Good old fashioned football

There’s a lot of stuff in the media about the growth in Hamlet’s support, and how supporting the club is about fighting fascism and eating bratwurst. It got me thinking about what attracted me to the club.

I’ve always been left wing, and it’s nice to know a sizable contingent of Dulwich fans are likely to share my views on a number of social issues. That’s not always been the case when, at Premier League grounds, you can find yourself surrounded by furious men shouting their way through questionable ditties.The club and its fans laudably strive for positive action within the community and, well, stickers bearing a fist bashing Nigel Farage’s face are always going to be a winner.

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But what about the actual football? The Communist Party of Britain has its headquarters in Croydon, and the Socialist Party of Great Britain is based in Clapham. If you’re purely looking for left wing political movements to join, it would make more sense to contact one of those groups and get involved in their activities. If the media reports are to be believed, the new wave of fans at Dulwich aren’t interested in football, they’ve just seen another facet of working class life that can provide a bit of fun for a while.

Quaffing “craft” ale (when did it stop just being ale?), and penning slogans about the coming emancipation from wage slavery, are noble pursuits, of course, and the “H word” has quickly been drained of all meaning by the late-to-the-party mainstreamers who, seemingly unaware of the irony, now dispatch it indiscriminately against anyone they want to disparage in order to feel better about themselves. But is there any truth to the notion that people start following the club simply because it seems trendy, or because they just like the idea of waving Pride flags around and getting smashed on Buckfast?

Well, who gives a shit?

Perhaps it’s not really for a newcomer to say it but, if people are attracted to the club, let them come. If they enjoy the feeling of being welcomed into a community more than they care about the quality of the football or the results, who cares?

There is always a large number of salt-o-the-earth supporters at Premier League grounds who complain about the numbers of “day trippers” and yet get so smashed in the pub before the game, they barely register what happens on the pitch. Do the journalists write about those fans? No, because there is no story there. And even if there was, no middle class journalist is going to write an article that draws a caricature of working class fans as boorish drunkards who can barely stand up straight during the match.

But there is a story to be had when the journalist hears about “hipsters” suddenly turning up in their droves to chant about socialism while watching a team that wears pink and plays in Dulwich, because “hipster” is a buzz word that the journalist has recently learned, and those middle class lefty types won’t be up in arms if you dismiss them in such an ignorant way.

It’s the journalists themselves who are the hipsters, isn’t it? Jumping on any cultural meme they think they can get a bit of currency out of, using it for their own benefit without a fuck given for the accuracy of their articles, exactly as they accuse the new Dulwich fans of doing the same to the club. But if those Dulwich fans are turning up to games regularly, perhaps even getting involved in activities organised by other supporters, then they’re doing a lot more than this dictionary definition of “hipster” suggests:

  1. a person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.

In fact, following a football club is by no means a latest trend, and it isn’t outside of the cultural mainstream. Unless, that is, you read “cultural mainstream” as “corporately commandeered cultural pastime that has become little more than a means of exploiting working people for every last penny you can squeeze”. In which case, yeah, non-league clubs in general are outside the cultural mainstream.

And what about the Hamlet fans who aren’t there for the politics, and happen to support Dulwich the same way (or, more likely, not the same way) that the journalist supports Arsenal? Supporters who, irrespective of class, turn up each week solely for the enjoyment of watching the team play football?

I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of the new wave of Hamlet fans have turned to the club because they became aware of an alternative to the experience as a customer of Premier League clubs. Fifty quid for a ticket, fifty quid each year to be a “member”, entitling you to the square root of being a mug, crowds that bitch and moan all the time unless they’re winning 5-0, players strutting around the pitch looking useless, safe in the knowledge they’ve just stashed another fifty grand in the bank, and the constant barrage of football “banter” that permeates every aspect of life, an endless stream of people who never actually watch the club they “support”, but will bend your ear eight hours a day in the office about Man United or Liverpool.

Yeah, watching Nyren Clunis tear down the right wing at Kingsmeadow in front of 442 of us was much more fun, actually. If that makes me a hipster, sign me up.

