The UEFA Champions League returned with several games played across Europe with lots of goals scored and plenty of talking points for pundits to ponder on.
On any given Saturday, first-time visitors to the Dog Kennel Hill branch of Sainsbury’s supermarket in South East London will come face to face with one of the more colourful and idiosyncratic sets of football fans in the capital.
Next to the supermarket car park, fans decked in pink and blue regularly descend on Champion Hill, singing about a planning dispute from 1991.
It’s not your typical terrace chant, but then Dulwich Hamlet aren’t your typical football club and, if developers have their way, a club that may not exist in its current guise for much longer.
It’s unlikely that non-league Hamlet register much overseas in Australia, let alone north of Watford in the UK, but they are an essential part of the fabric of football in the country, a polar opposite to the opulence of the Premier League, yet part of a structure that extends down from Manchester City at the summit all the way to grassroots.
A 17-year-old Peter Crouch once turned out for them. Rio Ferdinand has tried to buy them. And their current landlords make Brisbane Roar’s Bakrie Group look like Mother Teresa.
A valuable club in more ways than one
If it’s unusual to get over 2,000 fans regularly turning up to watch a team that plays six leagues below the Premier League, the current crisis that threatens their very existence is a far more common struggle that’s enveloped bigger football clubs than the pink and blue army – land and property development.
London, as a city, is at near capacity for space to build new homes, yet the population keeps growing. This makes football pitches like Champion Hill, which sits between the gentrified suburbs of Dulwich and the estates of Forest Hill (a short train ride away from central London) particularly valuable.
In addition, there is vacant land next to Champion Hill. Planning restrictions mean houses can’t be built on this, although the current owners believe a new football stadium could be. Even allowing an outlay for construction, whoever owns this land could make a lot of money.
If this situation makes The Hamlet both attractive and vulnerable, it also gives you a slightly uneasy feeling knowing the main benefactor is a property developer.
Meadow Residential currently owns the ground paying £5.7m for the land – although the club itself is owned by businessman Nick McCormack. It’s estimated developing Champion Hill for flats could net as much as £80m.
Meadow was formed in 2016 by members of developers Hadley Property Group, who purchased Champion Hill in 2014 after the previous owners, a company called DHPD Limited, collapsed into administration. DHPD was also a property developer owned by an individual called Eren Murduroglu, who had family ties to another local non-League club, Fisher Athletic.
Murduroglu and his brother were believed to be behind an attempt to build property on Fisher’s ground. In a harbinger of things to come, Fisher was forced into ground sharing at Champion Hill before going bust. They have subsequently reformed as Fisher FC.
Meadow was initially welcomed by the Dulwich fan-base. The property developer paid off the club’s debts and helped on-field development. In 2012, the Hamlet won promotion from the Isthmian South and have been ever-present as promotion contenders from the league above ever since.
Meadow also made no secret of their desire to build on the ground, alongside a new stadium for the football club, which the fan-base were supportive of, recognising a pragmatic need for survival. On the surface, this was a marriage of convenience that showed every sign of succeeding.
The relationship turns sour
So what has soured to the point that Hamlet’s very existence is now threatened? Local politics and planning regulations may be as riveting a plot device as a trade dispute was for kicking off the rise of the Empire in Star Wars, but the end result has been equally malevolent.
There are two main catalysts. The first is the Green Dale playing fields next to Champion Hill. It contains an AstroTurf that was leased to the club by local authority Southwark Council, and was intended as the site of the new stadium.
Green Dale is also covered by a Metropolitan Open Land covenant, the highest protection afforded to green space in the capital. MOLs only permit building developments in very special circumstances.
In October 2017, after months of negotiation, Southwark Council refused to renew the lease. This followed Southwark refusing planning permission for both the Green Dale stadium and the flats on Champion Hill earlier in the year. In the case of Green Dale, the new stadium development failed to convince the authorities that it should override the MOL.
But it was the rejection of the main property development on the existing ground that was a body blow for the club. Southwark Council has a threshold that requires 35 per cent of new developments to contain affordable housing.
This is to prevent works on low or medium incomes being priced out of the property market. Meadow’s proposal for affordable housing accounted for just 16 per cent of the 155 flats.
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By the time Southwark refused to renew the Green Dale lease, the relationship between Meadow and the council had broken down completely with legal writs threatened as Dulwich Hamlet was caught in the crossfire.
Once it became clear that Meadow’s planning application was dead, the property developer put the squeeze on their tenants. In December 2017, they demanded the club sign a new lease on Champion Hill or face eviction. At the start of March, Meadow handed Hamlet a bill for £121,000 in unpaid rent and served the team an eviction note.
A few days later, Dulwich Hamlet received legal notice from solicitors representing a subsidiary of Meadow, informing the club that the phrases “Dulwich Hamlet”, “The Hamlet” and “DHFC” have been trademarked and could no longer be used by the club.
