To Be or Not to Be?

“Tuscany! Tuscany! We’re the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we look like Tuscany!” The tongue-in-cheek chant from the ‘Dultras’, inspired by a complaint from an East Dulwich resident when planning permission was requested to upgrade the club’s Champion Hill stadium, has been ringing out in this corner of South-East London for 25 years. There are growing concerns that it may not be sung for much longer.

Dulwich Hamlet were catapulted into the football nation’s conscience after a Vice article in January 2015 painted them as the antidote to modern football. With affordable tickets on offer, alongside locally brewed craft beers that (shock horror) you can drink while watching the game, and the feeling of community fostered at Champion Hill, the turnstiles were soon turning at a rapid rate. The 12th Man scheme set up by the club in 2012 is the genesis of Hamlet becoming a cornerstone of the community in SE22, whereby fans group together and raise funds in order to sign fan-owned players, giving supporters the sense of having a major impact in the team’s fortunes. Soon enough the national press were labelling them ‘the most hipster club in England’ – partly because a section of their increased fanbase consisted of the kind of men with ironic moustaches and tattoos that you’re likely to see selling piadina in East London art galleries, and partly because the matchgoing experience at Hamlet offers a genuine alternative to shelling out for a game at The Emirates. There is a strong political bent on display at Champion Hill, with a section of the supporters dubbing themselves  the ComFast Chapter – a portmanteau of Communism and Buckfast – while the visit of Metropolitan Police always results in anti-establishment chanting. The vast repertoire of chants in the arsenal of Hamlet fans is also a welcome tonic. Eschewing the now incredibly tired ‘Sloop John B’ theme found at most Premier League grounds, Hamlet supporters have penned ditties to the songs of Dead Kennedys, The Stranglers and The Specials. In 2015 they became the first side to host a friendly with Stonewall, the country’s first completely gay football team. In short, going to the match has become an opportunity to meet creative, liberal, likeminded people, have a good laugh, drink some nice beer and watch the game. Unfortunately if things don’t go their way at an appeal hearing on 12th December, these kind of matchdays could be numbered.

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The predicament The Hamlet currently find themselves in began back in 2014 when Meadow Residential, an investment group based in New York, provided £5.7m for land developer Hadley to purchase the land that the Champion Hill stadium is built on. The long-term vision was the building of 155 new flats and houses alongside a brand new stadium for the football team. In theory it was a win-win situation for Hamlet, as Meadow took over the financial running of the club and put it at the centre of ambitious plans to regenerate one of the overlooked corners of the area. East Dulwich itself was gentrified at the beginning of the decade, and parts of neighbouring Peckham and Bermondsey have followed, much to the chagrin of the local communities that have been priced out of the area and forced to up sticks. With this in mind Southwark Council are keen to ensure that affordable housing is abundant in the area, which is where trouble has started to brew. Meadow’s application to build on the site, filed in 2016, was rejected by Southwark on account of the lack of affordable housing included. The developer and the council are now at loggerheads, and as a result Meadow announced that they would no longer be financially supporting the football club. Not content with removing what equates to £170,000 a year in running costs, the Meadow-owned stadium operator has also introduced strict measures regarding the use of Champion Hill by fans looking to raise money, with the six hours around the game on home matchdays giving Hamlet supporters little time to financially support their team. To further muddy the waters, Southwark council are currently in the midst of a legal battle with the football club over the Green Dale fields next to the ground, which could result in a six-figure legal bill landing on the doormat at Champion Hill.

Earlier this month Sadiq Khan spoke to The Independent and voiced his concerns for the future of Dulwich Hamlet. “I urge the current owners to do the right thing and revisit their application to protect Dulwich Hamlet and deliver more affordable homes, or find an alternative that ensures the future of a football club that means so much to its supporters and local community.” The backing from the Mayor of London may well add serious weight to Hamlet’s cause, but until Meadow are prepared to negotiate with Southwark the club is hemorrhaging money, and the fans are having to dig deep to keep them afloat. A fans’ alliance has been created, incorporating the club’s supporters trust, the Dulwich Hamlet Football Board, and the grassroots group 12th Man, and a fundraiser was held ahead of the visit of Harrow Borough to Champion Hill. With an average home gate of 1,500 Hamlet are one of the best supported sides in the Bostick Premier, but gate receipts alone aren’t enough to cover the costs of running the club and some fans are going as far as donating money via PayPal in order to pay players wages. Fortunately, as their meeting with Hendon this week demonstrated, they’ve also got the backing of their league rivals. Manager Gavin Rose took his side to Silver Jubilee Park on Tuesday for a league meeting with The Dons, and ahead of the game Hendon chairman Simon Lawrence announced that for every adult spectator exceeding last season’s attendance of 151 that travelled to the game, the hosts would donate £5 to the 12th Man fund, as well as both clubs splitting a pound for every pint bought at the match. In the event, the 306 supporters that travelled up to North West London on a mild November evening secured a £775 donation from Hendon, and they were treated to a breathtaking 3-3 draw.

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In fact, on the pitch Dulwich Hamlet are in fine health indeed. They currently sit atop the Bostick Premier League with a healthy lead, although they have played more games than many of the chasing pack. Since their promotion from the Isthmian League Division One in 2013, the club have reached the playoffs three times, losing the final in the past two seasons. This season, after a stuttering start, Rose’s side embarked on a nine game unbeaten run, winning eight, which propelled them to the top of the league. Winning a league that includes a team financially doped up to the eyeballs would be a hell of a feat in itself, let alone doing without funding, but at the moment Hamlet and their fans must focus on keeping the club alive. Their fate will be decided in little over a fortnight, as Southwark Council are forced to make the unenviable decision between tearing a part of the community out of East Dulwich or going back on their promise of affordable housing. Even if it goes their way, serious questions must be asked about the relationship with Meadow and whether Hamlet are comfortable continuing an association with a company whose values are the polar opposite of the club and supporters. Dulwich Hamlet über alles? Let’s wait and see.

UPDATE: Meadow Residential have released a statement confirming that the planning appeal has been withdrawn, and they are working with Dulwich Hamlet and Southwark Council towards a resolution. Meadow were also at pains to state they do not ‘own’ Dulwich Hamlet Football Club.

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