‘This is my Christmas Day’: Dulwich Hamlet return to Champion Hill with a win
CHAMPION HILL, LONDON — Ten months away from home. That’s how long Dulwich Hamlet spent exiled from Champion Hill. When property developers Meadow Residential locked them out of their ground in March, it seemed like an existential threat to a club which had been one of non-league football’s greatest success stories in the years previous.
Thousands of fans were left with the prospect of nowhere to go on a Saturday afternoon, while a club with a profound footprint on the local area – not least through the highly acclaimed Aspire Academy and its championing of youth charities, food banks, socially progressive causes and unions – was left in an extremely precarious position.
In the time since, Champion Hill has become a rallying point for football. With so many clubs up and down the country faced with a similarly fraught existence, many fans identified with Hamlet’s predicament. Millwall were one of the first clubs to pledge their support, having suffered through their own protracted (and ongoing) battle with property developers in Bermondsey. Hamlet’s local rivals Tooting & Mitcham United offered them a groundshare at Imperial Fields, opening up a crucial revenue stream and allowing Hamlet fulfil their fixture commitments.
‘It means so much to so many'
Despite still being a seventh-tier club when they were turfed out of their historic home, Hamlet’s situation attracted an overwhelming wave of defiance. A fan-led campaign on social media caused serious embarrassment to Meadow, targeting their commercial partners and – as when Adidas cancelled a photo shoot at Champion Hill in April – limiting their earning power. Hundreds of fans marched through the streets from Goose Green to Champion Hill in protest at the lockout, while local politicians such as Labour MP Helen Hayes and Mayor of Southwark Catherine Rose pledged their support. The club’s situation was even debated in Parliament after Hamlet’s fans-turned-activists had made so much noise that they created their own news cycle. Amazingly, it was to this tumultuous backdrop that Hamlet won promotion to the National League South in May.
Without the fierce and creative dissent which followed Hamlet’s expulsion from Champion Hill, their homecoming may have remained a distant hope. As it was, however, talks between a chastised Meadow, the club and Southwark council in the autumn, chaired by then-sports minister Tracey Crouch, resulted in their triumphant return on Boxing Day for a sold-out match against Eastbourne Borough.
“It feels surreal on the one hand, and on the other hand it feels like we’ve never been away,” says Tom Cullen, a director at the club, when asked how it feels to be back at Champion Hill. “Personally, I’m exhausted, but this is my Christmas Day. I’m happy.” The club hierarchy, along with a mini army of volunteers, worked tirelessly over the Christmas period to get the ground ready for matchday after months of disuse. “It means so much to so many people and to sell out today feels good, really good,” Cullen adds.
‘The stadium was in a state'
The words ‘surreal’ and ‘this is my Christmas Day’ seem to be on everyone’s lips come kick off. “A lot of people have said this is their Christmas,” Duncan Palmer, the club photographer, tells i. “I’ve been coming down sort of once a week, once a fortnight, since the announcement [of our return] was made and I’ve seen the stadium getting better and better. I don’t think people realise what a state it was in. So much work has been done by so many volunteers who have given up so much of their time… to be back here with thousands of people here is quite surreal, so I’m sort of thinking: ‘This is brilliant, but I can’t really take it all in.’”
That sense of dazed relief permeates the match against Eastbourne, which Hamlet win 2-1 to leave them relatively comfortable in the National League South’s lower-mid table. The atmosphere at kick off is vaguely shellshocked despite the 3,000 attendance, though the whole place is alive again with fans catching up, the smell of chips and jerk chicken, steam rising off polystyrene cups and half-dispersed halos of cigarette smoke. With the arrival of Hamlet’s decisive second-half goals, however, normal service resumes. Beer rains from the skies, homemade flags fly behind the goal, the noise rattles windows and pink and blue scarves whirl like little tornados.
“It feels great to be back,” says Hugo Greenhalgh, one half of the Forward the Hamlet podcast. “It’s a very emotional day for everyone I think. This is home and the amount of great days we’ve had here over the years, our history playing on this site whether it be this ground or the old ground at Champion Hill, it’s such a fundamental part of our identity. Being able to walk here before the game, go to the local pubs, go to the bar, go to the clubhouse, that’s just such a big part of what it’s all about. We were missing that in Tooting and, while we’re grateful for the time we were able to spend there, it’s all about being back here and there can only be better times to come.”
With banners reading ‘This Meadow is Ours’ and ‘We Live Here’ displayed proudly behind one goal, it’s clear not all Hamlet fans are ready to forgive and forget when it comes to the property developers who remain their landlords. While the club hierarchy have struck a much more diplomatic tone with regards to Meadow in recent weeks, it will take a long time to restore goodwill among supporters. “I think there’s still obviously resentment over what we’ve been through,” says Greenhalgh. “But the fact that they were willing to sit down and come to agreement that moves us forward… while we’re not going to forgive them overnight, it’s a step in the right direction.
“Being back here is the most important thing and, with what comes next, we’re going to have to work with them closely and make sure our voice is never lost in this, which is what happened before.”
Judging by the noise at the final whistle, Hamlet are in no danger of going gently into that good night. They have shown time and again over the last 10 months that they are a force to be reckoned with.
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