witnessing the most dramatic of finishes. With sides level at 1-1 in stoppage time, the visitors were generously awarded a spot kick by referee Mr Nemorin-Neol. However ‘keeper James Mercer would come to rescue, keeping out the Baker’s penalty before seconds from the final whistle Danny Husbands turned in a sensational winner.
Unfortunately, against Braintree Town, the late drama came at the wrong end. Injuries and suspensions robbed the Hamlet of a number of key components, most notably the cup-tied Lee Akers, Hamlet’s talismanic midfielder having already played for Carshalton Athletic in the Trophy. It took just five minutes for the Hamlet to make the breakthrough as Dave Stevens showed he had lost none of that killer instinct in front of goal. After much Dulwich pressure failed to come to fruition, The Iron grew in confidence, levelling when Tommy Noble beat James Mercer to an overhit through ball to tuck the ball beyond the custodian and into the net. The tide had turned in favour of the visitors and just before the interval came a second for the Essex travellers. A ball from Dave Culverhouse wide on the left was knocked into the box first time by Robbie Reinelt to be met by Nicky Simpson, who chested it down and unleashed an unstoppable volley beyond Mercer for 2-1. The Braintree onslaught continued after the break with only James Mercer’s heroics holding back the floodwaters.
Fresh blood was introduced into the Hamlet line-up and, like some Roy of the Rovers storyline, Dulwich regained the lead with a brace of goals in as many minutes. First Lee Endersby’s corner was headed on by Dave Richards and rising at the back post, Charley Side tucked a neat header inside the upright to bring the scores level. Then with Braintree still reeling, Side was the instigator as he charged down ‘keeper Paul Catley’s attempted clearance with Declan Perkins the beneficiary slotting the ball into the undefended net from 20 yards. However fate still had cruel cards to play. Five minutes remained when Braintree won a corner, packing the box with every available player bar the ‘keeper. The clearance that only reached Dean Parratt on the edge of the box, whose ripping shot on the volley fizzed into the top corner to bring the side’s level. A replay seemed on the cards but in stoppage time a mishit Declan Perkins pass allowed the Iron one last assault as Nicky Simpson made it 4-3 as he met a cross with a steaming volley that gave Mercer no chance.
Braintree pulled a prize plum out of the pie as the next round sent them all the way to the East Riding of Yorkshire where the goals flowed like the Humber River. Drawn away to North Ferriby United, the first encounter ended all square as the sides shared EIGHT goals. Back at Cressing Road it much the same story as extra time could not separate them, the Iron eventually edging through 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw. Another replay was needed in the last 16 against Margate but after returning from the Kent coast with 1-1 draw, the Gate had the upper hand in the second encounter advancing to the quarter finals with a 2-1 win.
Whilst Dulwich Hamlet might have been slight underdogs in that encounter, it was nothing compared to the gulf in status that existed between the clubs in their previous meeting in the last days before the outbreak of World War II. Now known as Crittall Athletic to more closely identify with their parent company, the Iron had established themselves as one of the powerhouses in the Essex football. Playing in both the Border League and the Eastern Counties League, they had been champions of the former in the 1935/36 and lifted both the following season 1936/37. The 1937/38 season saw them decamp from the Eastern Counties League to join the newly formed Essex County League, a savvy decision that saw a host of lucrative local derbies replacing long trips to out of the way East Anglia destinations such as King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The six member clubs played each other four times, twice home, twice away with a one-off title decider at the end of the season. It was not a success and folded at the end of the season.
However it was not the Crittall Athletic League prowess that drew to them to the public attention but an astounding run in the FA Trophy that would eventually lead them down Dog Kennel Hill to Champion Hill. That encounter was still a long way off, one few Iron fans might have dreamed of, when they took to the field at Saffron Walden on 25th September for their First Round Qualifying game. Against the village side it was pretty much one-way traffic as Iron romped to a 7-2 victory. More goals followed as Essex League rivals Colchester Town were overcome 4-1, though the result would later be expunged when their opposition folded before completion of the season.
Crittall were starting to build an impressive reputation, one that was only enhanced as they continued to wreak havoc on opponents, Maldon & Heybridge (now Heybridge Swifts) were next to feel the force as they were humbled 9-2 at Cressing Road. the next round pitted the Iron against more dangerous opposition. Like Crittall, Hoffman Athletic were a works side, representing the Hoffman's Bearings Company of Chelmsford. They had recently dispatched Isthmian League giants Leytonstone from the FA Cup and regularly attracted crowds of 3000+ to games. With the country on a war footing one can easily surmise that the side might well have been bolstered by a few “ringers”! To say the hosts were somewhat shocked by the eventual result must be something of an understatement as the Iron had the skids under Hoffman from the start. Final score 6 nil. The long journey through the qualifying rounds finally ended as King’s Lynn came to Cressing Road. Again, the fans were not to be disappointed, 2000 or more watching as the opposition were annihilated 7-1.
In the velvet bag with the big boys at last, Crittall Athletic eyed the names of Barnet, Wimbledon, Wycombe Wanderers, Bishop Auckland amongst many stalwarts of the amateur game. When the name of Tooting and Mitcham, then of the Athenian League, came out alongside there must have been mixed emotions, frustration at missing the chance to cross swords with one of the giants, but a winnable tie and at home too. So it proved. The crowd proved disappointing with around 1000 turning on the day of the day but this was more than compensated for by another excellent result as the Iron sent Tooting packing, 4-2 the final score.
The anticipation in Braintree had grown and grown with Monday’s draw for the 2nd Round awaited with bated breath. 32 teams left, eleven of those clubs former winners of the prestigious competition– Barnet, Stockton, Wycombe Wanderers, Bromley, Clapton, Dulwich Hamlet, Leyton, Kingstonian, Ilford, Leytonstone and Walthamstow Avenue. When the draw was published that day, the Iron could scarcely have found themselves with a more daunting task – an away trip to Champion Hill to face the mighty Hamlet, then at the peak of their powers in the pre-war golden age. The previous April Dulwich Hamlet had lifted the FA Cup for the fourth time after beating Leyton 2-0 in the final at West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground. Come the day of the match, Saturday 5th February 1938, Braintree Station was a hive of activity as several “football specials” departed for the capital, the throng of travelling Iron fans helping to swell the crowd on the day to a mindboggling 15739. Only the final, a local derby between Kent sides Bromley and Erith & Belvedere played at Millwall’s Den, would attract a heftier attendance.
Champion Hill would see the end of the Iron’s incredible run but not before they had given the Hamlet a good run for their money. Hamblin found the net yet again for Crittall but in the end Dulwich would prove just too strong for the visitors as a pair of goals from Will Goodliffe and another from mercurial winger Tommy Jover sent Dulwich Hamlet through. The Hamlet would go on to knock out Ilford 3-2 in the next round before capitulating at the quarter final stages 3-1 at the hands of Barnet.
It is perhaps a sobering thought to realise that many of those players, officials and supporters at Champion Hill on that historic day in our clubs’ histories would soon be engulfed in the maelstrom of a World War. How many would not return from the battlefields of Europe one cannot tell. Others would lose their lives on the Home Front with Crittall’s themselves turning to the production of munitions and Braintree often a target for bombing raids.
An interesting footnote to that historic season for the Iron must be their post-season trip to Germany, then firmly under the iron grip of the Nazis. Whilst an England team would controversially offer a Nazi salute to Herr Hitler at a match in Berlin, the Crittall Athletic players, when faced with the same, refused to acknowledge.
Updated 19:20 - 1 Feb 2017 by Paul Griffin