For a few years now there has been a bit of a buzz around South London non-league side Dulwich Hamlet FC; whose (re)positioning of themselves as London’s ‘most hipster club’ has seen a significant swell in crowds with attendances regularly numbering in the thousands. Suburban London’s answer to Germany’s revered left-wing rebel club St Pauli; nestled in the gentrified East Dulwich area of the city, pride themselves on their open-minded philosophy, liberal approach and quirky humour, such as when keys are jangled by fans to represent a ‘key moment’ in the match and songs such as ‘No-one knows us, we don’t care’. With yet another international break disrupting the Premier League, the missus and I decided to head across the river to see what all the fuss was about.
Stopping for a pint in the early spring sunshine at the George Canning pub near Denmark Hill station; we noticed the first difference from the usual football experience, while there were a number of fans clearly stopping for some refreshment before heading to the match there was none of the edge or tension that is usually found in these situations in League games; instead the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed.
As we headed down the hill towards the ground a passing fan grabbed our attention asking if we were headed to the match, where this would usually signal the need for caution at our inquisitor’s motivation, rather than any malice he was wondering if we would like to use the spare season tickets that he and his wife had won in a Labour Party fundraising auction (much to the chagrin of staunch Tory Mrs Football Nerd!), to save us having to pay the far from extortionate £10 entry fee? We of course gladly took him up on his offer and it transpired that he was an exiled Bootolian (or however one refers to someone hailing from Bootle on Merseyside?) who had been watching the Hamlet (as those in the know call themselves) for the past 7 years. He remarked that the sunshine and the ability to be able to drink within sight of the pitch, largely explained what looked like it was going to be a sizeable crowd; and expressed fears that if Dulwich, lying 3 points off the playoffs with four games to go were to gain promotion it might start to take away some of what the club was all about.
Once inside the ground we had a quick look at the merchandising cargo container which had a surprisingly broad array of items for sale; before doing what all true ground-hoppers do and heading for the bar; where for the first time in the day things took a turn for the disappointing as it seems while the club are prepared for the growth in crowds, the bar simply isn’t able to cope, it took us a full half hour to get served depriving us of the opening ten minutes of the match; although we were thankful that we weren’t in the real ale queue as I feel almost certain there are blokes still waiting there even now, I guess which may in part explain some of the intriguing facial hair on display.
Unfortunately our arrival back out on the terrace coincided with the opening goal which much to the surprise of the majority of the 2,805 crowd was scored by visitors Billericay. As we settled into our spec for the remainder of the half, a quick scan around revealed that while the hardcore ‘Rabble’ (as the Hamlet fans behind the goal call themselves) were evident, the significant majority were here for the beer, sunshine and experience; prompting one regular to our side to moan about the influx of tourist fans and day-trippers, rather than taking offence I was reminded in timely fashion by the wife of my own consistent griping of a similar nature about the make-up of a significant part of the Emirates crowd. There are however far fewer disinterested toddlers and dogs at your average Arsenal match!
Hamlet went 2-0 down after 20 minutes, so on the half hour mark, so we thought we would be clever and nick off to the bar to beat the crowds, how wrong could we be? If anything the queue was longer than prior to the match; a ‘helpful’ steward suggested that the queue was smaller at the outside bar, it wasn’t, and finding that out cost us a further ten minutes and a number of places in the queue. The only saving grace of the even longer wait was that we had missed Hamlet conceding a third.
The time spent waiting amongst the non-hardcore fans gave us a clear insight into the make-up of the majority of the crowd, it seemed for the majority their attendance was less about the football and more about ‘the experience’ about saying they had been there; as my father is fond of saying it was middle-class England at play.
We spent what remained of the match with the Billericay fans who offered a more traditional range of football banter, which strangely made us feel more at home.
It was a pleasant enough way to pass a sunny early spring afternoon, in the absence of the Premier League, but I couldn’t help but feel that the Hamlet’s success in attracting increasing numbers of people has had the detrimental effect of diluting what made them so popular in the first place. Over our post-match pints back in the George Canning, we agreed that we would probably give it another go, but on a grey autumnal day in the future to ensure that we got the full experience atmosphere.