Much like my morning bagel, Dulwich Hamlet comes with an organic, Fairtrade, soy linseed reputation. Deeply political, unashamedly left-wing, and, for some, unavoidably hipster, this Isthmian League club are impacting the world of football far beyond their weight class.
As such, I was certain there would be some decent coffee near the stadium. I wasn’t disappointed. La Scala Coffee House, a short walk from East Dulwich station, offered up a flat white worthy of even the most gentrified neighbourhoods. Those around me perused travel guides, nibbled at almond-topped croissants, and debated whether there were more avocado based dishes on the menu than stars in the Milky Way.
The stadium itself is tucked away behind a Sainsbury’s, and is more aligned with the expectations of this level of football. One set of turnstiles leads into an open run around the run pitch. The only features of note are the Main Stand, a small structure running alongside most of one half of the pitch, and a snippet of the other. On the opposite side is the Bus Shelter, a raised, roofed platform that straddles the halfway line. A fence rings the pitch, drawing the elbows of fans around the entire perimeter.
Inside, it’ clear to see why The Hamlet have succeeded in attracting a new audience to Champion Hill. Fine, carefully sourced canned ales can be supped pitch side, the burgers are 100% grass fed organic, a Thai food tent served up a delicious looking alternative, and, best of all, I spotted at least four dogs. Panting smiles and wagging tails. In the increasingly sterile upper tiers, this is a throwback. It’s not that it’s less serious football, it merely adheres more to the ultimate adage: amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important. Apparently Pope John Paul II said that. Or it could have been Arrigo Sacchi. Carlo Ancelotti said something similar, too. I don’t know, just enjoy the words.
There’s a groundswell sweeping European football in which the game is being taken back. Fans are acknowledged as the lifeblood of clubs, not sponges to be wrung dry. It’s understood that our game is important, but pales in comparison to issues such as homophobia, racism, fascism, Islamophobia, et al. Only the most hunched on knuckle-draggers can lack the foresight to understand that a football club is part of a community, and if said community is circling the toilet bowl, the club won’t be far behind. In this regard, it seems, Dulwich Hamlet, are one of Britain’s most potent representatives.
Such stances don’t always sit well with other fans, of course. Particularly homophobic, racist, fascist ones. Not to mention, they play in navy blue and pink.
Pink?, dad spat.
Yes, I confirmed.
Fucking pink?, he asked by way of clarification.
But – pink is for girls, he stated. And poofs.
Well, – let’s not get –
Blue is for boys, pink is for girls.
Any meaning in nature’s spectrum has been attached by humans.
Can you stop –
If I see a man in pink, I’m compelled to fight him.
The club shop is an old transport container behind a goal and I happily picked up a pink and navy blue bar scarf. It’s not everyday football merchandise becomes a legitimate fashion accessory. In fact, most football merchandise is only bought by masochists who enjoy being called out on the street. Plus, I crave the questioning attention of lesser football enthusiasts.
What scarf is that, mate?
The signs of this apparent football utopia were there early. During the warm-up, the Dulwich goalkeeper suggested some fans move their craft beers from atop the pitch-side fence in case they get spilled. A boy was playing cars amongst the legs of the adults watching the game. An older gent was marking bookings and goal scorers in his programme. Ray Bans were everywhere, vintage clothing likewise. The shoes were an exquisite blend of Dr Marten’s, desert boots, and Adidas Gazelles. Such was my giddy, joyous state that I felt a genuine pang of disappointment when I spotted a pair of Reebok Classics.
Perhaps – perhaps this was finally it? A football crowd of nice people. People tolerant of all — not just straight white folk — and intolerant of hate.
The game itself mauled any idyllic notions. We can’t have nice things. Billericay, with ex-Premiership players Jamie O’Hara and Paul Konchesky in their side, stormed to a 3-0 lead inside thirty minutes. The crowd was subdued, finding comfort only in the knowledge that the nearest dog might be only a matter of feet away.
With around half an hour remaining, a fight broke out. With such a peaceful, pacifist crowd, it inevitably came on the pitch rather than in the stands. Billericay’s Mekhi McLeod was shown red. His manager threw the kind of scarlet faced, finger jabbing tantrum that can only bring about laughter from those who bear witness.
The bulbous, spittle stained sort were winning out, nonetheless.
As time ran down, Omar Koroma looked to have salvaged some pride with a delightful diving header. The cheer went up, and, in a John Fist first time experience, what I can only describe as a golden confetti bomb went off amongst the throng behind the goal. But the flag was up. Offside. There was a collective oh as play resumed, the gold confetti spinning limply back down to earth with so many dreams.
We can’t have nice things.
The crowd filed out, anticipating a night of homemade guacamole and beard grooming ahead. Their team had lost, but they’d spent the afternoon in the sunshine with their friends, had a few drinks, a laugh, and moved on. It may not be a utopia after all, but it’s an almost perfect microcosm of what football should be. A trip to Dulwich Hamlet is one for the purists. If you thought Eric Cantona’s …sardines quote was tosh, don’t go. If you thought it was pure poetry, a trip to Champion Hill will brighten any afternoon.