Yesterday I went to a football match. I decided to go without needing to check my bank balance first and without weeks of planning. I went to see South London to see Dulwich Hamlet play Billericay Town in the Ryman Isthmian Football League. Now, you may have heard of Dulwich Hamlet, the self-styled “Swaggering Dandies” of non-league football, perhaps because of a VICE article. That, as it transpired, was why I ended up there, a friend having read the article and been intrigued by the idea of a team in the 6th tier of English football attracting 800, vocally left-wing, fans every week in an attempt to change the way that football is done in England, all in trendy, gentrified SE22.
My observations were that there were a few different tribes within the fanbase, including families and old boys who’ve probably been coming a long for years. There was indeed a big group of ‘ultras’ plastered in Pink and Blue who I stayed with for the majority of the game. They were very vocal throughout, most of their chants seemingly being based on 80s and 90s chart hits (“I said BOOM BOOM BOOM, let me her you say Dulwich…” etc). Some of this seemed a bit self aware, a bit knowing, but at the same time it was all good fun, and everyone involved, whether doing so in that painfully-London ‘ironic’ way or not, did so with a smile on their face. The atmosphere was definitely more upbeat and jovial than I remember at any Premier League game I’ve been to in the past few years.
That could be because they’re winning though. In 2013 they were promoted and they currently sit 3rd in the league. Another factor was that I wasn’t convinced that everyone singing along and drinking along was that bothered about what was happening on the other side of the whitewash. When Billericay went 1 up in the first half, there was very little if any response, to the extent I wasn’t sure everyone had noticed. While the purist in me initially disliked this, by the end I was more relaxed about it. Games at St. James’ Park I’ve been to recently can end up being so painful and devoid of ‘fun’, perhaps because the noise from the fans is so tied to events on the pitch. At Dulwich, the fans behind the goals were there to sing all day and have a good time regardless of events on the pitch. A cynic might argue that would be just as well watching football of such low quality, but I’d ask them to watch Newcastle’s recent performance against Leicester and then ask whether there was really that much difference!
I found myself constantly comparing the experience to what I was used to, and speaking to and listening to those around me, I wasn’t alone. There was definitely a group of people there, like myself and my friends, accustomed to the bigger, commercial, Sky-sponsored version of football and interested in trying something different. What proportion of those in attendance fell into that category I’m not sure, but it is clearly something that is happening all over the country in various guises, whether it be people setting up their own alternative teams (FC United or MK Dons), or travelling to Germany every week in search of a better experience.
And, in lots of ways, it was. I loved the idea that I could go and watch them again if I wanted without having to think about the financial implications too much. It was great to be able to get a local beer (isn’t it bloody Coors at St. James at the moment?!) and also to be in an exciting, competitive sporting environment, without the stress of frustration that can dog modern premier league games. No matter what the result was yesterday (Dulwich won 2-1), no one was going home with their weekend ruined.
But the quality of the football wasn’t great. And I wasn’t convinced everyone in attendance was really a football fan so much as just doing what was hip this week in Dulwich. I would be interested to see what effect the VICE article had on attendances. It seemed suspicious that the entrance price had gone up from £4 to £10 between the article and me attending (ED: TURNS OUT THE VICE JOURNALIST IS A STUDENT SO PAID CONCESSION PRICE). Yes, that’s still a lot less than going to an Arsenal game, but it’s not much less than some Championship and League 1 teams. I’d be also be interested to see what the players think of it too. Whilst I’m sure they love that they have a much bigger fan base than other clubs in the league, I can’t help thinking it must be a bit surreal.
Overall though, I came away feeling great. it made me want to go and see some non-league teams more local to my part of London (including the English St. Pauli, Clapton FC). After the Leicester Game, I noticed a real presence on twitter of fans calling for a boycott of NUFC. How about not boycotting, but just watching someone else for a while. The mighty ‘Heed? Or why not Newcastle Panthers, Newcastle’s LGBT friendly football team? You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about where your ticket money was going, or about the players desire to win trophies.
The thing that struck me most, was the sense that this was why football became such a big deal in the UK. But it’s something that someone of my age has never really felt, supporting a big team. They’ve always had a professional distance, the big machinery of big business and that infrastructure of security and health and safety creating a divide that seems to be ever widening.
Someone told me that the pitch at St. James’ is still owned by the council. A patch of grass that, as the team who played on it got more and more popular, the stands and the turnstiles and everything else got built around it. But at some point did that mean it stopped being what it started as, just a patch of grass with some lads kicking a ball around on.
One of my friends commented that being at the Hamlet’s game reminded him of when he first started going to Newcastle Falcons rugby matches when he was a kid. He remembered how it changed as the game got more professional, the security keeping you away from the players, the prices going up on tickets. Last month Wasps (having dropped the ‘London’ from their name last year) moved to Coventry to secure their financial success. I had to leave one of my first jobs in London as they relocated the office to Leeds, so they could pay us less and less in rent.
Not a perfect day out, but I wouldn’t expect that. My first taste of non-league football was one I thoroughly enjoyed and would definitely recommend. Well done Dulwich Hamlet.