Craft beer, Thai food and charity:
the changing face of non-League
It’s half-past two on Saturday afternoon in southeast London, and queues from the entrance to Champion Hill are snaking around the corner towards the Sainsbury’s that flanks the home of Dulwich Hamlet. Inside, supporters of the Isthmian Premier league side, many with navy and pink knitted scarves around their necks, are emerged from the bar in the Tommy Jover stand, with a craft beer or a Hamlet Lager to enjoy while they take in the game.
Mums are pushing buggies around the side of the pitch. There is a choice of Thai street food or fish and chips from the Frying Squad van in either corner. Unfortunately the “100 per cent grass-fed British beef” burger hut isn’t open for today, but we’ll survive.
Concrete perimeter walls are adorned with artistic graffiti and slogans such as “For Future Football”. An image of David Bowie is sprayed on one wall and on another Che Guevara and the words “Left Wingers” sit alongside Edgar Kail, who refused the overtures of top-flight clubs and despite remaining with amateur Dulwich Hamlet played for England in 1929. Elsewhere, a scarf for sale in the supporters trust’s shipping container-come shop reads, “We’ve won the moral victory”. Tongue in cheek, of course, but you get the picture.
If you have read of Dulwich Hamlet, it will no doubt have been for the decidedly middle-class, metropolitan, liberal hue that this 124-year-old club have recently taken. Whatever you make of their right-on approach to progressing the previously moribund seventh-tier club, remarkably, attendances have grown by more than 700 per cent in less than a decade. So, on Non League Day, the growing annual reminder that there is football beyond the dazzling lights of the Premier League, it felt like an opportune moment to see how it has happened.
Before the game, Liam Hickey, 55, the Dulwich committee chairman, runs through what he believes has drawn people through the gates: disillusionment with the big businesses of the Premier League and the price and constraints of match day—much of what you might expect to hear as contrast to what appeals in the non-League game: “But this isn’t by accident, either,” he adds. They have appealed to every conceivable corner of an evolving community, invited ideas and involvement.
Undoubtedly it has worked.
For instance, in 2015 they played a friendly against Stonewall FC, a gay team and LGBT charity, and another in 2016 against FC Assyria with proceeds funding an aid package for refugees. Tickets are priced affordably: £11 for adults, under-13s are free; £5 concessions cover full-time students, teenagers, the unemployed and local NHS and emergency services workers too.
Vouchers are given out to local school that provide entry for four people so that accompanying adults don’t have to pay. And their anti-racism drives and collections for local food banks contributed to their award of community club of the year at the Non-League Paper’s national game awards last year. “Some of what we do is often misconstrued as being political,” Hickey says, “but we’re not. We’re socially conscious. We feel that we are endeavouring to reflect what people in our own community believe.”
The gentrification of Dulwich has, of course, changed the face of their surroundings.
Affluent families rub shoulders with those from some of the poorest estates in London. But as Mishi Morath, a 50-year-old librarian, and Dulwich committee member, says, any fears of “stereotypical single, white middle-aged men like me” who traditionally frequent non-League games being turned off by the changes at Champion Hill, can swiftly be forgotten. “There’s one or two who’ve said ‘This isn’t like proper football. I’m not coming anymore,’” he says. “But all the people I’ve been coming with for donkey’s years, they’re still coming, and we’ve embraced and welcomed everyone.”
Another supporter, Malcolm Meredith, 65, whose father played for Dulwich in the 1920s, says that he occasionally still heads to Millwall to “get out some swearing”—with a hint of mischief. “There was a time when I thought I might outlive this place,” he adds, gesturing to Champion Hill. “But there’s no chance of that now.”
There were supporters of Manchester City, Arsenal, Grimsby Town and Crystal Palace there on Saturday—the latter of whom were treated to the rare spectacle of their team scoring a goal. Some, such as David Olley and his seven-year-old daughter Erin, were visiting for the first time. As West Ham United fans who can only afford to visit the London Stadium “a few times a year”, he had spoken to a dad at the school gates and decided to try Dulwich out instead. “We may come here a bit more,” he tells me at half-time. “It’s good to support your local club.”
That, of course, is the sentiment behind Non-League Day, founded by James Doe in 2010. Doe believes that more clubs must adapt to survive. “[Dulwich] have attracted people who are young enough to have the online skills to engage with people,” he says. “They’ve got great graphic design, and all these things really take the club forward.” He acknowledges that any community organisation is only as strong at its volunteers, but highlights clubs such as Harrow Borough, who he supports and have refused help in the past. “You see the clubs that aren’t doing these things and they’ve got no real future,” he says.
Some clubs have made enquiries to Dulwich, however. After Needham Market had been well beaten on Saturday, Richard Easlea, their 74-year-old club secretary, invited Hickey to their board meeting for some advice in a fortnight’s time. Poole Town, in Dorset, sent a representative to see them a couple of weeks ago. Morath says. He told them it is about doing what is right for their community. Those there on Saturday will have seen a team who endeavour to build play from the back. First-half goals from Nathan Ferguson and Nana Boakye-Yiadom were enough for a comfortable win in front of more than 2,400 fans.
Promotion to the National League South is again the hope this season after reaching the play-offs in the last three seasons.
Proceeds from the “pay what you want” offer on Saturday went to the club’s official charity partners, Peckham-based Copleston Community Centre and Brixton-based mental health charity, Lambeth and Southwark Mind—exactly the kind of initiative that has been at the heart of their growth.
When Hamlet first ran the same offer, on Non League Day in 2014, more than 2,800 poured into Champion Hill, when crowds averaged 700. That was their first four-figure gate that season but was followed by 13 more. “That was a real catalyst,” Morath says, because many came back.
Dulwich have found a way of dragging non-league football into the 21st century. They have plans to redevelop Champion Hill, which are being considered by Southwark council. And tied to that are hopes of becoming fully supporter-owned.
Above all else what you see on a Saturday is friends and families enjoying a day out at their local club. Surely, that is what football is meant to be?
“There’s a view of a traditional football fan—and I don’t share the values of some of our newer fans,” Hickey says. “But every Saturday I see a fantastic melting pot that reflects both old and new London turning up at Champion Hill.”
Updated 16:32 - 9 Oct 2017 by Mishi Morath