By Ben Henderson
LAST SATURDAY, Dulwich Hamlet welcomed a very special visitor. Jan Stover is the German contact who facilitated Dulwich’s friendship with Altona 93. Jan was in London for the weekend, and obviously saw no better way to spend his Saturday than watching the Hamlet play.
Such was the buzz among the Hamlet faithful over Jan’s presence that everybody seemed to be talking about him, although nobody seemed to know where he actually was.
When I tried to locate him, I was informed that he was stood just behind the goal. On arriving there, I was directed to the queue for the burger van. When scouring the queue, I was then sent to the top of the main stand to no avail, once again.
It seemed as if Jan’s unbelievable commitment to a small English club 500 miles from his home had denoted him a somewhat ethereal character. However, I eventually ran into the German phantom by accident outside. After initially warning me that his English was “not so good”, he went on to give a truly eloquent account of the friendship between Dulwich and Altona 93.
Like a traditional English storyteller, Jan began: “It was a very cold day in November 2010. We were playing at home with a crap attendance. It was actually the last time Altona played with a red ball because the pitch was frozen. He (lifelong Hamlet fan, Mishi Morath) was walking around taking pictures and I thought that he was a German groundhopper. So, I asked him if he wanted to buy a fanzine. It turned out he was English so we got talking and weeks later we organised for their supporters’ team to visit Hamburg.”
Mishi was visiting Altona because the club was founded in the same year as its English counterpart – 1893. Mishi and Jan would soon discover that, by remarkable coincidence, both clubs had played each other in 1925. During the match Dulwich legend Edgar Kail faced up to Altona hero Adolf Jager. Aside from history, the clubs share what Mishi describes as a similar “social conscience”.
Jan drives this point home: “We have very comparable fanbases. I think in both clubs we are very political people who care about local community and rights for minorities”.
As the Hamlet-Altona connection has grown over the last eight years, Jan has visited the Dulwich club numerous times.
“My first time at Champion Hill was the New Year’s derby against Tooting in 2013. It was a great 4-4 draw – a brilliant experience. I think this is my sixteenth visit since then. But it’s my first time at Imperial Fields.
“I miss a lot of faces that I met on my previous visits. So, perhaps we have to rebuild the atmosphere here”.
Jan also pointed out some positives that perhaps Dulwich fans should not overlook, even as they remain dislocated from their natural home.
“When I was first over here in the 2012-13 season there were a couple of hundred people in attendance,” Jan continued. “As the years passed, the numbers were increasing so fast, so that by last season it was very packed for the big matches. It’s nice to have some terracing behind the goal.
The culmination of Hamlet and Altona’s relationship so far came with this summer’s pre-season tour to Hamburg. The tour involved two matches for Dulwich – the first versus local team HFC Falke and the second versus Altona; a supporters cricket match (both sides have a surprising cricketing history); and a party to celebrate the clubs’ shared 125th anniversaries.
Mishi shared his thoughts on the tour. “I’m sometimes asked by our fans who are curious about the friendship and want to go to Hamburg and experience it for themselves. For those Altona ‘virgins’ I simply suggest that all they do is wear a Hamlet scarf or shirt. Altona fans will come up to them, shake their hand, give them a peck on the cheek, buy them a beer…the fact they don’t know each other is immaterial, being a Dulwich Hamlet fan is enough for them.
“The summer trip was undoubtedly one of the greatest weekends of my life. Now I know I’m a bit of a sad git, but even so…it was magical. I’m not ashamed to admit that I welled up and had to wipe away the tears from my eyes several times on that trip. It was well worth the three years of hard work building up to it, raising the funds needed for the team to get there. I know Altona are already striving to raise the money for another trip back to London with their boys.”
The story of the friendship between Dulwich and Altona (and on a smaller scale that between Mishi and Jan) is a remarkable one. The time and effort that has gone into orchestrating cross-continental tours speaks volumes for the social and selfless forces at work in each club. But, Jan is keen to point out – “it’s not like that is the main reason to come here (to Dulwich). The main reason is because we are football supporters and football is the most important thing. All the rest is a great plus, and I really like it.”