The Day Dulwich Hamlet United the Commons
Last Friday, in a wood-panelled cloakroom tucked into the eaves of the House of Commons, I was one of 30 football fans, all a little shocked, not quite believing what had just happened. A few minutes earlier, we’d risen as the Serjeant at Arms collected the golden mace beneath us and the Speaker departed the chamber — ref’s whistle, parliament adjourned, MPs back to the changing rooms. 20 feet above the action, the clerks began stewarding us out of the viewers gallery to collect our coats and scarves.
Between 2.30 and 2.55pm on Friday the 16th of March 2018, Hansard will forever state that the British Parliament paused to discuss the plight of Dulwich Hamlet FC, a football club in the 7th tier of English football, sitting 3rd in the league at the time (but with a few games in hand on 2nd-placed Folkstone, for the record Mr Deputy Speaker).
In the gallery cloakroom, two ladies in front of me were unhooking their pink-and-blue scarves from the wall, doing their best to be parliamentary, which meant not crying. I heard one whisper to the other “oh it’s all a bit emotional isn’t it?”, before giving in and crying a bit. The rest of the Dulwich Hamlet delegation was making their way in from the gallery, stunned.
Despite being 125 years old, you’ve probably never heard of Dulwich Hamlet. But if you have, it’s because of their recent travails. In 2014, their indebted owner sold their Champion Hill stadium, the land around it, and a 98% share option in the club to a New York property developer called Meadow Residential. This was the plan: the owner would get the cash he needed; Meadow would build a huge housing complex on the site of the current stadium and manage the club’s finances until it was built; Dulwich Hamlet would get a new stadium next door; and once that was all done the 98% share option would be immediately transferred to the supporters trust. Everybody wins.
But when Meadow applied for planning permission for their residential complex it was woefully short of affordable housing provision, and Southwark council rejected it. So Meadow went to war with Southwark, using Dulwich Hamlet as a bargaining chip to force the council back to the negotiating table. They cut the club adrift and shifted £121k of backdated rent they were supposed to be paying themselves (as both tenant managers and landlord) onto the club as accumulated debt. Not done, Meadow then registered “Dulwich Hamlet FC” as a trademark and accused the club of being in breach of it. Then they barred the club from the stadium. On their 125th anniversary, Dulwich Hamlet were suddenly homeless and nameless.
But while all of this was going on, something else was happening in parallel. Over recent years, Dulwich Hamlet’s average attendances have grown from around 150 spectators per game to over 1500 — unheard of for a team in the 7th tier of English football. With a community-driven matchday experience in stark contrast to the overpriced megaplexes of the Premier League, combined with overtly liberal leanings, savvy social media, and a postcode riddled with journalists … 125-year old Dulwich Hamlet became accidentally trendy.
In today’s Britain, a tangible sense of community is increasingly a novelty, but Dulwich Hamlet has it in spades — kids running around the fringes of the pitch, old timers mingling in the bar with football-curious Peckhamistas, collection buckets for local causes scattered across the stadium. It’s a great day out for a tenner, even if you don’t like football. And if you do, the football’s decent too — Dulwich Hamlet have been flirting with promotion for a number of years, and have a couple of superb players, not that it matters that much.
For the volunteers who run The Hamlet, this small club is a very big part of their lives. When I first visited Champion Hill for a pre-match meeting with their Chairman and Commercial Director Liam Hickey — my company Picfair are now the club’s main sponsor — I couldn’t find him anywhere. This felt odd. As the lineups were being announced over the tannoy and the fans started streaming out of the bar, the club’s Chairman-cum-Commercial-Director was nowhere to be seen. It turned out I’d been listening to him all along — his was the voice on the tannoy; Liam — a volunteer — is the Chairman, the Commercial Director, The Stadium Announcer, and also in charge of making sure the shepherd’s pie in the tiny Board Room under the main stand is ready for full time. On the day, Dulwich Hamlet drew 2–2 with the Metropolitan Police, and Liam and I struggled to discuss much business because he was so gutted that they’d thrown away a 2-goal lead. It didn’t matter. As a West Ham fan increasingly disillusioned with our faltering lurch towards “big clubness”, I’d already fallen in love.