Meadow has subsequently publicly said they will back down on the eviction notice and trademarks, but Hamlet have still been forced to ground share with rivals Tooting and Mitcham, who play nearly 14km away. It’s unclear when, or indeed if, they will return to Dulwich.
Meadow has claimed that, without their investment so far, the club would have folded. In some respects, there is a grain of truth here. If the Hadley Property Group hadn’t purchased Champion Hill in 2014 and cleared Hamlet’s debts, the club may have struggled.
Yet Dulwich’s current situation suggests they would be able to become self-sufficient. Hamlet comfortably attracts one of the highest crowds at their level and have often surpassed Football League club attendances. Meadow is also currently withholding the not insignificant bar takings from Champion Hill’s social club.
The politics of Dulwich Hamlet
Meadow has also accused Southwark Council of deliberately pushing Dulwich towards failure, an allegation the council refutes, one the club and many of the fans would also disagree with.
Dulwich’s popular manager Gavin Rose is one of those. Last year he told The Independent’s Jack Pitt-Brooke:
“I think we need a lot of social housing and affordable housing for local residents. We know how much it costs to live in London now, it’s not easy for anyone to get on the ladder. If you can get in a level of affordable housing, people can get a chance to better their lives for their families. If there are less opportunities for those families, we are not servicing the community. I understand why the council have taken that stance.”
In many ways, it would have been a surprise had the club and fan-base criticised the council’s affordable housing requirement.
Part of what has made Dulwich so attractive to new fans has been its commitment to social issues. There are food bank drives, anti-racism initiatives, banners welcoming refugees, and friendlies against gay rights team Stonewall FC.
In an era where previously niche left-wing politician Jeremy Corbyn now leads the main opposition in the UK, it’s easy to see why a fan-base with similar ideology has found a club in the inherently conservative world of football.
It’s unsurprising Dulwich has been labelled Hipster FC by fans of rival clubs. There are more than a few impeccably trimmed beards around Champion Hill, there is a bratwurst and sauerkraut stall, in addition to the selection of craft beers from nearby microbreweries. But chiefly, new fans are attracted by an experience that is a world away from the Premier League.
Non-League football in the UK is where many football lovers are increasingly turning to for a fix of authenticity that is a world away from the padded seats of Arsenal, and Dulwich Hamlet has bottled this.
Plenty of supporters who turn up each week are also regulars at Premier League or Championship teams. It’s entirely possible to get a fix of grassroots and top-flight football.
More importantly, the boutique 3,000 capacity Champion Hill has what would be described as a “proper atmosphere” where the organised fan-group known as The Rabble sing tongue-in-cheek songs and crack open cans on the terraces.
Imagine a slightly chaotic coordinated fan block packing out Leichhardt Oval, leaving the joint rocking and dancing with each other. It’s quite unlike anything seen at The Cove or the Red and Black Bloc.
At pre-season friendlies against German sister club Altona 93 – a more left-wing alternative to St Pauli – it’s not uncommon to see bottles of prosecco and German pilsner opened as the two sets of supporters sing each other’s songs back at them.
What does the future hold?
Where the Hamlet go from here, though, is anyone’s guess. One potential saviour is Rio Ferdinand. The former Manchester United defender grew up in nearby Peckham and is lifelong friends with Hamlet manager Rose.
His affordable housing group Legacy Foundation, set up with West Ham midfielder Mark Noble and former Fulham and QPR striker Bobby Zamora, submitted a £10m offer for Champion Hill before Christmas. Meadow rejected the offer, insisting they had no plans to sell, although it’s hard to see what further moves they can now make.
Ferdinand’s Legacy Foundation also plans to redevelop Champion Hill and have offered to work with the council to deliver the required affordable housing as well as a new stadium.
Southwark Council, for their part, has also discussed using a Compulsory Purchase Order, which would allow them to take ownership of the ground. Local MP Helen Hayes has also secured a debate in Parliament on the club’s plight.
But for the foreseeable future, The Rabble and the rest of the Hamlet faithful will make the trek across the capital to Imperial Fields in Mitcham. The stadium isn’t as readily accessible as Champion Hill and there’s no bratwurst, although there is an impressive Jamaican soul food shack.
But that won’t matter to the fan-base as they belt out one of their most famous songs: “Tuscany! Tuscany! We’re the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we look like Tuscany.”
The chant was developed after a local resident complained to Southwark Council about the redevelopment of Champion Hill in the early 90s, claiming it would ruin a part of London that resembled Tuscany.
It’s somewhat typical of The Rabble to create their main chant from a somewhat petty planning dispute nearly 30 years ago. Should Dulwich Hamlet survive their current crisis, that songbook will almost certainly be updated.