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Kingstonian 0 – 3 Dulwich

I was excited about this one. A South London derby against a side that had scored fourteen goals in six games. A bank holiday Monday game. Plus, on a personal note, I used to live in Kingston, over a decade ago, and I haven’t been back to visit for at least five years now. The last time I did was to watch my mate’s band play. He’s from Manchester, and fancies himself as a real Liam Gallagher once he’s had a few pints. After the gig that night, we left him at the pub with his bandmates. It was a mistake, because he got his head kicked in by some of the locals who were less than impressed by his lairy Mancunian charm. I was hoping I wouldn’t bring the spirit of that night with me as we got the train down from Waterloo to Kingston and had a browse around the town centre earlier this afternoon. To my joy, Banquet Records was open, despite the bank holiday. It’s one of the finer record shops I know of in London, and I whiled away many a happy hour in there, years ago, searching for obscure UK hip hop albums to spend my student loan on.

With a bit of retail therapy taken care of and a swift beer knocked back, we jumped on the 131 to Kingsmeadow. I remember having to walk back from Asda in the town centre, past the Cambridge Estate, and past the football ground, to the room I rented on Beresford Road. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d  attract the attention of the local gang of kids from the estate, who seemed to model themselves on the Runts from City of God. Oh what fun, in days gone by…

It took ten – fifteen minutes to get to the ground by bus and later on, when we walked back to the town centre after the game, it took about the same time, so I wouldn’t bother getting a bus down to the ground again unless one was due in a couple of minutes.

We got to the club bar with ten minutes to go and so had a pint, watching some Premier League highlights on the big screen. There seemed to be a fairly decent crowd, judging by the number of people in and around the bar area. We later learned the  attendance was an apt 442. You can’t take your beer out into the terraces at Kingsmeadow. I never went there back when we lived in the area, and I don’t know if it’s changed much since Wimbledon took ownership of the stadium, but it’s a good ground for this level. There were sheltered terraces all around the pitch. The end behind the goal Dulwich were attacking in the first half was closed for some reason, so we stood along the length of the pitch and had a good view of proceedings. The Hamlet fans were in good voice today, and during the first half, the Ks fans did their bit to contribute to a lively atmosphere. The home fans also had a big “Refugees Welcome” banner, like those seen at several Bundesliga stadiums this weekend. Fair play to the Kingstonian fans for that.

As we entered the ground, walking past the Ks fans, they had a lot to say about Dulwich. Most notable was the question: “Where were you when you were shit?” The pedant in me couldn’t help but observe that nouveaus such as myself have hardly started attending Isthmian League games for the glory. Smiff’s response was different, more fitting: a flamboyantly camp twist of the hips and flopping of the hand, accompanying the quip, “Where are the rest of you now?”

The first half didn’t actually look that good from our point of view. We barely had a touch of the ball at times, and I thought Kingstonian were looking much better than us. Against the run of play, Nyren Clunis made a quality run down the right flank and crossed the ball in for Jacob Erskine to score. That helped us get into the game more and before half time, we had the ball in the net again. Clunis delivered another cross that was prodded home by Charlie Penny. Smiff and I were still busy celebrating when we realised the Kingstonian fans were celebrating as well. “Bollocks,” I said. Off side. I was trying to get to grips with some of the players a bit better and focused for a while on the defenders. Osei Sankofa played at right back and put in a couple of good tackles. At first I thought Ethan Pinnock, at centre back, was playing right back – which may have been because Sankofa was pushing far up the wing – but the number 6 did get back and defend well a couple of times. Pinnock and Drage at centre half both looked quite commanding and I can remember some impressive challenges in the penalty area that were timed perfectly. Unfortunately, Sankofa went off injured, and he was replaced by Charlie Penny. Penny looked a real livewire, and although he didn’t get his goal, I thought he caused Ks some real headaches. Their fans seemed to agree with me later in the game, when they started chanting “Charlie Penny, is a wanker, is a wanker.” Always a good sign.

