The news that they can return to their spiritual home of Champion Hill capped off an eventful 2018 for Dulwich Hamlet. And it meant the hard work to restore the ground, for its long-awaited National League South debut, could get starte
A deal was struck after intensive negotiations, a between the club, Southwark council and developers Meadow Residential, owners of Champion Hill, which allowed Dulwich to move back to the ground they’ve called home since 1912.
High profile support had come from former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch and her Hamlet-supporting fellow MPs Helen Hayes and Harriet Harman.
But it was the fervent fanbase that kept the club going during a period spent ground-sharing with Tooting & Mitcham United, eight miles away.
The move hit the club’s finances and the fan-funded 12th Man Scheme had to help pay players wages.
Another voluntary organisation, the Supporters Trust, have been organising efforts to get Champion Hill fit to stage its first National League South match, against Torquay United, on December 1.
Duncan Chapman, co-chairman of the Supporters Trust and Hamlet supporter since the 1980s, has been organising an army of volunteers to get Champion Hill ready.
“Initially we had 70 emails offering to help,” said Chapman. “It’s a real measure of people’s willingness to get involved, help out and get the club back on its feet.
“The support we’ve had from the local community and individuals coming down is just priceless.
“We’ve had lots of people coming forward, not only giving their time but materials, their skills, giving up work time when they would be earning money and effectively donating that to the club.”
Helping him co-ordinate the operation is a volunteer Clare Keeble. She confesses to not being the most ardent football fan but admits to being won over by the Hamlet ethos. “
Dulwich Hamlet is a place that gets you by the heart,” said Keeble. “All my friends were worried about why I was suddenly into football but it was much more than football for me.
“It’s about keeping the club alive. This last eight months has been quite emotional for everyone because we don’t want to lose our club.
“That’s why everyone’s here clearing it all up. No one gets paid, we do it for the love. It felt really special and I got hooked.”
Legions of volunteers gave up last Saturday to help the club. Every one of them has a story about their connection with Dulwich Hamlet.
Former Hamlet reserve team player Daniel Simon was ferrying about bags of debris built up over eight months of neglect. Like everyone here, he can’t wait to see Dulwich back at their spiritual home and believes the return will help the team.
“What a Christmas present it is to come back to Champion Hill,” beamed Simon. “It’s going to be a morale boost for the team and the fans.
“We’ll get 2,500 who are going to make the noise and gee the team up. It’s good for the manager, Gavin Rose, and the players, the Dulwich Hamlet staff and everybody.”
Wrestling with a three-foot sapling growing in the terrace, next to the toilets opposite the stand is Matt Pickles. Football doesn’t compare to his favoured rugby or cricket but the allure of Hamlet has brought him down on his day off, “getting stuck in, mucking out the guttering.”
Father and son team Dan and Alex Oakley felt compelled to help the clean-up operation after coming to Champion Hill over the past five years. Alex, 12, was a mascot at one of the last games held at the ground before the spell at Tooting & Mitcham’s Imperial Fields began in March.
For many of the volunteers, Dulwich Hamlet represent a focal point in the local community.
The club helps to raise funds for a wide range of local charities, including Lambeth and Southwark Mind and the Coplestone Centre. That the club play such an active role in the area only adds to the appeal.
Callum Jones and George Bamber support Championship rivals Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers respectively but have developed a shared love of Hamlet that finds them clearing the Champion Hill terraces with their friend Tom.
They plan to mark the team’s return with a Seal-inspired ode to Gavin Rose, the club’s manager since 2009 – something along the lines of “Now that your Rose is in bloom, a light hits the gloom on the grey” or “A kiss from Gav Rose on matchday”. Call it a work in progress.
Jones said: “We’ve been told that football is now a money-making beast but actually this is an opportunity for the community to get back to where they belong.
“Knowing that Dulwich Hamlet are playing at Dulwich Hamlet’s stadium in Champion Hill – it’s that connection of being back in the community which they give so much back to in the first place.”
Bamber added: “It’s not necessarily about football, it’s about community – something small has managed to pull off what a lot of people thought wouldn’t be possible a year ago.”
The relief of the return is summed up by wheelbarrow-wielding David Rogers, an active member of the Save Dulwich Hamlet campaign. Rogers said: “Tooting have been amazing to us. It’s been a great stadium to play at, but it’s not home.”
Local businesses have also missed out on matchday income. Outside the ground, Dulwich Hamlet Fish Bar is run by Meken Eihen who is looking forward to the return.
“On a football day all the fans eat here before the game,” said Eihen. “With football gone, business has been down but I’m happy Dulwich Hamlet is coming back – it’s big for us.”
The East Dulwich Tavern can also look forward to welcoming back the matchday hordes with plans to celebrate their return with a new Hamlet-themed brew.
In just under a month, fans will be able to enjoy a pre-match tipple here overlooking the Dulwich Hamlet Promotion Roundabout, scene of last May’s promotion celebrations and home of a palm tree that is fast-becoming a symbol of the club’s triumph over adversity.
Amid the usual pre-match speculation, it somehow seems likely that nearby, you will be able to hear a dodgy, beer-fuelled chorus of “Hamlet’s Coming Home”.
Pictures: Keith Gillard