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Non-league Incider: Dulwich Hamlet 2-1 East Thurrock United

When I was more young and foolish I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't visit a football stadium until I visited Vallekas. Frustrated by my inability to plan a trip, I broke that promise by watching a game in the sixth tier of English football.

This is that game. This is my story.

If I've learnt anything, it's this: never make promises to yourself. Promises to yourself are like bonds to an imaginary world - they're not attached to anything. Instead, they only serve to frustrate you, and sometimes those around you.

In 2016, I remember being outside Wembley and not going inside for a stadium tour. In 2014, I remember giving up the opportunity to watch Real Madrid play AC Milan in Dubai. For a year the stadiums of Chelsea and Fulham were on the same street as mine. For three years, every time my friend said he was going to watch Leyton Orient, every time my brother talked about his love for Arsenal, every time I looked at a map of London and saw how close I was to the many homes of football, every time I was in a pub and saw people celebrate a goal, every time Madrid and England based ground hoppers uploaded yet another video, yet another article, yet another tweet...

Sod it.

For too long, having read articles about Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton and other Rayo-esque clubs, the "plan" was to visit Rayo and then all would be right with the world. And so it seemed only reasonable that if Rayo wasn't to be the first football stadium I visited, it would be the next best thing.

I didn't consider taking the southeastern to Denmark Hill station the highlight of my trip. But immediately as I crossed the Thames to south London, the amount of graffiti struck me. It wasn't that I hadn't seen it before, but that the lack of it in my life had become routine. And it was everywhere - on the walls of buildings, on the sides of bridges, even on the train tracks themselves.

Arriving around 5, I walked to the ground, hoping to explore the area around the ground. Along the 10 minute walk on Grove Lane, I came across a group of empty restaurants and a pub with the all-too-satisfying address: 123 Grove Lane. Had to come back there, I told myself.

As I approached the ground, the emptiness of the restaurants unexpectedly remained. The letters DHFC were emblazoned on the wall. The door was open. And yet, seeing the Dulwich Hamlet Health Club sign signaled that something was wrong...

I was in the wrong place. Champion Hill was the home of Dulwich Hamlet, but only on Google Maps. The reality was that they had been kicked out of their own home by Meadow Residential, a property development company. Thanks to the welcoming arms of Tooting & Mitcham United, I would have to travel another hour to reach my destination.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, the first ever football ground I visited was this:

Slightly below my expectations....

Life is a funny thing. I spent years not visiting the stadium of the club I loved, and ended up breaking the promise to visit an empty, lifeless ground.

I went back up north to the pub, The George Canning, to get a pint of cider and ended up chatting to the elderly customers there. I told them the little I knew of Dulwich's story, and how the stadium may be destroyed to create apartments.

"It's getting destroyed," I said.

"Pretty much everything is", she replied, with a look of relaxed resignation.

The use of the present tense rather than the future tense, the phrase "everything is" rather than "everything will be", seemed both odd and profound. Maybe it was her. Maybe it was the emptiness of the bar and beyond. Maybe it was the cider.

It was her birthday tomorrow. How was she going to spend it?

"Right here."

"Is there anything to do around here?"

"No," in a sarcastic, kinda-not-kidding way.

A pub named after someone who was Prime Minister for the final four months of his life. A sadly-too-perfect metaphor.

I ended up leaving around 5:40, and went back towards Champion Hill to East Dulwich station, rather than taking more sensible route back from Denmark Hill. It seemed like a silly thing to do at the time, but I'm thankful I did it.

After walking through a forest-like walkway to the train tracks of the station, I sat down in the waiting area for what would be 15 minutes, followed by a train and a tram, but the minutes moved slowly on what was a wearily sunny day.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something pink. It was a scarf. A Dulwich Hamlet scarf. Folded neatly on someone's leg.

"You going to the Dulwich game?" I asked. Not that I needed to ask.


And we were off. A local Dulwich resident, Eamonn had supported the club for a season and a half. He told me about Dulwich's promotion last season - they needed a penalty shootout against Hendon to leave behind the seventh tier of football, with Dipo Akinyemi being the hero and ending three successive play-off disappointments.

The subjects kept changing. He talked about Blackburn Rovers and their recent promotion. We somehow ended up talking about last minute winners - Blackburn conceded a 91st minute equalizer to Ipswich in their last game. And they were going to play Millwall this weekend, who coincidentally had conceded a 97th minute equalizer of their own against Middlesbrough in their last game. I told him about this season, when Rayo Majadahonda went up from the Segunda B due to a last minute own goal against Cartagena. I mean, if I don't tell it who will?

He explained why Denmark Hill was so empty - I was on the wrong side of Dulwich. If I had walked just a few minutes south of East Dulwich station I would have been where all the Dulwich fans usually met up. Before they were forced to move, that is.

We met up with Eamonn's friends - Ross and Scott - at the ground itself. We still had an hour before the game, and so I got my memorabilia and the obligatory cider while we talked. I don't really remember everything we talked about (alcohol on an empty stomach is always a mistake) but there are bits and pieces stuck in my memory. Someone told me that picture on the match day program was the game against Hendon, when a strike from Dulwich came off the bar and the line. I remember Scott seeing who was playing for East Thurrock - Paul Konchesky, ex-Liverpool and England international - and sighing. He also mentioned that Ashley Carew who had been sent off in the previous fixture mysteriously being in the squad - and having researched this for an hour I still don't know how he was allowed to play.