In the second half we saw some sexy football. “Kingston are attacking more, but whenever we get forward, we look like scoring,” observed Smiff, astutely. Clunis again produced a great run down the right flank, crossing in a perfect ball which Erskine was able to poke into the net. Clunis should have been puffing on a Bolivar as he made that cross; it was a thing of beauty. Ks looked shellshocked and about a minute or two later, we scored again, this time from a corner. Clunis had a shot blocked, resulting in a corner. Drage headed that goalwards but it was Ethan Pinnock who got the third goal.

We looked capable of a fourth goal but it never came, although we did have the ball in the net a fifth time but to no avail. Aside from that, notable was that the imperious Phil Wilson picked up an injury as he fought for the ball at Ks number 9, Ricky Sappleton’s feet. Sappleton is a man mountain who looks like he could play Rugby League if he fancies it. Kingston’s number 11, I didn’t catch his name, also caught my eye. A tricky player with some pace who got the better of his man a number of times. As for our own players, another I remember forming an impression of was Callum Willock. He came off the bench in the second half and looked strong and composed, a good holder of the ball. I don’t know how many goals you’d expect him to get, as he looks like he’s better holding the ball up for someone like Penny, Erskine, or Clunis to run into the box. He seems a useful player, anyway.

A 3-0 away win, you can’t ask for more than that, can you? The Dulwich fans were as rampant as their team, singing long after the match had finished. Smiff and I made our way back into the town centre for a shawarma and a couple of pints in the Kings Tun, the Kingston Weatherspoons. It’s an egregious example of the kind of sticky, gloomy, uninspiring drinking hole that Weatherspoons halls often are. But it was an old haunt in my student days, and I spent my very first morning in Kingston, thirteen years ago, drinking away a hangover with a jug of Long Island Iced Tea. Happy days. I also once met a pensioner in there who swore he was an old associate of the Krays, and then showed me a wad of (pension) cash, saying he’d just robbed it from a post office. Well, there was no robbery today, just a dominant and exciting win which no doubt re-energised the team as much as it did the supporters.

Dulwich 1 – 1 Grays Athletic

I wasn’t at the game on Saturday, and so I won’t say much about it. However, from Brighton I kept checking Twitter for updates throughout the match, and a few helpful commentators present at the game kept me informed.

Dulwich went in a goal to the good at half time, and people seemed confident we might press on and collect our first league win since Merstham away. Various injustices were visited upon us by a nefarious and/or incompetent referee, however, and Grays scored a completely undeserved equaliser in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

Twitter was ablaze with expletives, and not for the first time this season, Dulwich seem to have struggled at Champion Hill against a cynical side that knew how to make it a difficult day for the home team.

Later today we go to Kingstonian, a match I’ll be in attendance for. Let’s hope we can get a much needed win. Ks have had a couple of real belters already this season, not least putting seven goals past Met Police, so this will be a challenging game.

Leatherhead 1 – 0 Dulwich

Smiff and I met at lunch for a couple of pints, in eager anticipation of the the trip to Leatherhead that evening. The pouring rain didn’t inspire confidence, but we decided we’d press ahead anyway. Fortunately, by the time we left work, Southwark was bathing in glorious sunlight. We walked to Waterloo and began our quest to see Dulwich play football.

A charming seat and tins combo meant the train journey was pleasant enough, and we mused on the recent history between the two clubs, as we rolled through Battersea and beyond, into the wilds of south western Transpontania.

Once in Leatherhead, we walked around bemused at the apparent lack of kinkiness. It’s quite a bold name for such an innocuous town. We found the town centre quickly enough but everything seemed to be conveniently closed. Lord knows what Leatherheadians do for their post-7pm consumerist urges. We happened upon an exceedingly poncy looking pub called Penny Black, and walked on, almost devoid of all hope. A few minutes further down the road, though, help was at hand. We approached a pub called the Running Horse, which looked promising, and then we saw a load of Dulwich fans loitering outside the front. Twenty minutes remained until kick-off, so we ducked inside for some local ale.

