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BATTLING against the odds to keep their ground and fighting for promotion would be enough on the plate of most football clubs. But National League South outfit Dulwich Hamlet are not most clubs.
Thanks to a politically and socially engaged supporter base — and a board that listen to their fans — they have backed a number of good causes, from support for refugees, to anti-homophobia initiatives.
Their place in the sixth tier of England’s football pyramid may represent the pinnacle of their 127-year history, but in many respects they are in a league of their own.
Dulwich have never been an ordinary club. Their proud history in non-league football includes four FA Amateur Cups and four Isthmian League titles. Their Champion Hill ground was used in the 1948 Olympic Games.
And they had the last non-league footballer to play for England. The name of Edgar Kail, who scored two goals against France on his England debut, is still chanted at every game, though the last of the 427 goals he scored for the Pink and Blues was in 1933.
Their crowds began to grow around 2013, with people drawn to a warmer, less confrontational football atmosphere and away from the millionaire showroom of the Premier League.
One fan in particular saw an opportunity for the club to appeal to a less traditional fanbase.
In February 2015, the Hamlet played a friendly against Stonewall FC, Britain’s top gay football club, thanks to the initiative of Dulwich superfan Mishi Morath, with all the proceeds going to the Elton John Aids Foundation.
Sadly, Morath passed away last year, but his legacy is a club that always tries to “do the right thing.”
“We do get labelled ‘lefties,’ or just plain weird! Let them label us,” said Morath.
“All I see are Dulwich Hamlet fans united as one, not deliberately being political, even if some of us are. Just doing what is right, and working with our local community. Making all welcome, regardless of race, religion, sexuality, gender or colour is what all football clubs should be naturally striving for.”
A lifelong socialist, Morath was born into Dulwich Hamlet, growing up on the East Dulwich Estate and being taken to games as a kid.
He found himself at home at Champion Hill, where his ideas to promote anti-racism and anti-homophobia, as well as forge ties with like-minded clubs around Europe, were enthusiastically embraced.
His energy and outlook made the Hamlet an exemplary community club and among the most inclusive football clubs in the world. And it’s a direction driven by the fans, as Dulwich director Tom Cullen told me.
“It comes from the terraces to the boardroom. Which isn’t that far, to be fair,” he laughed. “We’re all fans.”
Leafy Dulwich is an unlikely location for politico-football pioneers.
Dulwich Village is one of the most affluent areas in London, whereas East Dulwich, home to Champion Hill, is in the full bloom of gentrification. But it does retain its strong sense of community in a solidly Labour constituency.
In 2017 the club played a fundraising match against Assyria FC to raise money for the Southwark Refugee Forum and the British Red Cross Syria appeal, raising thousands of pounds, but also collecting donations of food for the Dulwich2Dunkirk campaign, providing food for refugee camps in northern France.
Later in 2016 they teamed up with The Bike Project to gather second-hand bikes to donate to refugees, giving them much needed independence while on a low income in our expensive capital city.
In 2017 they hosted a successful day of fundraising, including playing against a Sierra Leone XI, to help victims of the mudslides that killed over a 1,000 people and left thousands more homeless in Freetown.
The tragedy touched the lives of several ex-Dulwich players, including their assistant manager Junior Kadi, a former Sierra Leone international and they were determined to do what they could to help.
But the club also collect money for the British Legion and Help For Heroes around Remembrance Day, facts that are often overlooked by their detractors.
After all, they lost 30 players in World War II and if the stickers in the toilets are anything to go by, “Dulwich Fans Gegen Rechts” with a fist into the face of Nigel Farage, they’re not big fans of Nazis.
As well as these special events, the club are constantly working to raise money with their charity partners, Redthread and Football Beyond Borders, through the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust.
Redthread helps young people break the cycle of violence in their lives, supporting victims of violence through innovative intervention programmes, while Football Beyond Borders do vital work using the love of football to support disadvantaged kids on their difficult journey to adulthood.
But the club has faced problems of their own; problems that even threatened their survival.
In 2014, their ground was sold to property developers, Meadows Residential, who four years later, locked the club out of the ground.
Dulwich were forced to groundshare with their rivals Tooting & Mitcham, a situation that would not have been sustainable for long.
Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn both lent their support to the campaign to save the club. During this period, however, they gained promotion to the National League South for the first time amid delirious scenes, after a play-off penalty shootout against Hendon.
Battles with property developers rarely end well for those opposing them but, after some careful negotiations, they were allowed back into their ground to continue their great work on and off the pitch.
The last eight years have seen Dulwich’s crowds grow from a few hundred to regularly more than 2,000 and occasionally more than 3,000. For a club at this level of football, that is remarkable.
There are many reasons for this. One, I’ve already mentioned: the disillusionment with top-level football. Another is the Champion Hill experience.
It includes families and dogs, as well as local craft beer and food producers. On days when there’s room, you can walk around the ground with your drink, to join “The Rabble” behind the goal to sing their numerous anthems.
Abusing opponents is not encouraged, though reading the keeper his Facebook updates can prove more disconcerting to a goalie than any vulgarity.
So many league clubs sing the same old songs and launch the same tired insults, but I imagine Dulwich Hamlet are alone in singing: “Repressive state apparatus! You’re just a repressive state apparatus!” to the Met Police, when they shared a division with them.
The absence of aggression is a breath of fresh air amid all the nonsense of the beautiful, but sometimes spiteful game.
The third reason for the Hamlet’s rise is the manager: Gavin Rose. After more than 10 years at the helm, Rose has lost none of his drive to make the club progress. And none of the club’s work for good causes would have been possible without his support and participation.
He’s seen numerous players pass through Champion Hill on their way to careers in the Football League and he’s overseen two promotions and the club’s transition from relative obscurity to one of the best-supported clubs in non-league football.
While Peckham-born Rose has previously said it doesn’t get much better than growing your local club, success coupled with a conscience also takes some beating.
The fans have made many friends along the way, most notably with Altona 93 in Hamburg, with whom they share a strong bond, and with Red Star in Paris, who they played a supporters friendly match against a few years ago, thanks in part to Morath.
They also have a friendship with Eastbourne Borough, another non-league club with strong community ties.
As for the future, the club has seen off a storm — two if you count Covid-19 — and still have an outstanding manager, a good squad and a fanbase committed to social issues and having a good time.
In 2019, they added a women’s team who are thriving in their new home. And while the club may say they are not political, they make clear their offering is for everyone — a statement that shouldn’t be political, but sadly is.
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