But most of all, as the game started, I remember seeing the pink sash kits, the stadium with only three stands, and the passionate bellows of the fans. I remember Rayo, I mean, Dulwich absolutely dominating the game, keeping the ball moving, creating chance after chance. A cross into the box from the right, a defense splitting pass...

And, completely against the run of play, a goal - Dulwich center-back Daniel Pappoe making a Karius-esque mistake and Thurrock striker Danilo Orsi-Dadomo making none. 0-1.

"Welcome to the sixth tier lads," I heard, not sure from whom.

With no more clear cut chances that half, it was time for a shift. We were going to join the ultras...with a cider, of course. The Rabble, I thought.

We were closer to the action - thunderous support is one thing through a screen, but another thing in person. It has an inclusive quality - you find yourself shouting, kicking the fence, trying to sing the chants. And with every free flowing play, with the cider flowing through my veins, with every Dulwich shot being parried away, with every cross going inches wide, with every East Thurrock player taking ages to throw the ball, with every Thurrock goal kick taking ages, with every single breath the fans demanding that the goalie just kick the damn ball...

"Referee, what the fuck!" someone shouted.

"C'mon then!" said another.


Momentary silence. I immediately covered my mouth with my hand. My three companions looked at me. For a moment there, I didn't believe I'd said that. We all erupted into laughter though - thankfully.

Excusing the fact that it was my fourth cider of the night, most of it stemmed from the outrage that had preceded it - a goal by right winger Anthony Cook had crossed the line but hadn't been given by the linesman. And even though Dulwich equalized from a well-worked free-kick, they clearly deserved more than just a point.

"How many minutes of extra time?" asked Ross.


For those four minutes, Dipo Akinyemi came onto the pitch. We had talked about last minute winners. Here's the truth though - belief in that last minute moment of glory is always restrained. It sits within our subconscious. It's not supposed to happen, because it isn't fair...

And yet. Even then. When he came on, you knew. Somewhere, deep down, you knew. Four minutes was all Dipo needed - a long ball and a dummy later, Dulwich were 2-1 up in the last minute of their first ever home game of their first ever campaign in the sixth tier. All that subconscious energy released itself - the crowd jubilant at their team's heroics and delighted at denying a poor team the point they didn't deserve.

A historic goal, to appropriately mark the start of a historic season. And we had witnessed it.

Taken after the game. From left to right: Scott, Eamonn, and Ross. Thanks guys!


Instead of going back, I went to East Dulwich with Eamonn, determined to get a look at the "right" side of Dulwich - and so we went to the East Dulwich Tavern. This was Dulwich Hamlet central - the area around the pub was where fans celebrated their promotion to the sixth tier.

Seconds after this picture, someone ran across the pub and ruined the next shots. Sorry, this picture is as good as it gets.

We ended up talking about East Dulwich and their fearsome right hand side partnership of Sanchez Ming and Anthony Cook. They reminded me of Peru's Luis Advíncula and André Carrillo - a quick and strong right back combining with a quick and skillful right winger. I remember talking about substitutes changing games, and the story of Aston Villa's 1980-81 season came up - they won the league with just 14 players. So did the story of Dulwich Hamlet, and their old ground - turns out, it used to be even bigger, according to a picture he showed me:

A packed Champion Hill during the 1930s. Source:

We even met up with some other Dulwich residents, and talked about everything under the sun. At this point I was completely pissed, but I'm sure we talked about the welfare state at some point.

Who knows...I do remember it being 12:30 am, and having to take two buses. Weirdly, I don't remember being on any buses though - I do have a vague memory of a car...

Never drink on an empty stomach.

Cider Checklist

I'm not telling you how many of each I had. Not a chance. Football club bar in bold.

The George Canning (123 Grove Lane) - Wyld Wood Cider - £4.60
Imperial Fields (Bishopsford Road) - Magners - £3.50
East Dulwich Tavern (1 Lordship Lane) - Aspall - £4.50

Club Bulletin

Club: Dulwich Hamlet Football Club
Play in: National League South (6th Tier)
Stadium (temporarily): Imperial Fields, Mitcham
Stadium (the rightful place of DHFC): Champion Hill, East Dulwich

Opponents: East Thurrock United Football Club
Date: 8th August, 2018
Time: 19:45

How to get there (Champion Hill):

From London Victoria: Take the Southeastern train, get off at Denmark Hill.

How to get there (Imperial Fields):

From London Victoria: Take the Southern train, get off at Mitcham Junction. Then either take the tram to Mitcham station, or walk the 20 minutes.
From London Earl's Court: Take the District line, get off at Wimbledon. Then take the tram to Mitcham.

Exchange your dinner for a:

Match-day ticket - £12
Club scarf - £10
Club badge - £3*
Match-day program - £2
A business card of Dulwich's season fixtures** - £0

*When I bought the club badge, Eamonn informed me that instead of the present-day club badge, I had bought the vintage club badge which celebrated their 125-year anniversary. As you can see, this day was filled with happy accidents.

**The only acceptable use for this is to tell your boss which days you are taking off. I presume. 

Other pictures:

Some more pictures of the old ground

The only remnants of life at the stadium. The abandoned stadium still has parking - and a car wash.

See what I mean? Where's the East Dulwich station?

Never mind...

Some pictures of the ground before the game started

The club's bar

The game commences

Half time - the club bar again...

The Rabble

Final whistle!

Supporters applaud the team


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