Our Dulwich Hamlet reporter, Ben Henderson, takes a close look at the league run-in with DHFC TV commentator Tom Bale.
APRIL HAS arrived, which means crunch time in National League South as the season enters its final month.
Dulwich Hamlet currently lie fifteenth in the League, hovering just four points above the relegation zone, with five games remaining to determine the club’s destiny.
Hamlet fan and DHFC TV commentator Tom Bale, recommended to me as one of Non-League’s most knowledgeable ‘anoraks’, gave his expert opinion on Dulwich’s run-in, the importance of the next month to the club’s future, and his hopes for next season.
Tom was on a high after Hamlet’s dramatic 95th-minute equaliser secured them a draw from two goals down against Billericay Town last weekend.
“I was doing the commentary at half-time and I wasn’t sure they’d be able to come back but they showed great resilience, full credit to them,” he said. “Gavin asked them to leave nothing on the pitch and they duly delivered. They deserved it for that second-half performance.”
Positive results at Champion Hill are becoming increasingly familiar to Hamlet fans. However, it is on their travels where serious troubles lie.
Tom said: “We’ve taken eleven points from our last five home games, we’ve made it a bit of a fortress again and beaten strong teams like Welling and Dartford as well as the Billericay result. Big results like these are made very important by the fact that we haven’t won away in eleven matches, taking four points from 33 available, which is shocking. If we didn’t have that home form we’d well and truly be struggling.
“I think we need to win at least one of our away games. I’m positive that we’ll win this weekend against Chippenham. With the greatest respect they’re not one of the biggest teams in the league. They’re not challenging for the play-offs nor fighting relegation so they’ve got nothing really to play for, they’re in ‘end of season mode’ now, which is shown by one point from their last five games. It’s a chance for us to end that barren run away from home.”
The fixture against Hungerford Town on Saturday, April 13 appears to be the most crucial in Hamlet’s run-in. Hungerford sit a few places below the south Londoners in eighteenth, with just two points fewer. However, having recorded three wins on the bounce, including the scalp of Billericay, and no losses in their last five matches, they are undoubtedly the team in form at the bottom of the table. No doubt the thirteenth will be a momentous day in East Dulwich.
Tom had a positive outlook, and pointed to a couple of areas that could take Dulwich safely across the finish line come the end of the month.
He continued: “I think a big bonus from this weekend was having Magnus Okuonghae back from injury. When he plays he adds that leadership that we lack sometimes. He’s a talker on the pitch and he makes the defence look more assured.”
“Up front, Dipo [Akinyemi] has started to find goal-scoring form again. He’s scored in his last three and he looks to be enjoying his football. I think he’s struggled at times this season being in and out of the side but if he starts every game between now and the end of the season then we’ve got goals in the team.”
The outcome of this month’s relegation battle will have ramifications that go further than the football pitch. Hamlet’s attendance on Saturday was 3,243, a Champion Hill record. However, relegation will surely mean a smaller gate. Even attendances of 1,500, highly respectable in the Isthmian League, would be difficult to take for the club, when the corresponding reduction of revenue from the bar and merchandise sales is added to loss of ticket earnings. Tom worried that relegation could “burst the bubble” of optimism that has surrounded the in recent years.
However, he was firm that Hamlet’s future lies in the hands of the club’s long-serving manager, Gavin Rose.
“Gavin’s been in charge for ten years and every year we’ve finished higher than the previous,” Tom said. “Him and [assistant manager] Junior Kadi have worked very hard to get the club into National League South and if it was his last season it would be very disheartening.
“There’s often a kneejerk reaction when clubs are struggling at the bottom of the table. But it’d be wrong for Gavin to be sacked. He deserves his chance.”
Looking back over the club’s first season in the sixth tier, Tom expressed his frustration at some aspects of Dulwich’s play, and even admitted that he had expected a higher finish, but insisted that the year must be seen as a success.
“I think the Truro game was our season in a nutshell,” he explained. “We’ve failed to kill teams off when we’ve been presented with chances to do so, struggled to come back from losing positions when gifted the opportunity, and been equally unable to win by a handsome margin when we should have. There were a lot of people who weren’t happy with that performance at all.
“Maybe I was a bit naïve at the beginning of the season but I thought we’d be top half.
“But I suppose the first objective of any team that gets promoted in the summer is to stay up and establish yourself in that division before having a proper crack at it in the years to come.
“At the start of the season we were struggling to meet ends meet. And summer signings didn’t work out the way Gavin would have wanted. Taking everything into account, it is a success if we stay up.”
Given Tom’s deep knowledge of the workings of the club, Dulwich hearts will be warmed by his predictions for the future.
“Come the summer, hopefully Gavin will be given a bigger budget to work with and he’ll be able to bring in players that he wouldn’t have been able to get last summer with the restricted budget that he had.
“I think there’ll be a lot of changes and we can target a top-eight finish and really fight for the playoffs.”
However, those aspirations will have to be put on hold until the end of the month. It truly is Squeaky Bum Time for Hamlet. And it all starts this Saturday at 3pm in Chippenham.