Dulwich Hamlet: The story of a fight to preserve grassroots football in the UK

Lower division football clubs around the UK are having to fight a steep battle for survival. We look at Dulwich Hamlet and Millwall, and how they are facing offshore corporations, private equity firms, and property developers to protect grassroots football in the country.

When I was 16, I started playing 7-a-side football in East Dulwich, London. It was my first real taste of the men’s game – fast, brutal, no-holds-barred football. We played on that oldschool, sandpaper-like astroturf. You know, the stuff that would take your skin off to the bone. The ball skidded over it like we were playing on ice, and teams pressed, harried and hunted in packs –  your first touch had to be oh-so-perfect (mine wasn’t).

My team was a slightly odd mix of old cockneys, 90s ravers and younger kids from the nearby estates. There was real talent on show (again, not me): pace, skill, vision and intelligence – all here under the floodlights of inner London. I played with and against people that I still think could have played at a much higher level. Some did – one of the boys on my team went on to Barnet’s academy where, technically, Edgar Davids was his gaffer.

We played all year round; on muggy summer evenings when that distinctively sweet, pungent smell of weed would drift over the pitches; through the bitterly cold winter when the surface did, literally, turn to ice and players’ body heat sent plumes of steam up into the night air; all the way through to the summer again.

I’ve never been, and never will be, particularly good at football but what I did learn about the game, I learnt there, instructed by our some-time-player-some-time coach Marlon (‘instructed’ meaning ‘screamed at from the sidelines’). An analysis of my game would no doubt reveal the importance of those years to me as a player: likes to pass and move, strong in the tackle, but can’t win a header to save his life.

The pitches were owned by non-league side Dulwich Hamlet and situated just behind Hamlet’s stadium – Champion Hill (wild shots would typically end up on their turf). We’d often have a few drinks in the club bar after our games where we’d either catch a Hamlet midweek match or, more often, watch a Champions League game. Needless to say, I have fond memories of this time.

I mention all this now because Dulwich Hamlet, a club founded 125 years ago, a club whose alumni includes Edgar Kail – the last amateur footballer to play for England, a club that has won the FA Amateur Cup four times, is now fighting for its existence; caught in the middle of a dispute between property developer Meadow Residential and the Labour-run local Council. As things stand, the club has been evicted from its stadium and is facing an invoice of £121,000 in backdated rent. Meadow Residential has, according to the Chair of Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust, Alex Crane, attempted to kill the club off.”

If you haven’t been following this story (where have you been?) let’s get you up to speed. DHFC have been playing on their current site, in one form or the other, since 1912. The freehold to the land had been held by Kings College London until 2008 when it was sold to a newly formed company called DHPD Ltd. (no relation to Dulwich Hamlet FC) for £1.2 million. DHPD Ltd. tried several times to flip the lease or develop the site themselves but failed to do either.

In 2012, DHPD went into administration. Administrators Harris Lipman were tasked with securing funds for DHPD’s creditors. As part of this, the freehold of the ground was sold to Greendale Property Company Ltd. in 2014 – a development company established as a joint venture between Hadley Property Group and Meadow Partners – for £5.7 million. The club was perilously close to folding, but Hadley and Meadow paid off its debts to keep things running. Meadow Partners are, according to their website, an ‘international real estate investor’ based in New York. They operate in London and the South East of England through an affiliate business – Meadow Residential. Meadow Residential took over sole responsibility of for the project in the years following the purchase and so I’ll refer to the developers as ‘Meadow’ from here on in for ease.

Meadow’s intention was to demolish the Champion Hill ground and build 155 apartments on the site. As part of the planning application, Meadow promised to build DHFC a new stadium on the adjacent Astroturf pitches – the ones I had played on as a teenager. An agreement was signed that once the new stadium was built, it and the club would be transferred to a fan ownership model.

Everyone would win. Importantly, Meadow took over the financial management of the club when they bought the freehold – including Champion Hill gate receipts, paying bills, and player wages.

In 2016, things started to go wrong. Southwark Council was reluctant to approve the planning application because it did not allow for enough affordable housing. In response, Meadow went directly to the planning inspectorate, bypassing the council. The inspectorate was due to make a decision in December 2017.

The astroturf pitches on which Meadow planned to build Dulwich Hamlet’s new stadium make up a small part of Green Dale fields – grass and scrub land thought to be of significant importance to local wildlife. Green Dale is protected by its designation as Metropolitan Open Land – the strongest protection that can be given. The local council own Green Dale but lease it to Dulwich Hamlet. Separately then, but just as crucial to Meadow’s plans, was that the council would renew DHFC’s lease of Green Dale, because this was where the new stadium would be built.

