By Ben Henderson
THE UPS and downs of Dulwich Hamlet’s past year have been enough to raise the blood pressure of even the most happy-go-lucky of fans.
From eviction and possible dissolution, through the ecstasy of promotion to the relief of returning home, it has been a rollercoaster ride.
However, the physical and emotional devotion of ardent supporters to their club is to be expected. One of the more remarkable facets of Dulwich’s journey home has been the attention it has drawn from outside the club’s immediate fanbase.
From some of the biggest names in football, to highly influential politicians with seemingly no reason to be concerned about a non-league side, Dulwich has manged to capture the imagination.
I spoke to Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, one of the politicians who contributed most to Hamlet’s cause, who cast light on the reasons why Dulwich was able to hold a nation’s attention.
Dulwich was a political force in Helen’s eyes from long before the club’s recent adventures.
“I first came into contact with the club as a local councillor,” Helen explained. “It was probably around the time they were beginning their rise through the ranks that ultimately led to their promotion last season.
“I would constantly hear residents talking about the fortunes of the club, and that was around the time I first took my kids along.
“As a local MP trying to represent the views of my constituents the plight of the club became an increasingly significant issue, particularly through the long discussions there have been about planning for the site of Champion Hill.
“Then when the dispute escalated at the beginning of this year things became a lot more concerning and I really felt that I needed to contribute.”
“The local MP emphasised the negative social and economic impact of the club’s eviction, but was optimistic about a brighter future.
Helen continues: “Local residents have really missed the home games. Primarily, they’re a fantastic afternoon out to be enjoyed with family and friends of all ages.
“Some fans have been able to continue attending but it’s obviously not the same travelling to Tooting as when it’s on your doorstep.
“From an economic perspective, it’s undoubtedly been the case that lots of local businesses have felt the negative impact of the club moving away. The large number of fans that descend on East Dulwich every Saturday afternoon provides a major contribution to local bars, pubs and restaurants. So, the club’s return will give a real economic boost to the local area.”
Helen’s comments echo the sentiments of Dulwich fans and local business owners. But the real question is how has the club’s situation drew so much attention from public figures including senior politicians?
“I think there are relatively few institutions and bases that draw together people from every part of a community,” Helen says. “The most special part about Dulwich Hamlet FC is that it attracts people of all ages, all backgrounds, all incomes and unites them under the banner of one local football club.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that Dulwich has this ability to bring people together. The club’s approach to good causes and inclusivity, tackling equality issues, working hard to create a really good atmosphere on a Saturday afternoon – these are the foundations on which that community cohesion is built and it has resulted in a solidarity that’s very special. That’s why they get such large audiences and that’s why local residents care so much.
“As a local MP the number of my constituents that get in touch saying that this institution is really important to them is remarkable. My constituency is very diverse and so something that brings the people together like that is fantastic.”
Helen believes that the importance of Hamlet both personally and politically was the driving factor that brought about the club’s return to East Dulwich.
“In the end it was becoming increasingly clear that the future was looking very precarious indeed for Hamlet. Without the revenues from the match-day gate and the bar, the long-term existence of the club was very much in doubt.
“I think it was the pressure created by that potential outcome combined with incredibly strong public support that really forced the issue. It meant that all three parties (Landlords Meadow, Southwark Council and the club) had to get round the table and reach a resolution.”
Helen’s perspective of Dulwich’s journey and why it matters is testament to the uniting power of the club. On a broader level, the fact that Dulwich’s ability to bring people together is so coveted by politicians shows its exceptional nature.
This is telling of a wider society lacking in identity and shared experiences around which people can unite. A world in which we are all equally connected by tapping a screen has reduced the prevalence of common and tangible experience.
However, Hamlet is proof of the fact that, however increasingly rare, nothing quite beats genuine community spirit.