On a Saturday afternoon just before Christmas, as Manchester City's diamond encrusted side carved out another seemingly inevitable win, I was at Champion Hill in South London, where 800 Dulwich Hamlet fans are in full voice. "We're the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we look like Tuscany!" they shouted. The Pink 'n' Blues were taking on Witham Town FC in an Isthmian League Premier division clash – it would take three promotions from here to reach the football league and six to reach the Premiership.
As fan alienation with the upper echelons of football grows, many are turning to non-league clubs to watch the sport – and Dulwich Hamlet is one of the most popular. In this part of South London, you're within easy reach of a game further up the football pyramid, so why do hundreds bother with such seemingly inconsequential football? After all, Dulwich are leagues below teams that can be seen as a by-word for lower league insignificance – Accrington Stanley, Dagenham and Redbridge and Morecambe, for instance, are all three leagues above.
For one thing, money. Football ticket prices are increasing at twice the cost of living. At Dulwich I paid £4 at the turnstile, £2 for the match programme and £3 on a locally brewed Hamlet lager. That's another attraction – you can drink and smoke on the terraces. If you plan ahead, you can even sneak in a stock of cheap tinnies from the nearby Sainsbury's for an even more economical experience. Compare this to Arsenal's £97 on the gate and £4.40 for a Carlsberg.
But Louis Daly, editor of the club's fanzine The Moral Victory , told me it's about more than just the cost of a ticket. It's the difference between getting involved and just being a customer. "The role of a football club is for the people and the fans in a community. You want to do things to make your community better with activism. It's a really hands-on way of supporting the club," he said.
In 2012 a group of Dulwich supporters set up the 12th Man Scheme, raising funds to sign fan-owned players. The fans that help fund their wages can then appreciate their direct influence on the pitch in a way that doesn't involve vaulting the turnstiles and abusing the manager or shouting at a fellow fan on fan TV. Mishi Morath, of the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust, said, "I genuinely do believe that without the help from the 12th Man we would not have won the league," referring to the 2012-13 Division One South winning season.
The fans are known as the Rabble, and most of them are to be found behind whichever goal Dulwich is shooting into – at half time you can simply walk to the other end of the pitch. Attendance has risen 250 percent in the past five years.
A sub-division of the Rabble is the ComFast Chapter. Their red-star adorned scarves are numerous and they were the noisiest group on the terrace. Their combination of Buckfast-infused chanting and ultra-left politics seems to be the logical conclusion of this rebellion against commercialised football culture. They have slogans such as "Communism is inevitable" and "Ordinary morality is for ordinary football clubs".
Chatting to Robert Molloy-Vaughan who runs the group, his critique extended to modern society in general, rather than just football. He told me about one of the group's slogan's, "For Future Football". It's "a more positive spin on Against Modern Football" – the protest group and general slogan against the commercialisation of the sport's highest tiers. "The most dedicated fans have to miss games because of work. It breaks my heart every time," he said, before spelling out what football would look like in a communist utopia. "Let's get robots, automated factories and 3D printers doing all the labour. Let's have – at most – ten-hour working weeks. Let's have more leisure time for people to spend watching Dulwich Hamlet. That, for me, is hopefully what the future of football will be."
Jarring somewhat with the club's reputation for having a left-wing fan base and low gate-price, Dulwich fans have been accused of actually gentrifying football. With the Dulwich area having become a haven for those familiar middle-class whipping boys the yummie-mummies and expensive furniture shops over the last few years, Hamlet fans are sometimes seen as the yuppy-hipsters of non-league. Morath took issue with that label. "It's not overtly political. We get a lot of lazy comments from opposition fans saying we're hipsters, students or lefties. But it's more a case of doing things that are right. If somebody were to be racist, we'd just tell them to fuck off."
This held true on the day I turned up. In the crowd there were a few people who wouldn't look out of place in a pop-up craft beer shop, but to call them football gentrifiers would be to confuse gentrification with the wearing of desert boots or the drinking of decent coffee. There was an anti-homophobia banner on display, as well as a ComFast Chapter one claiming to have won the "Moral Victory". There were no songs about anyone's mum being a whore or the opposition's keeper being gay. The lack of shitty racist, sexist and homophobic "banter" didn't make it a killjoy affair by any stretch. If anything the fans were more inventive with chants than at other grounds, for instance singing "Dulwich Über Alles" to the Dead Kennedys' "California Über Alles". There were further appearances by songs from the Specials, Fleetwood Mac and KRS-One.
In February, as part of LGBT month, Dulwich will play a friendly game against Stonewall FC, the world's most successful gay team. Following the match the Supporters Trust will go out with Stonewall fans into LGBT pubs and clubs to give away tickets to their league game against the Metropolitan Police. Morath told me, " Other football clubs say they're against things, but in many cases it's just lip service. We're not just saying 'We're against homophobia,' we're trying to welcome gay fans to Dulwich. That sums up the ethos of the club, we try to go that bit further. We've got a mixture of everyone. The atmosphere is buzzing at games. More and more we have become the talk of non-league football."
Incidentally, I'm told that last time Hamlet played the Met police, a left-wing anti-cop crowd turned up and used the opportunity to bait the hated police. When a Dulwich player was fouled, the chant went up, "He fell down the stairs, he fell down the stairs! All Cops Are Bastards, he fell down the stairs!" Also, someone threw sausages at the Met players (police = pigs – get it?), although some of the Dulwich faithful took exception to this.
As for the game itself, the only goal was a superb 59th minute strike from Xavier Vidal, which fizzed gloriously into the top corner, winning the match for Hamlet. The bending strike wouldn't have been out of place on Match of the Day. It sent the Rabble crazy and into another round of chants. The appeal of shouting praise from right at the side of the pitch for the guy who just smashed it into the net, was obvious.
As Molloy Vaughn told me, "Football is an art form. Coming here is like going clubbing or going to a gig. But when it's good, as it's based on uncontrollable factors – you might have been waiting for months for it to happen, so it's more euphoric. It's a bit like going out but sometimes your MDMA is a bit shit, or the DJ's crap, but every once in a while both are really good and at Dulwich for the past few years it's been good more than most."
It wasn't quite Tuscany, but shoulder to shoulder, singing, dancing, hugging, united, the Rabble at Champion Hill was much closer to football's promised land than some of the alienating, echoing cathedrals of the Premiership.
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