The council, whom Meadow had removed from the planning application process, decided to block it another way – by refusing to renew DHFC’s lease of Green Dale.

In what seems like a move designed to force the council to agree with its their plans, in October 2017 Meadow then announced that it was they were withdrawing financial support from DHFC, and at the same time withdrew its their planning appeals to the inspectorate. According to Meadow, the club would only survive with its their support. With tensions between all three parties at an all time high, the future of DHFC looked uncertain. However, the club disputed Meadow’s claims that it ran at a loss. In fact, DHFC succeeded in paying its November 2017 wage bill in full. The club claims that gate revenues are currently at 160% of its wage bill.

Meadow tried another tactic to put the pressure on Hamlet FC – a new licence for the use of Champion Hill – and by this point it seemed clear that Meadow had no concern for the fate of the club. According to Alex Crane, the new licence was heavily weighted in favour of Meadow. “The new licence isn’t public so I won’t go into the exact detail of what it says,” Crane told me, “but it was very clear from Meadow’s correspondence that it was non-negotiable and that if the club did not sign, then they would not be allowed to use the stadium.”

Things quietened down for the first three months of 2018. Then in the first week of March, Meadow unleashed a broadside. First, they invoiced the club for £121,000 in backdated rent accrued since the 2013-14 season. A slightly odd invoice given that Meadow had been in charge of the club’s finances during this time. According to Crane, “Meadow should have deducted rent for use of the ground from the gate takings if they were intent on charging the club rent.”

A few days later, Meadow terminated DHFC’s licence to play at Champion Hill meaning the club had nowhere to play its next home game. Then on March 6th, Blake Morgan law firm, on behalf of clients assumed to be connected to Meadow, informed the club that the words “Dulwich Hamlet Football Club” and “DHFC” and “The Hamlet” had been registered as trademarks. According to Blake Morgan, their client required that the trademarks “no longer be used on any printed literature and any online activity including website and Twitter…failing which further action will be taken to protect our clients position.” In a fit of pique, Meadow had put this proud club, this hugely important community asset in South London, in jeopardy.

Dulwich Hamlet vs Enfield Town, 27th April 2017.
Dulwich Hamlet vs Enfield Town, 27th April 2017.

Of course, it isn’t just Dulwich Hamlet.

***

Millwall is another club that echoes through my young footballing memories. I grew up not far from their famous ground – The Den – and on still summer days I could hear the distant roar of their faithful from my house. Every summer holiday from the ages of about 10 to 14, I attended one of the club’s coaching schemes and received free tickets to their home games. In fact, a Millwall home game was my first taste of live-in-the-flesh football. Some introduction. This was the early 2000s and Millwall still had a reputation for hooliganism – a hangover from the previous decades. But this was never the Millwall I came into contact with.    

You might think a club as large and as historic as Millwall would be immune to the attentions of property developers but big money is a siren call. Millwall’s is a story that at best highlights the ineptitude of local politicians and at worst reeks of corruption. South Bermondsey, cut through with winding train tracks, hidden alleys and old industrial estates, has so far resisted much of the gentrification process taking root in surrounding postcodes, but its central location means it remains a top prize for developers. In 2016, the Labour-run local council voted in favour of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) of the land surrounding Millwall’s stadium, which would have forced Millwall out of the area. The plan was to then sell the land to property developer Renewal, who had received planning permission for the construction of some 2,400 homes.

Renewal is an interesting case. Firstly, there is no evidence that it has undertaken any significant development previously, so to be chosen as the council’s preferred choice seems odd. Secondly, the ultimate owners of Renewal are hidden, via the use of an offshore shell company registered in the Isle of Man. Lastly, although the current owners remain unidentified, the founder of Renewal is David Sullivan, a former Lewisham Mayor and Labour councillor. To call this deal suspicious would be an understatement.

The CPO would have gone through in September of 2016, were it not for the Council’s own scrutiny committee. Following months of public pressure, and campaigning by the club and the local community, the council finally pulled the plug on the CPO in January of last year.

Why was a Labour-run local council seemingly so desperate to sell public land to an offshore property developer? Why was the local council seemingly happy to drive Millwall out of a community in which it plays such a major part? Why didn’t the council consult with Millwall, who tried to put forward their own plans for development? The answer, I might hesitantly suggest, is because there was a load of fackin’ money involved.

