There is a simple pleasure, a delight even, in walking down a baking South London street on your way to the match. Stopping at a cash-point for a couple of tenners in case the EFTPOS isn’t working, nipping into a newsagents for some cold cans of mid-strength Polish lager and then hiding them in the bottom of your bag in case anyone checks you on the gate. Sparking up a fag, leaning on a wall outside the ground and checking for those that you know in the faces of your fellow supporters.
The last Dulwich home league fixture I attended was a gnawing 1 – 1 draw with Kingstonian at Champion Hill, the single point not being enough to take us into the playoffs in our first season in what was then the Ryman Premier Division. Four seasons on, and repeated playoff heartbreaks, the Hamlet had made it to the final – and they were playing at home.
Except home isn’t home any more. With an ongoing feud between property developers and the local council rendering the club homeless, our fierce rivals Tooting & Mitcham had offered us their (to be honest really bloody nice) home ground at Imperial Fields. Part covered banked terraces behind each goal, exactly what was needed on a beautiful early summer’s day.
I wasn’t the only one going the distance for Dulwich. My friend Grant had timed his visit back from Peru to coincide with the playoffs, Jack had flown in from Hamburg. And Mel had come from Herne Hill. It was a couple of buses away you know.
The queues for nerve-settling beer were enormous and the terraces were absolutely packed. Forty minutes before kickoff was a time to take a walk and catch up with old friends, swap stickers and marvel at just being there, with the chance to take the next step up the ladder into the Conference South.
Just before kickoff I looked around. I knew almost everyone of the twenty people surrounding me. They were the same faces I’d spent the 2013/14 season with on the terraces, getting rained on against Carshalton and in trouble on the buses back from Hampton & Richmond. Some of them had been following The Hamlet for decades.
The other thousand that surrounded them were strangers, the result of a football team that had reached out into the community and played some pretty good football while they were at it. But when the cry of ‘loy, loy, loy, loy, loy, loy loy, loy loy, Dulwich Hamlet’ went up – it rocked the place.
The team, like I say, play some pretty good football as well. Reise Allassani, who was destined for professional league football before an injury kept him at Dulwich, had the best chance of the first half for the Hamlet but his shot was pawed out by the Hendon keeper.
Not so lucky Amadou Tangara, the Hamlet’s custodian, who failed to get his hands on a bobbling shot from distance and by half time it was Hendon who were a goal to the good.
The crowd numbers were such that the traditional ‘change ends at half time’ of supporters was getting stuck in the narrow corners of Imperial Fields. A quick thinker popped open the gates to the pitch and a very gentle, ambling and friendly pitch invasion took place as people wandered across the springy turf.
We’d spent the first half in the shade of the stand. For the second half we were in the blazing hot sun. Some had hats. Many took their scarves and wrapped them around their heads. I was among them.
Second half tension was broken within ten minutes. Gavin Tomlin extending a leg to knock the ball under and past the keeper, after some concussive penalty area collisions had sent the ball spiralling.
Full time. Extra time. The Allez, Allez, Allez chant kicked off and didn’t relent, but for a brief moment of referee disputing, for the full thirty minutes. Dulwich were all over them.
Hendon first. Goal. The crowd doing their level best to put off the taker, scarves waving.
Ash Carew. Top right. Keeper goes the wrong way. We roar. I punch the air. Burty next to me draws on a cigarette.
Hendon again. Full back. Tangara dives forward and to his right. SAVED. The roar is even louder this time. Tangara turns and yells back at the crowd.
Nathan Green. Keeper goes the right way. It’s too powerful. 2 – 1. Green runs back to the centre circle.
Hendon again. The crowd are bouncing up and down. He slips after he takes it. Tangara goes the same way, it’s the right way.
Nathan Ferguson. Casual. Too casual. Keeper claims it. The crowd don’t go silent, but the noise dips for a second as everyone does their penalty maths in their head. 2 – 1 still. We have two left to take. So do they.
Dulwich score. Hendon have to score the next.
Dipo Akinyemi. On as a substitute. Striker. Goalscorer. The keeper goes early and he slots it home, tears his shirt off and is overtaken by thousands of delirious supporters invading the pitch. Someone lets off some pink and blue smoke bombs as they go and the colours twist and mix in the air.
I haven’t moved. Next to me I hear someone say in that distinctly South London accent, ‘I never thought I’d live to see the day we did this’. We all head for the pitch, yelling and jumping and hugging and roaring with delight. Because Dulwich Hamlet had done it. We were National League South.
There is something absurd about travelling such a long way for football. But standing among my friends in the crowd, breaking into song together, reassuring each other that we can score the equaliser – and then it all coming down to a single penalty, right in front of you – there’s no distance you wouldn’t travel for it. How did it feel? Like this…
It’s incomparible with any other club, because it isn’t any other club – it’s the Hamlet. And we follow Gavin Rose. Allez allez allez.
Categories: Other Football Topics
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.