By Ben Henderson
CATHERINE ROSE is the current mayor of Southwark and a committed Dulwich Hamlet FC fan. She has been directly involved with the club’s ongoing struggle with the owners of their Champion Hill ground, Meadow Residential. I met Catherine, in true Hamlet fashion, in the Cherry Tree pub in East Dulwich on a Saturday afternoon.
The relationship between Catherine and Dulwich Hamlet started back in 2014, when she was campaigning to create a new secondary school in East Dulwich. She asked local parents to recommend local organisations the new school should partner with. Large numbers suggested that the school partner with Dulwich Hamlet. This immediately convinced Catherine of the importance of the club to the local community. She described her first game in November 2014 to me with relish. “I have limited technical knowledge, but the thing I found about non-league football is you can literally smell the turf.”
Meadow Residential took full control of the development from previous partners Hadley in 2016, just before Catherine was elected as a councillor. In her own words, she “quickly became known as someone who was constantly on about the situation at Dulwich Hamlet and seen as the internal nag”.
As is well documented, events began to take a turn for the worse in 2017. In November of that year, Catherine proposed a council motion making it clear that should anything happen to the club that the council would commit its “best endeavours” to support the Hamlet’s interests at Champion Hill. In 2018 things got worse again, revenue was withheld, access to facilities withdrawn and the players’ wages threatened. The council began the process to approve resources to make a potential offer for Champion Hill. But the club was evicted and nearly stripped of its name (after Meadow registered the ‘Dulwich Hamlet Football Club’ trademark) during a dramatic period in March 2018, that saw a debate in Parliament and the Save DHFC March. “It all went a bit crackers,” Catherine said. The eviction and trademark went too far and “crossed a line” by its targeting of the community. This motivated her to become mayor to gain a civic platform from which she could support the club.
Catherine argues passionately against Meadow’s actions. “Champion Hill contains a registered war memorial. Given this is the centenary of the end of the First World War, it is extremely worrying that we have no idea of the condition of that memorial, and we’re seemingly unable hold a service of remembrance.” Furthermore, the eviction has had a major impact on local children. “Literally hundreds of primary school children engaged with Champion Hill through the after-school clubs, holiday clubs and football camps, all that’s been taken away.”
Additionally, the move to Imperial Fields in Mitcham, where the club now plays its home fixtures, makes it difficult for families to access games. Catherine continues: “Before, they were able to just do their thing in the morning then stroll down, wander in and wander back. Now, the journey is more problematic – lots of elderly fans also find the journey a bit too much to do regularly – so in that literal sense the club is less accessible than it was.” Catherine also bemoans the impact of the eviction on local businesses: “There’s been a clear material impact on the restaurants, bars, pubs, food outlets along Lordship Lane, they will lose a full season of extra income from Saturday home games and week nights, which is very significant to the local economy. One developer should not be able to have such a detrimental impact on so many smaller traders.”
These arguments are often heard among Hamlet fans, but many they fear that Meadow may well not care. However, Dulwich supporters can take heart from Rose’s insistence that compromise is in the property developer’s interests too. “If they’re ever going to realise their wider ambitions in London, they need to sit down and work towards something unique and meaningful. If they do that then the story is about the success of the community getting behind a much-loved local football club, and the willingness of the developer to be reasonable. If they don’t, then the story is about them. I’m a firm believer that it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
The mayor lays out how she thinks progress could be made. “There has been an initial approach to establish dialogue again with the club. It’s only right and proper that the club begins cautiously, making clear to Meadow the realities of the situation. The first thing Meadow should do is commit to allowing the club back into Champion Hill on an autonomous footing, as a sign of their genuine commitment. Any redevelopment must be proportionate and contained within an area that ensures the club has the capacity that it clearly needs going forward – a greater capacity than is currently available. In addition, the facilities must reflect the wider role of the club within the community and be accessible to local schools.”
Catherine is putting her body on the line as well as her work to support the cause. In 2019, she will undertake a charity run raising money for the club’s football academy ASPIRE. She modestly says: “Well obviously I’m not a runner! But I thought I should lead by example. So, I’m doing the ‘couch to 5k’ with the wonderful London City Runners.” She invites local residents to come along and join her.
Away from all the politics, Catherine still has time to mull over the greater questions in life, including the team’s on-field prospects this season. “Mid-table mediocrity would be amazing, thank you very much! I think the step-up has been a significant one but I’m impressed by the core of the team and the new signings have really begun to gel. In Gavin [Rose, the manager] we trust! I think we will give a good account of ourselves and we can consolidate our position in this higher league. In many ways the fact we’re still fielding a team at all is a huge victory, so anything above and beyond that is a bonus. But a nice FA cup run would be great!”
Main mage: @photodunc