The problems faced by Millwall and Dulwich Hamlet are being replicated up and down the country. The scale of the problem was outlined by Helen Hayes MP, in a recent Parliamentary debate: In London the list of clubs that are under pressure is depressingly long. In recent years Enfield Town, Edgware Town, Hendon and Thurrock football clubs have all lost their historical homes. Away from London and the south-east, where the pressure on housing and the value of land is not always so acute, the story continues. Northampton Town, Kettering Town, Torquay United, Skelmersdale United, Coventry City and Merthyr Town—to name just a few—are all facing battles to survive as the property developers circle.”

In Lancashire, Skelmersdale United is facing extinction, having been evicted from their traditional home, Stormy Corner, by Chequer Properties. Simon Driscoll, the club’s media officer, suspects that Chequer Properties is intent on developing the land. The club is now in a precarious position. A groundshare has been agreed with Prescot Cables until January 2019 when it is hoped they will be able to return. However, with sponsors unwilling to back a club without a home, Skelmersdale need to find £15,000 to survive. “Unless something is done in the next two months, there will be no club”, says Driscoll.

***

Football is changing, and has been doing so for years. But as more and more TV money rolls into the Premier League, it feels that the foundations of our game are being undermined. In London especially, every inch of land is a precious commodity – its potential weighed, valued and measured. Inner London clubs are sitting on land often worth more than the clubs themselves. This attracts investors, hedge funds and those looking to make a quick buck, and tempts cash-strapped local councils into cashing in.

At the same time, the value of small football clubs is much harder to quantify. They don’t make huge sums of money. Most non-league clubs barely break even. But then football isn’t a business. Or, it shouldn’t be. Where Premier League clubs move further and further away from their historic community ties, smaller clubs remain grounded in them. They are the epicentres of their local communities. They mean something to people. Just look at the community outreach programmes conducted by the likes of Dulwich Hamlet and Millwall and tell me these aren’t things worth protecting.

On a more personal level, I’m aware that my distaste for these events unfolding across London and elsewhere is itself rooted in my distaste for gentrification: the process by which poorer people are moved out of inner London to make way for wealthier ones. The Renewal scheme, for example, would have seen current residents forcibly relocated and billboards were placed outside homes advising residents to sell-up for derisory sums. It was also proposed that The Den be cladded so that the new residents wouldn’t have their precious sensibilities insulted.

At the same time, both Dulwich Hamlet and Millwall are deeply embedded in my childhood and teenage memories. Both clubs played their part in introducing me as a child to the sport I now love as an adult. Witnessing potential attempts at their destruction has been maddening.

***

So, where does all this leave us? Both Millwall and DHFC are still here, for now. The threat to Millwall of a Compulsory Purchase Order attempt may rear its ugly head again but Hamlet’s immediate future is more pressing – Champion Hill remains fenced off and signs warn against trespassing. For now, like Skelmersdale, the club is homeless.

Promisingly, there has been significant pushback against developers. London Mayor Sadiq Khan as well as several London MPs have been strong in their support of both clubs. Excellent investigative journalism from Barney Ronay at The Guardian and Jack Pitt-Brook at The Independent has kept the spotlight firmly fixed on the issues and exposed the underhand dealings. Local protests and activism have been crucial in generating noise and pressure.

The Millwall FC flag in the 2010 Football League One Playoff Final. Millwall won the game 1-0 against Swindon.
The Millwall FC flag in the 2010 Football League One Playoff Final. Millwall won the game 1-0 against Swindon.

And yet all this feels very much like the depressing, incessant, unstoppable march of progress. If not Dulwich, if not Millwall, it will be another club, another community. It won’t be long before the grass-roots game is swallowed completely by concrete and glass new-builds. Our crumbling, cold, muddy Sunday league changing rooms replaced with £80 a month gym complexes complete with protein-shake showers. Even the Premier League will be eventually abandoned, replaced by a global super league of State-backed clubs (in 2028, Arsenal will officially have changed its name to Emirates Airlines FC). No-one will actually attend these games, of course. Crowds and crowd noise will both be artificially generated for the pleasure of the TV audience. You’ll be able to customise which songs the crowds sing for added personalisation. No swear words though. Oh, and the Sky/Fox News conglomerate will be the only broadcaster with the rights to the games and will demand the soul of your first born for a day pass.

We’re all just raging against the dying of the light.

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Harry Becker-Hicks

Fan of Arsenal, Wenger-ball and Dennis Bergkamp. Good at watching football, bad at playing it.