The journey from there to the ground was fairly short, taking us a bit further along the road before cutting off into an alley that overlooks a stream and is surrounded by trees. It was all rather pleasant. At the gates, the old dear selling tickets took my money and then forgot that she’d done so, asking to be paid again as she handed over the tickets. “Ooh, have I dear?” she asked, when I told her she’d already taken our dosh. The quaintness of non-league is endearing.

Leatherhead FC ask that you don’t take your pints around the ground. Instead there is a small caged area outside the club bar from which you can imbibe and view proceedings. We spent the first half there. From our slightly compromised vantage point, it seemed like the two teams were evenly matched but had different styles of play. We looked the side more capable of a bit of flair, an incisive pass through the middle of the attacking third into the path of an incoming wide man. It was pretty clear we lacked the quality in front of goal to take advantage of this though. For all that we looked dangerous in the build up play, we didn’t trouble their keeper enough.

Leatherhead looked a bit more utilitarian. I thought essentially it was a battle between our Ronnie O’Sullivan to their Steven Hendry. We had a clear penalty appeal turned down by the referee which was frustrating, at that point in the match it still felt like we had a goal in us. Leatherhead’s patient, stolid play served them well and they scored. When we had gone a goal down it did feel like the wheels were turning against us, as the flashes of creativity started to look all the more predictable and toothless. The second half was more of the same, really. The longer things went on, the more unlikely a Dulwich goal looked. As I’m so new to the club, I’m still familiarising myself with the players. The one who stood out for me tonight was the keeper, Phil Wilson. He made a couple of decent quality saves and the Rabble love him.

So the match itself was disappointing in the end, but from the perspective of a newcomer to non-league football, I have to say it was a fun experience. The journey from Waterloo to Leatherhead retained the feel of an away day but on a different scale. You get to visit a new town, a new ground, new pubs, but it’s easy enough to get back home, and you don’t have to take a day off from work to accommodate a midweek away game. It’s football on a human scale. I’m guessing a lot of Dulwich fans don’t like Leatherhead’s ground, but we thought it was pretty good. The club bar could do with installing a card machine, as we were counting the shrapnel in the end for another pint, and there are no ATMs anywhere near the ground. The main stand, mostly used by home fans, was quite large, and at the two ends they’ve got a decent space for those who like to stand behind the goal and make some atmosphere.

Dulwich 1 – 2 Staines

I’m looking forward to the day my Saturday afternoons aren’t taken up the way they are currently, so I can get to some old fashioned 3 o’clock kick-offs. With Tottenham being in the Europa League most years, I’d forgotten that football games are actually played at that time on a Saturday. It will be one of the best things about supporting Hamlet, when I can finally start getting down to these matches.

Yesterday, Dulwich suffered the first defeat of the season. From reading match reports, it sounds like Staines combined cynical play with quick attacks on the wings. A couple of people have expressed surprise that Staines ended the game with eleven players still on the field. It seems Hamlet were rattled by the Staines tactics, which is a bit surprising when you look at how many ex-pros are in the squad.

It’s a wake-up call for the team, in any case. From scanning the internet obsessively for anything related to the club, there has been a lot of optimism that might, perhaps, border on over-confidence. It’s not for a baby-faced JCL like me to have an opinion on such matters, but I wonder what promotion to the Conference South would mean for the club anyway. Presumably most supporters would welcome it, but further distances travelled will mean higher matchday costs. And there might be quite a few clubs in the league which don’t permit drinking beside the pitch. Not the most pressing concern for a football club, granted, but given the majority of the crowd at Champion Hill appears to like a tipple while the game is being played, it is a factor nonetheless.

I’m excited for Wednesday. Need to figure out how best to get to Leatherhead from SE1. Surrey and Kent are just South London’s back garden though, aren’t they? Can’t be too difficult.