Fellow lower-league clubs accuse Dulwich Hamlet of not being quite “football-ey” enough. British football has a institutional phobia of politics, and most fans and clubs across the country are happy with that — life’s political enough, let’s leave it out of the football, eh? But Dulwich Hamlet are determinedly progressive — rainbow flags are regularly visible on matchdays (a few seasons ago they played a groundbreaking friendly against LGBT charity Stonewall FC), and various stickers and murals around the ground proudly impart their lefty leanings (one inspired by their German sister club Altona 93 depicts Nigel Farage being punched in the face by an anti-fascist fist).
For traditionalists, this jars. On lower-league online forums, Dulwich Hamlet are teased for being more of a campaign group than a football club. The truth is, they’re both. And if you were to choose the one club in the country who were least likely to go quietly when faced with extinction at the hands of rapacious landlords … this is it.
Since the club was cut adrift in October, they’ve waged a masterfully-deployed media campaign to draw as much oxygen towards the story as possible. And it’s worked. Because it’s a story with everything — a community institution struggling in the age of Austerity, an aggressive New York property developer bullying with impunity (remind you of anyone?), a council determined to showcase its social creds during an affordable housing crisis. For the casual footballing observer, it’s a cause to latch on to without blinking — how could you not? The footballing Twitterati have all weighed in — Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, and Peter Crouch pumped the story out to their millions of followers. And for politicians, it’s a no-brainer-slam-dunker of an issue to get behind … Sadiq Khan, Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson, David Lammy and many others have all publicly expressed their support.
And so to Westminster, and the two ladies unhooking their scarves from the wood-panelled walls of a musty nook high above the Commons, trying to maintain their parliamentary decorum while failing not to cry. We’d just watched Helen Hayes, the MP for Dulwich & West Norwood, deliver an excellent speech to Tracey Crouch, the Conservative Sports Minister across the divide. The chamber was mostly empty, which, in a strange way, made it feel even more special. When we think of Parliament, we think of the box-office pugilism of PMQs, with hundreds of MPs vying for seats and airtime amid the pantomime din. But here, on the same seats and in the same hall, underpinned by the same parliamentary privilege and procedural record, a single MP was raising the plight of a small football team from south London to a dozen or so other MPs.
And across the chamber on the opposite benches, Tracey Crouch gave her full support. Not only did she back the honourable member’s cause, she promised to appoint an independent intermediary if Meadow and the Council couldn’t reach an agreement between themselves. Watching from above, the viewers’ gallery broke out into applause. Dulwich Hamlet had united the Commons.
And that explained the shock in the cloakroom afterwards. The 30 or so men and women of the Dulwich Hamlet delegation mingling awkwardly, not knowing whether we were allowed to talk loudly yet, or if we had to give our passes back to the clerks, or which way was the quickest way out to the tube.
Small community causes are accustomed to losing. They rely on anger and injustice to fuel them. So when your campaign is raised by an Opposition MP in your country’s highest democratic organ, and the Government Minister not only agrees with your cause but commits to helping get it sorted, and you’ve just seen democracy actually doing its job and pursuing justice in the fight of a community David versus a corporate Goliath, it’s difficult to know what to do with yourself. There were lots of hands fumbling in and out of pockets, upper-arm-squeezing semi-hugs, awkward giggles.
The ladies were right — it really was a bit emotional. But it wasn’t over. The next day a large march was planned from Goose Green to the boarded-up Champion Hill stadium (update: over a thousand fans turned up in the snow). The day after that, Dulwich had a vital “home” game vs Worthing, hosted at Tooting & Mitcham’s stadium — Dulwich’s biggest locals rivals have agreed to share their ground while they’re homeless. (Update: Dulwich won 3–0 and went top of the league.)
I found my way out of Parliament to catch a tube back to the office. Behind me, the Dulwich Hamlet delegation snaked out of the building and into Westminster Hall, through the turnstiles and off to the pub for a post-match pint.