It’s 2018, meaning your football club's existence being threatened with oblivion is just as much a fixture of fandom as Ginsters pasties and Saturday evenings spent stuck on broken down Virgin trains. The list of famous clubs to have endured this horror is endless. Blackpool, Wimbledon, Blackburn Rovers, Portsmouth, Coventry City. Twenty years ago, my club, Doncaster Rovers, were almost dragged into extinction by an owner who tried to burn down our ground.
This is essentially the reason why, when Arsenal fans talk of "crisis", many other clubs' fans find it so infuriating. Last season, Leyton Orient became a non-league team for the first time in its history, after being bought by an Italian waste-management magnate who purchased the club – seemingly – for the sake of an Italian game show. A player's contract at Orient was the star prize (but, weirdly, the winner was never signed). There's expressing frustration at Ozil's lackadaisical approach to tracking back, and there's watching a place in your team's squad be offered up X-Factor style.
You'd be forgiven for not being aware of the latest club threatened by corporate greed, south London's Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. Sure, they're 125 years old, but they play in level seven of the football pyramid – the Isthmian Premier, not the Barclays one.
They did, however, win the Football Foundation Community Club of the Year in 2016, testament to the progressive work being done by a vast section of their fanbase. They play profile-raising friendlies against Stonewall FC, Britain's top-ranking gay football team. They've held drives to support local food banks, the NHS and trade unions. They, like Clapton FC – another London club that's seen its future threatened by an arrogant, self-serving owner (as of writing, huge numbers of fans haven’t attended a home game at The Ton's Old Spotted Dog ground all season, in protest at the perceived lack of financial transparency coming out of the club) – are a community-rooted alternative to the higher tiers of a sport that many feel have long seen their fans not as members of a club, but consumers.
This is an approach that has connected: this season, the club has averaged home gates of around 1,500. That's more spectators than clubs in the National League, and even a tier above, in League Two.
The increasingly dire situation at Dulwich relates to the cancer that has a hold on so many areas of London: property. In this case, a three-way rumble between the club, Southwark Council and Meadow, the US-based property developers who own Hamlet's ground, the charming-if-ramshackle Champion Hill. Meadow bought the ground four years ago for £5.7 million, with the promise of helping the club relocate to a nearby new home. Then Southwark denied Meadow the right to do this, due to a failure to meet the area's affordable housing requirements. Spite then kicked in and Meadow issued Hamlet a bill for £121,000 in back rent. The developers bolted the locks to the ground, Hamlet's home for 116 years, forcing the club to play its games at the ground of rival club Tooting & Mitcham. Meadow even trademarked the name "Dulwich Hamlet Football Club", along with other intellectual properties. Recently, some fans have taken to self-deprecatingly referring to their team as Trademark Embargo FC. Homeless, nameless. But the fans remain.
"I don't think I'd still be living in London if it wasn't for the Hamlet," says Tim from Brockley-based brewing supply shop waterintobeer, themselves a club sponsor. "London can be a cold, scary and unforgiving place – but Dulwich showed me it could be about community, too. I felt like I was part of something the moment I walked through the turnstiles. All Hamlet fans are united in doing what they can to help. We still need to pay the players to get to the end of the season. We've got a tip jar on the counter in the shop to help raise what we can for that cause."
"Hamlet are a special club," adds fan Dan Button, a Nottingham Forest fan, who – feeling priced out by his first love's £30 match tickets – let another club into his heart. "I'd do anything to help them through this fight. Through them I’ve learned of similar clubs, like St Pauli, and that football beneath the cash-rich top flight could and is changing. Seeing the pro-LGBTQ and anti-fascist messaging at matches is unlike anything I've seen in British football. Football needs Dulwich Hamlet."
"In London, the list of clubs that are under pressure is depressingly long," says Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes. "In recent years, Enfield Town, Edgware Town, Hendon and Thurrock football clubs have all lost their historical homes. Away from London, the story continues. Northampton Town, Kettering Town, Torquay United, Skelmersdale United, Coventry City and Merthyr Town – to name just a few – are all facing battles to survive as the property developers circle."
It's telling how many names feature in that roll call from the wider end of the football pyramid. Of course, greed and incompetence reign at the highest levels of the world’s most popular sport – just ask fans of Newcastle United, Leeds United or Hull City about that – but, at the bottom, in non-league, away from the glare of regulation and accountability that theoretically exists at the top, it's a terrain that favours the predator. Owners like these aren't custodians, but parasites who see open wounds on an institution and an opportunity to drain.
That said, Hamlet do have some high-profile patrons who might still save the club from going to the wall. Sadiq Khan has recently expressed his intention to fight its corner, while England legend Rio Ferdinand – a childhood friend of current Hamlet manager Gavin Rose – is looking to buy the club via his Legacy Foundation, an affordable housing-focused company he runs with footballers Mark Noble and Bobby Zamora. A bid of £10 million was recently rejected. It's said that Meadow want at least £13 million.
Tomorrow, Hamlet hold a "Fans United" game at its Tooting-based "home" fixture, against Dorking Wanderers. Fans of all clubs are welcome, and members of any football supporters club, and/or season ticket holders, will be offered entry for £5. This comes on the heels of a rally that was held on the 17th of March, where 1,200 fans marched from East Dulwich to the locked doors of Champion Hill. The aim of the event is to highlight how the danger of unscrupulous owners can affect any club – as well as keeping the spotlight on Dulwich's troubles.
Perhaps if football fans supported the sport itself with the fervour they show for their own clubs, there'd be a linked defensive line against institutions that matter to so many, being destroyed to benefit the greed of so few.