Dulwich 2 – 0 Thamesmead

Roughly five years ago, I dragged my loyal wife off to Champion Hill on a cold midwinter night. In anticipation of watching the Hamlet for the first time, I read several match reports of past games on the club website. I can’t remember what the site looked like, back then, but I remember the match reports were erudite and had a certain eloquence. They were vastly more entertaining than the average blokey tabloid report.

When we arrived at the ground, we were informed the game had been called off, due to inclement weather. I was slightly crestfallen as we headed to the nearest pub. Every cloud.

For some reason, I didn’t follow up on that first attempt to watch Dulwich. I continued supporting Tottenham and put Dulwich to the back of my mind, thinking that, some day, I’d head over to Champion Hill again.

A quick perusal of my flat will confirm I’m a man of half-arsed good intentions. True to form, it’s taken five years for me to get round to making a second short journey to the greatest football stadium in SE22. I’m not sure why the stars have finally alligned. Perhaps it was the decision to stop paying through the nose for rapaciously priced tickets at White Hart Lane that I can ill afford. Perhaps it was fact that Dulwich seem to have been riding a wave of media attention over the last year or so, due to a rapidly expanding fanbase. This has meant the club has been a lot harder to forget about than before. Maybe I just heard about them selling Beatnik on tap at the club bar. In any case, I knew a few weeks ago that this was to be the season I gave non-league a try.

Most Saturday afternoons, I find myself otherwise engaged, and therefore unable to get to the football. I scanned the fixture list on the Hamlet website, looking for midweek fixtures I could get to. Merstham away looked promising, but I didn’t want my first experience of Dulwich to be an away game. Then I saw it, my first game: Tuesday 18 August, a league cup game against fellow South East London club, Thamesmead Town.

Beers on the train from London Bridge to East Dulwich, followed by a couple of pints in the Tavern, then we were off to the stadium. The sedate pre-match experience of a clear and quiet walk to the ground, and a couple of pints in the club bar, getting served straight away and paying less than seven quid for two pints, was in sharp contrast to the rambunctious proceedings in the Brickies on Tottenham High Road. I knew what to expect from the non-league experience, but didn’t know whether I’d like it. It’s obviously a far cry from the crowded pubs stuffed to bursting point with drunken fans, singing loudly and releasing hazardous levels of junk food breath into a closed environment. There was no wall of noise from thousands defiantly singing “we are Tottenham” as we got to our seats. But then, there were other charms to enjoy. Away fans stood chatting in the club bar, under no threat of assault by shouty lager monsters. We could buy a decent quality pint quickly from the cheerful barlady, then look out over the pitch from the comfort of the bar, or take our pints with us as we found a seat outside. Other people sitting near us engaged us in friendly chat, at one point, asking me whether I knew if number 8 was Danny Waldren. I said I didn’t know, then squinted for a bit, then said, “Yeah, I think it is.” Then the knowledgable chaps behind us who have been supporting Hamlet for forty years shouted “Well done, Jack,” when number 8 neatly kept possession and played a nice pass.

The game itself got interesting early on, when Callum Willock scored within five minutes. In the nineteenth, he’d made it 2-0. Dulwich were dominant for the rest of the half, and I thought we’d see another goal in the second. To be fair to Thamesmead I thought they made more of the second half, and although the disparity in quality between the sides was clear, they held their own and should probably have scored when their energetic forward got into a one-on-one with Phil Wilson. He put it wide though. Earlier on Thamesmead had come even closer to scoring when Ethan Pinnock had to head the ball off the goal line. But the Mead didn’t ever look like they could escape defeat and Hamlet saw the game through without producing much quality themselves in the second half.

After the game, we took a short walk down Dog Kennell Hill, and picked up some bland junk food, to soak up some of the beer. A short ride on the Overground from Camberwell to Deptford compared very favourably with the eternal walk from White Hart Lane to Seven Sisters, followed by a tube journey back to South London.

Did I enjoy myself? Yes, definitely. I’ve already pencilled in the next games I can get to, starting with next Wednesday’s visit to detestable Leatherhead. I can’t wait.